Last week, a friend of mine tagged me on one of those Facebook chain messages, in which you’re nominated to follow through on some task that others have done. I was nominated to list my top 10 films.
As I approached the end of the process, another friend posted a comment: Had I seen a pattern?
That got me wondering.
Here’s the list, in reverse order:
9. Quiz Show
First, it should be said that only the top four are etched in stone, and probably in those positions. “Blazing Saddles” is my favorite comedy, an anarchic engine of wackiness that never lets up and sometimes (most of the time?) foregoes logic in favor of jokes. I don’t argue with people who prefer “Young Frankenstein” among Mel Brooks films; it’s definitely a better film. But nothing makes me laugh like “Blazing Saddles,” except maybe “Airplane!” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – both of which also put chaos ahead of sense.
“Network” becomes more prescient with each passing year; in fact, it’s probably – finally — even less crazy than the media world we live in, which means it plays more as ancient history than a vision of the future. I wish more people would watch it and do more than shrug “whaddya gonna do,” but the days when actual dialogue was important in movies passed sometime in the early ‘90s.
I still can’t make sense of some of “The Third Man.” I blame Alida Valli’s accent, the shadowy black-and-white visuals and Carol Reed’s deliberate copying of Orson Welles’ fondness for overlapping dialogue. (Welles is, of course, the main attraction of the movie as the villainous Harry Lime, and his first appearance remains a heart-stopping thrill.) But in its uncertain atmosphere – anything-goes postwar Vienna, complete with the real-life rubble left behind from World War II – and amazing set pieces, the film is more than the sum of its parts. The final scene, a wordless long take, remains one of my favorites of any film.
And “2001”? I’ve seen it in three-projector Cinerama, in the 2018 big-screen re-release and on 19-inch cathode-ray tubes, and it never fails to fill me with awe. As I said in my Facebook post, I know some people find it boring and tedious. I’m not one of them. Maybe I wish the “Dawn of Man” sequence would run a little faster, but I always lose myself in any number of other scenes – the exhilarating ballet of the “Blue Danube” dance between shuttle and space station, the sickening, chilling death of HAL, the scary/heightened trip into the Infinite. I’ve devoured any number of books about space travel, and though I’m sure “First Man” gets the quotidian correct, “2001” is the only space-set film that manages to capture that internal “wow” that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, while at the same time being brilliant cinema. (Which reminds me – I really have to watch “Apollo 11.” Thanks to my old employer for helping produce it!)
But what of the rest? The other six films, with maybe the exception of “Raiders,” could have easily been replaced by others. I didn’t find room for “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Airplane!”, “Citizen Kane,” “My Fair Lady,” “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Godfather.” I considered “The Social Network” (probably my favorite film of the last 10 years) and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (though, among Newman-Redford films, I go back and forth between it and “The Sting”).
The most obscure film on my list is probably 1990’s “Europa, Europa,” which is there because it’s so emotionally frank and touched me so deeply. (I defy anyone to not gasp at some of the close calls for the protagonist, a Jewish boy who finds himself accepted as Aryan in WWII Europe – or cry at the conclusion.)
But even that could have been replaced by “All Is Lost,” the underrated 2013 film with Robert Redford as a solo sailor lost at sea, which is equally understated and also has an affecting ending.
Catch me on another day, and you’d have another list.
But, to get back to my friend’s question, is there a pattern?
Maybe not a pattern, but I do see some themes:
- I like messiness. Nobody would confuse Mel Brooks with the bloodless, late-era Stanley Kubrick, but a more capable director would have killed “Saddles’ ” comedy. “The French Connection” has that verite 1970s New York going for it; “Network” puts Paddy Chayefsky’s sprawling monologues at center stage. Even the “careful” directors – Kubrick, “Raiders’ ” Steven Spielberg, and “Northwest’s” Alfred Hitchcock – leave room for serendipity. “Raiders” moves as precisely as a well-made watch, but it breathes, too. Rock critic Ed Ward once noted he preferred the “Beggars Banquet”-era Rolling Stones to the “Abbey Road”-era Beatles because you could “hear little Stones in the speakers” — in other words, the music sounded like it was made by humans, not machines. I disagree with his opinion of “Abbey Road,” but I get it, and the same goes for the movies on this list. All you CGI-loving directors, take note. (Or even directors who usually forsake CGI: I think Christopher Nolan is a wonderful director, but damn, he can seem as bloodless as Kubrick. And I liked “Dunkirk.”)
- Give me a good script. Chayefsky hit a home run with “Network.” Ernest Lehman wrote “North by Northwest.” “Goldfinger” crackles, courtesy of Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn. (The Daniel Craig Bond films have their moments, but they’re all too flabby.) “Quiz Show” is elevated by Paul Attanasio’s screenplay, even as Rob Morrow mangles a Boston accent. Even “2001,” which has minimal dialogue – and what it has is often deliberately banal – has a strong storytelling sweep, and Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood find depth in their clipped sentences. (Douglas Rain, as HAL, is simply perfect casting.) Contrast those films with, say, “Titanic.” James Cameron’s award-winner may think of itself as epic, but his terrible script sinks the whole thing. The only scene with any grandeur – when you get a sense that this is a human tragedy, not some kind of connect-the-dots extravaganza — is the wide, pull-back shot of the ship starting to go down with its hapless passengers.
- It’s got some movie magic. With Chayefsky’s theatrical screenplay, you’d think “Network” would make a good play, right? But I saw it on Broadway and it was just OK, even with (and perhaps because of) Ivo van Hove’s busy direction. Score one for Sidney Lumet. Carol Reed walks a fine line with “The Third Man,” finding uneasy laughter amid what could have been straight tragedy. (Graham Greene and Welles helped.) And many films have tried to copy the popcorn brilliance of “Raiders” – including its sequels – but the original is simply out-and-out great, perhaps even Spielberg’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.
That last one seems obvious, I know, but gets back to the medium itself. For me, the movie experience remains a singular ritual, starting with buying the ticket and then sitting in the dark, among other supplicants, facing a big screen. Sure, you can see movies on a smaller screen – and these days, that may mean a phone – but that makes “movie magic” all the more necessary, because otherwise it may as well be a 1972 episode of “Mannix.” I didn’t grow up in the age when movies were programmed like television, so for me they’ve always been the equivalent of what used to be called roadshow releases. Maybe that’s for the best, and maybe it’s the reason so few films of recent years have moved me the way the ones mentioned above have. They may as well be big-screen video games.
That said, do these 10 films reveal any real patterns? I’ll let a therapist figure that out. Just not any of the folks at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous.