Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Favorite Movies Post

The ranking of movies is like the ranking of any media form. We live in a competitive society, in which the drive to succeed, to exceed, plays a crucial role in the democratic playground of the pursuit of happiness--wealth, notoriety and esteem.

Movies are first a form of entertainment, but they are also a vehicle for social criticism, propaganda, or public information. Cinema is a new medium, invented at the end of the 19th Century, with the added domain of sound in the late 1920's. The technological advancements in visual, sound and special effects have occurred with some regularity over the decades, leading to the sophistication of a medium which had begun as little more than a kind of static theatre-like, two-dimensional projection process. While the mature craft of acting has changed little over the last century, movies have developed a host of processes and techniques, making them the dominant art form of the present age. Movies have been, and continue to be, the art of the future.

While the technical side of moving pictures has progressed dramatically, it's become clear that narrative construction, and the development and portrayal of character, are still at the heart of meaningful, effective action, and that successful cinematic entertainment can't be built exclusively upon special visual or aural effects. "Action" movies may have little or no inherent, intrinsic dramatic content, if they rely on nothing but ingenious technical tricks or audacious visual surprises. A good story is still a good story, with or without cinematic sleights of hand.

I'm not sure just why, but none of the following productions was released before 1931. So-called "silent movies" (movies without coordinated sound) which could only represent dialogue by interspersing printed screens of quotation, had many things to recommend them, within the limitations of the new medium. The slapstick comics built their tradition on clownish antics and cliff-hanging dare-devil stunts, talents which have not been improved-upon in the decades since, simply because there has not been a need to do so. "They had faces," says Gloria Swanson in the nostalgic Sunset Boulevard [1950]--one of the titles on my list--but they didn't have voices (in the silent era). When talkies came in, some players who had built their careers on visuals, suddenly became obsolete, unable to project the same dramatic quality with their voices, that they'd been able to do with their faces and bodies. For me, the Silent era exists in a kind of pre-cinematic precinct, neither theatre nor pure cinema, perhaps more of a curiosity than a fully-developed form. I can appreciate Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Lillian Gish, but their silent era work seems somehow stifled, and limited, being neither as rich as legitimate theatre, nor as streamlined as cinema with sound. Silents were a transitional curiosity; sound movies were the complete package.

Like theatre, the first successful (sound) movies were celebrations of the emancipation of the human voice. For me, the first legitimate (sound) movie is The Front Page, released in 1931, based on the successful stage play of the same name, co-authored by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. It's basically a film of a play, with almost no purely cinematic effects at all, but with plenty of crackling, witty dialogue, and dramatic tension. It's pure American energy and humor and chutzpah, and captures the brash, percolating spirit of the 1920's.

Movies made great strides, both technically and financially, throughout the 1930's, as major production companies consolidated their organizations, becoming efficient factories turning out as many releases as they could, to meet the rapidly growing demand. Musicals, dance movies, and stagy extravaganzas blossomed quickly. Movies got longer, and with the arrival of color, more visually realistic. As a child of the 1950's, when television came into wide use, I grew up seeing countless pre-war movies from the 1930's. I can remember little of them, though they are of course very familiar when I see them now. One would think that the movies one had seen as a child would leave a lasting impression, as indeed they may have, unconsciously. But thinking about them today, I can find little to recommend them. They were mostly a kind of escapist medium from the economic hardships of the time, designed not to remind people of the truths of their lives, but to transport them to an alternative universe where reality didn't intervene.

 Hollywood's star system produced countless familiar faces, but the films they made were, by today's standards, stilted and timid efforts. The medium would have to wait until after World War II, in my view, to begin to produce films that were fully integrated cinematic works, incorporating action, acting, writing, editing, sound and cinematography together to make a whole experience. I have only six movies from the 1930's, not because there weren't countless interesting efforts in that decade, but because they didn't leave a lasting impression on me.

The Front Page 1931
A Day at the Races 1937
Dead End 1937
Ninotchka 1939
Wizard of Oz 1939
Gone With the Wind 1939
Wuthering Heights 1939

It's no surprise that Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind end up on the list, since they expanded the medium to epic proportions, and established new benchmarks for technical realism on the one hand, and magical fantasy on the other. Both were breakthroughs in creating a complete visual world. Wuthering Heights followed the romantic plot-line of the novel, going against the grain of the happy ending boy-gets-girl formula. It's also cinematically effective, using black and white to create emotional sturm und drang--a quality that would soon become preeminent during the Noir era. Ninotchka is a sentimental favorite, Garbo's last important effort, and a very entertaining comedy with political overtones that would never again be viewed in such an innocent way. Dead End combines a number of aspects--gangsterism, juvenile delinquency, economic disparity among potential mates--played out in a gritty urban setting. It was, typically, a stage play first, adapted by Lillian Hellman, but the material was already familiar to movie audiences. Plus, we get Bogart and Joel McCrea and Claire Trevor. Bogart was already a star, and this movie would propel his persona further along the "disreputable"tough-guy track. After Wizard and Gone, movies would seldom again just be filmed plays, but the war would intervene, delaying some of the fulfillment that awaited it. 

Philadelphia Story 1940
Rebecca 1940
Citizen Caine 1941
Casablanca 1942
Double Indemnity 1944
Gaslight 1944
Arsenic and Old Lace 1944
Spellbound 1945
Notorious 1946
Great Expectations 1946
Beauty and the Beast 1946
Red River 1948
Oliver Twist 1948
Key Largo 1948
The Red Shoes 1948
Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948
Adam's Rib 1949
On the Town 1949
Twelve O'Clock High 1949
Kind Hearts and Coronets 1949

The Forties was a quirky decade, and the films reflected the eclectic expansion of themes and opportunities afforded by the increasing sophistication of the medium, while looking back towards classic narratives. It begins with Citizen Caine, which had begun production long before its release, and which is widely considered the first true finished cinematic experience, and the last of the important black and white epics. Two historical recreations--Great Expectations, Oliver Twist--are the work of David Lean, whose career would flower into the great epic adaptations of Lawrence, Zhivago, River Kwai, etc. Philadelphia Story and Adam's Rib are Hepburn at her height. Hitchcock's first great triumphs in America--Rebecca, Spellbound, and Notorious--belong here. The reaction to the terrors of world war would begin to find vehicles, in Twelve O'Clock High. Casablanca may seem more sentimental now than it did at the time, as does Gaslight, but they had Ingrid Bergman in her prime, as well as Bogart and Charles Boyer.  Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favorite movie of all time, a tight, perfectly constructed action involving three characters, facing hardship and temptation in the Mexican outback, with unforgettable character portrayals in a realistic setting. Red River is John Wayne in his best cowboy role; was there ever a better Western? On the Town and The Red Shoes are song and dance movies with irresistible contexts, and both are so much better than the musical and dance movies of the Thirties, there's just no comparison. I'm not much for foreign flicks, but Cocteau's slightly surreal imagination made a masterpiece in Beauty and the Beast. Double Indemnity is better to my mind than The Maltese Falcon or any of the Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney hardboiled efforts, and we get gorgeous Barbara Stanwyck to boot. I've never been much into comedy, but Arsenic and Old Lace is so completely weird in its combination of spookiness, silliness, romance and madcap hijinks it belongs on everyone's list, and we get Cary Grant besides. 

Sunset Boulevard 1950
Asphalt Jungle 1950
Orpheus 1950
The Lavender Hill Mob 1951
The Man in the White Suit 1951
Strangers on a Train 1951
Singin' in the Rain 1952
Viva Zapata 1952
High Noon 1952
The Quiet Man 1952
Julius Caesar 1953
Roman Holiday 1953
From Here to Eternity 1953
Stalag 17 1953
Captain's Paradise 1953
The Wild One 1953
Beat the Devil 1953
Shane 1953
Hobson's Choice 1954
Rear Window 1954
Sabrina 1954
On the Waterfront 1954
The Caine Mutiny 1954
Dial M For Murder 1954
La Strada 1954
Night of the Hunter 1955
Mister Roberts 1955
East of Eden 1955
Summertime 1955
To Catch a Thief 1955
The Lady Killers 1955
Guys and Dolls 1955
The Friendly Persuasion 1956
The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
High Society 1956
Giant 1956
The Bridge on the River Kwai 1957
Auntie Mame 1958
Vertigo 1958
Our Man in Havana 1959
The Nun's Story 1959
Some Like it Hot 1959

The 1950's list is the longest list here. I may be dating myself, if you believe that what people like tends to mark their taste chronologically. The media environment of the 1950's was rich. There was still radio, and newspapers and magazines were thriving. When I was a boy in the Fifties, you could see two double features on a weekend afternoon for just a quarter, and the snack-bar didn't cost much either. These were Hitchcock's glory days, and I have no less than six of his efforts on my list--Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo. Hitchock's movies aren't mysteries, or thrillers, or straight dramas; they're about suspicion, foreboding that verges on dread, the unexpected, betrayal, manipulation, and class conflict. The Fifties may have seemed quiet, but rumblings of social change were in the air. The Wild One, with Marlon Brando, about a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town, actually scared people. The war was still very much on people's minds, with From Here to Eternity, Stalag 17, The Caine Mutiny, Mister Roberts, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and dozens of others too forgettable to name. The best ones, like these, were more about human character than shooting and battle. But war movies would continue to hold their audiences for many more years. Sunset Boulevard, Asphalt Jungle, and Night of the Hunter may technically belong to the "Noir" period, but each is so uniquely conceived and executed that the moniker hardly seems to matter. We mightn't have known it, but the Western (High Noon, Shane) was on its last legs. The small, witty comedies turned out by Britain's Ealing Studios (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, and The Ladykillers, Our Man in Havana [with the magnificent Alec Guinness]) seemed like throwbacks, again, to an earlier, stagier, era. Small, isolated masterpieces were popping up, like John Wayne's only real "straight" movie, The Quiet Man, set in an idyllic Ireland. La Strada, one of my few foreign films, almost seemed not to need dialogue. The Nun's Story, for my money the best movie Audrey Hepburn ever made, or Summertime (a Katherine Hepburn vehicle), seemed designed for their respective stars. A new young actor named James Dean--harbinger of the new teen idol craze--would flash across the sky (in East of Eden and Giant) and then suddenly burn out. The musical was also on its last legs, but High Society, Guys and Dolls, and Singin' in the Rain each is a classic of its kind. The cross-dressing comedy Some Like it Hot is a fitting end to the staid, conservative Fifties, which would give way to the promiscuous, liberated Sixties.   

The Apartment 1960  
Two Women 1960
The Sundowners 1960
The Misfits 1961
The Hustler 1961
One-Eyed Jacks 1961
The Guns of Navarone 1961
The Music Man 1962
Lawrence of Arabia 1962
Jules et Jim 1962
Lolita 1962
The Days of Wine and Roses 1962
The Knife in the Water 1962
Lonely Are the Brave 1962
Tom Jones 1963
The Servant 1963
The List of Adrian Messenger 1963
Hud 1963
The Ugly American 1963
Becket 1964
Zorba the Greek 1964
Topkapi 1964
Darling 1965
Doctor Zhivago 1965
The Loved One 1965
Blow-Up 1966
The Group 1966
The Graduate 1967
The Thomas Crown Affair 1968
Rosemary's Baby 1968
2001 A Space Odyssey 1968
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 1969

The Sixties was a time of change in America, when the assumptions and traditions by which Americans had lived and dreamed during the Depression years, the war years, and the immediate post-war years, came into question. The anti-hero finally came into his own. In The Sundowners, The Misfits, The Hustler, One-Eyed Jacks, Lawrence of Arabia, Lolita, Lonely Are the Brave, Tom Jones, The Servant, Hud, Becket, The Graduate, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, offbeat protagonists pursue strange destinies that lead us far astray of the straight-and-narrow-path of typical middle class existence. These are complex characters, often repellent in their nature, who nevertheless draw us in, seduce us into their world. The Western morphed into weird new versions (One-Eyed Jacks, Lonely Are the Brave, Hud). These films explored America's corrupt foreign policy (The Ugly American), the exploitation of women (The Apartment), alcoholism (The Days of Wind and Roses), pedophilia (Lolita), vicarious curiosity (Blow-Up), serial murder (The List of Adrian Messenger), and psychotic co-dependency (The Servant); and there were other films, not on this list, that explored drug addiction, mental illness, and counterculture rebellion. Very few of these movies are feel-good experiences, and they often left you with a sense that the world was neither a very nice place, nor likely to get better soon. 2001 A Space Odyssey proposed a science fiction future that was not ideal at all. 

Five Easy Pieces 1970
The Go-Between 1970
Little Big Man 1970
Patton 1970
The Last Picture Show 1971
Deliverance 1972
The Godfather I & II 1972-4
Klute 1973
The Long Goodbye 1973
Paper Moon 1973
The Sting 1973
Papillon 1973
Steelyard Blues 1973
The Way We Were 1973
Chinatown 1974
Barry Lyndon 1975
The Missouri Breaks 1976
All the President's Men 1976
Network 1976
Carrie 1976
Alien 1979
Kramer versus Kramer 1979
The Great Santini 1979
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 1979 [BBC Miniseries]

The Seventies was also a time of general cultural confusion. The movies continued to question our values and assumptions about religion (Carrie), our political life (All the President's Men, Chinatown), our frontier myths (Little Big Man, Deliverance, The Missouri Breaks), the purpose and dangers of media (Network), even the ultimate meaning of life in the universe. The Noir paradigm continued to intrigue us (The Long Goodbye, Klute, Chinatown). But the big story of the 1970's was undoubtedly the Godfather saga, which eventually would fill out three complete installments, though the third panel of the tryptic would be pretty disappointing. In its big tapestry documenting the progress of an Italian mafia clan across two generations, American cinema returned to the ambitious dream that had not really been realized on this scale since Citizen Caine (1941). McMurtry's The Last Picture Show seemed to turn the nostalgia of the Old West into an involuted decadence. Again, it was the anti-hero who seemed to fascinate us (Little Big Man, Five Easy Pieces, The Long Goodbye, The Sting, Papillon, Barry Lyndon). Audiences can't summon movies into being, but there must be some kind of collective unconscious force that brings certain kinds of art into focus. Our identification with unlikely protagonists must have inspired the creation of stories that showed us the flip-side of the myth of success, of the frontier hero who rides into the sunset with the pretty girl and the new fortune in a land of plenty. Prostitutes and gamblers and con men; rustlers, hoodlums, seedy private eyes and investigative reporters, spies and monsters and convicts. What a ragtag group of people this bunch is.     

Raging Bull 1980
Ordinary People 1980
Body Heat 1981
My Dinner with Andre 1981
The French Lieutenant's Woman 1981
Brideshead Revisited 1981 [BBC Miniseries]
The Grey Fox 1982
Victor Victoria 1982
Under the Volcano 1984
Prizzi's Honor 1985
Top Gun 1986
Down by Law 1986
Jean de Florette/Manon of the Springs 1986 
Wall Street 1987
The Untouchables 1987
Moonstruck 1987
The Last Emperor 1987
Empire of the Sun 1987
Dangerous Liaisons 1988
Dead Poets Society 1989

In choosing which movies to put on the list, I tried to avoid putting in choices that I might have a personal obsession with, but which I can't defend as art or cinematic innovation. The 'Eighties continued to demonstrate that individual movies no longer belonged to generic traditional continuities, but tended (especially the best ones) to be isolated conceptual visions that implied no set of predictable components, like a western, or a mystery or love story. Though the Noir style persevered (Body Heat, The Untouchables), the clichés had become so self-conscious they'd been re-absorbed into the integral plots. The old studio system had its faults, but it provided a continuity of expectation which its audience was comfortable with. Small production companies come and go, some exist only to facilitate a single project. The risks are probably ten times greater for a small production, independently funded with private investment capital, than they were for the big studios. Which is why star power is still a factor, whereas the other parts of the recipe may seem less so. Small miracles like Ordinary People, or My Dinner With Andre, or The Grey Fox, or Down by Law seem very much more entertaining to me, than big over-produced blockbusters. Could a one-shot movie ever do justice to a story like Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which British television did in 11 installments?  

Goodfellas 1990
Henry & June 1990
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge 1990
Silence of the Lambs 1991
Dracula 1992
Glengarry Glen Ross 1992
A River Runs Through It 1992
Forrest Gump 1994
The Shawshank Redemption 1994
Sling Blade 1996
L.A. Confidential 1997
Wings of the Dove 1997
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 1997
Saving Private Ryan 1998
The Talented Mr. Ripley 1999
The Ninth Gate 1999

Ranking films decade by decade may seem an artificial segmentation of time. It's a convenient way to segregate a batch of efforts in any medium. We typically refer to periods of time as signifying a kind of spirit or preoccupation which is characteristic. Large events may assume an even steeper altitude on the horizon of our perspective. 2001 will always define our sense of the first few years of the new century, the 21st. The movie 2001 A Space Odyssey (in 1968) imagined the advance of science to have occurred at a much more rapid pace. Our technology hasn't kept pace with our dreams, at least in this instance. Orwell's predictions about the insidious penetration of the public and private space by technological surveillance, however, look to be coming true. Who could have imagined that it would be private industry, and the recreational interconnectivity of the Web, which would facilitate this invasiveness? 

The death of the studio system probably led to the creation of more unique movies than would otherwise have been possible. Rather than being straight-jacketed by studios looking to repeat proven formulas, individual producers and directors were free to conceive of particular projects that interested them, and of pursuing these visions with unconventional methods. Of course, it also meant that, without the backing of a large studio, the odds were greater, and failure could sink your reputation and your opportunities for future work, though success at the box office has always been an issue for everyone in the business, especially for those in a position of authority. Despite this, excellent movies within specific genres--such as crime dramas (Goodfellas), historical costume pieces (Wings of the Dove), war movies (Saving Private Ryan), horror flicks (Dracula, Silence of the Lambs)--continued to be made. It's difficult, though, to imagine a film like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ever having been contemplated by a major studio. 

Readers may remark the dearth of foreign titles on this list. It seems to me that cinema is so quintessentially an American medium, that it completely overshadows foreign film efforts. No doubt the language barrier is a serious issue, here, which I will readily admit. But even great foreign directors such as Fellini, tend to see film as a non-cinematic vehicle. I can see many things to admire in French and Italian cinema, but they rarely speak to me at the level of my deepest sensibilities.  
Given the opportunity, how many of the films I never saw over the years, would I have found to like? Usually, I can tell from a brief two-sentence résumé whether or not I'm likely to enjoy a film. Only occasionally, are my expectations thwarted, and then I end up either being completely bored, or, as with the case of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, pleasantly surprised (the only movie by Clint Eastwood that I've ever admired!). 

Castaway 2000
Gladiator 2000
Frida 2002
The Pianist 2002
The Door in the Floor 2004
Life of Pi 2012
American Hustle 2013

What is it that makes American movies great? Maybe it's ambition, the desire to make something so large that it's undeniable. Cinerama was an attempt to make such a wide picture that it would literally surround the viewer. Surround-sound was an attempt to surround the audience in sound, coming from all directions at once. 3-D movies, which made a small comeback in the 'oughts, were an attempt to put the viewing audience inside the moving picture. But the point all along has been to make an action compelling enough to hold our attention, consistently, and powerfully. Telling stories has always been the first priority. A movie like Titanic [1997] needed desperately to make a story out of a big tragic calamity, and probably barely succeeded. Events need to have a personal dimension to make them interesting to audiences, we need to feel something specific about an experience. Just showing cars crashing, or buildings crumbling, or planets colliding isn't enough. All the new technical manipulations which have come to us via the computer revolution, are as nothing compared to the effect a powerful story can have. I loved watching with pity and terror, the sinking of the Titanic in the movie version, but special effects must be properly integrated into a believable, or diverting, story-line. The modern cartoon movies are not half as effective as the early Disney cartoon movies. I have been surprised to see how pitifully the recent sci-fi movie attempts have been, despite the new technical wizardry, proving how extraneous such factors are. I'm clearly susceptible, given the listed choices, to the big blockbusting feature, but it must say something about history, or the human dilemma. 

I'm also partial to stories which seem in some sense to be about my own personal story, which is why I respond to specific movies like Great Expectations, East of Eden, The Sundowners, Blow-Up, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, The Way We Were, My Dinner With Andre, Dead Poets Society, Glengarry Glen Ross, A River Runs Through It, The Ninth Gate--each of which addresses some personal event in my life, or speaks through an intimate relationship of something that has formed my character. 

In order to be thorough with this survey, I tasked myself to go through the whole list of movies on Wikipedia, decade by decade, from 1920 all the way through 2014. Try it sometime, it's an exhausting procedure! There are so many more movies than you might expect. Today, I can barely expect to see more than a handful of new releases in any given year. Usually, I end up seeing them a year or two later on Netflix, a subscription service that allows one to have three movies in your possession at one time, in a round-robbin of circulating discs. This is much the most efficient way to see movies on a regular basis, and has permitted me to see a lot of older movies that I'd not have had the chance to view.  Movies are rarely shown on commercial television anymore, and since I don't subscribe to Cable, I don't have access to the movie channels. 

Media is changing rapidly now. What will happen when people simply stop going to see movies at movie theaters--or will they continue to do so? Movie projection halls are under pressure in the same way that physical books ("material texts") are these days. But the representation of an action, on a live stage, in a movie or a book, will continue to divert people's attention. The shared experience of viewing a movie, in public, in a dark projection room, may give way to a universal privacy. Will that alter the way we feel about, or respond to, movies? Millions of books are produced each year. Far fewer movies are made, and even fewer plays are premiered, or revived. Has technology made making movies easier, or less expensive? 

Movies are the expression of a nation's culture. As such, the history of American cinema is a record of our likes and dislikes, our prejudices and honorable sentiments, our pride and shame, our curiosity and morbid fascination. It is our way of telling ourselves who we are, and what we think, or should think and feel, about the world. Movies have been important touchstones for my sense of the world, rehearsals of how I like to cycle and recycle my persistent interests. I have probably watched Patton, and Hobson's Choice, and Kind Hearts and Coronets, a dozen times. There are some movies, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Vertigo, which I have literally memorized. People before the 20th Century had no experience of movies. I'm sure Charles Dickens would have produced wonderful screenplays, had he lived in our time. Would Samuel Richardson have been a purveyor of porn? I'm sure the Medieval scholars would have been shocked, shocked to see such mischief. 

My top ten list (the films in boldface print in the columns) could easily be extended to 20, but beyond that, I think it would become too watered down. On the other hand, a top hundred list would be very possible. 

As we bid adieu to the public world of movie attendance, let's say a little prayer to the gods of culture, that movies will continue to be made, and to be made ambitiously, with big dreams, and big budgets. We would be much poorer without them.    


Conrad DiDiodato said...


thanks for this wonderful chronology and overview of American movies. I probably should watch more but I'm afraid the Internet's the culprit. Probably a case here of Walter Benjamin's loss of some original cinematographic "aura".

Curtis Faville said...


What did you think of The Grey Fox, a Canadian production?

If you haven't seen it, you must!

A verité recreation of turn of the century Canadian Northwest territory, and a fine story.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

No, I haven't but I certainly will. Thanks for the tip...

Charles Shere said...

Hmmm. Too many movies; too much narrative.

For me, Last Year at Marienbad; The Lady Eve; Mr Hulot's Holiday; Buster Keaton of course. Antonioni: L'Avventura especially.

If The Red Shoes, then certainly Tales of Hoffman from about the same era…

Curtis Faville said...

No Fellini?


Coen Brothers?

I just saw American Hustle on Netflix, and found it a straight shot of Scorcese, but still remarkable.