Thursday, September 27, 2012

Two more Sound opinions

I know pretty much everybody has stopped talking about the Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, and I've actually already talked about it once on my blog (here).

What I didn't do the first time was offer up my own list of ten movies. So I'm going to do that now -- with more than a little bit of trepidation.

But I won't be alone. I've also asked Don Handsome, faithful reader and longtime friend (I've known him for 35 years), to submit a list. That'll assure us we'll get something credible here.  

Strangely, I didn't work very hard on mine.

You'd think with something like this -- the task to come up with the ten best/most indispensable/etc. films of all time -- a person like me would vacillate and sweat and go into a fever. But I didn't. I came up with some quick rules and made some fairly quick choices -- choices I nonetheless stand behind.

To explain my unusually swift approach to the assignment, I think you have to realize how I see the Sight & Sound assignment itself. I don't think any of the over 1,000 critics and directors who submitted lists probably chose their ten favorite films of all time. The end results included surprisingly few of what I would consider guilty pleasures, and any film fan who doesn't have a guilty pleasure among their favorites is not someone I want to have a conversation with.

So the actual assignment has something to do with an objective idea of "best," not "favorite." (The difference between these two terms has been debated to time immemorial.)

However, I don't think it's that interesting to just parrot the conventional wisdom of what the "best" films are. The struggle is to make these lists personal in some way. So it seems to me like the final list should be some combination of "best" and "favorite," with perhaps a greater emphasis on "best."

But then there are intangible factors like "This list has to include something by this director," and "This list has to include a film that is specifically groundbreaking in some way." I think you also want to have a healthy mixture of genres and time periods.

Instead of seeing this as some incredible burden, the results of which will define me as a film fan until the end of time since they are etched permanently into my blog, I just decided to come up with some choices I could defend using some loose rules.

My process was to peruse my top 250 films on Flickchart to get an initial list of candidates. I decided straight off that if a film didn't make my personal top 250, it didn't belong in my top ten. A pretty obvious guideline, I guess. But even considering 250 movies was a measure of how I was willing to deviate from my own "favorites" for this assignment. Besides, 250 allowed for the fact that my Flickchart rankings are always in flux, and may contain some inaccuracies. (All my choices ended up being from my top 75, which is probably as it should be.)

At first pass I selected (quite unconsciously) exactly 25 films that might be contenders. And I have consciously decided NOT to include my honorable mentions, because I consider it a hedge. My Flickchart top 20 is on the side of this blog, so it'll be easy for you to guess which films were hard to leave off.

As I was perusing those 25 choices, I quickly realized that they could be broken down into two logical categories: old films and new films. Or more accurately, films from my lifetime and films from before I was born.

So I decided that I would comprise my list of five from each category. That'll assure that I have both films that recognize the great history of cinema, and films that have a special importance to me because I grew up with them or discovered them at a perfect moment in my maturation as a cinephile.

I don't want to spend any longer on preamble -- not only do we have to get to my choices, but we have to get to Don's as well, and I really don't want to lose you. So let me just say that Don and I each agreed to write a short blurb about each film and why we chose it, and said that we would list them alphabetically. Without any further ado, here's mine:

Vance's picks

The Bicycle Thief (1948, Vittorio di Sica). I know it is fashionable these days to refer to this film as Bicycle Thieves, and I'm usually a guy who prefers literal translations of foreign titles. But The Bicycle Thief became one of my favorite movies as The Bicycle Thief, so I'm sticking to that title. Simply put, I was floored by the heartbreaking honesty of this Italian neorealist masterpiece. For the vast majority of the time I've known this movie, I had an objective appreciation of it. But now that I'm a father, its themes hit me subjectively like they never have before. Rarely have the responsibilities of a breadwinner been laid so bare. If you can't provide for your family, you can't even afford to live life by the kind of moral code you would hope to pass on to your son. Which is why the extremes to which Antonio is driven are so painful. You never feel your own failure so absolutely as when you see it reflected in the eyes of your son. I could talk about technique and economy of storytelling and acting, and they would all be excellent ways to praise di Sica's masterpiece. But it's the film's tragic emotional truth, diluted wonderfully by the hope of unconditional love, that makes this film resonate and linger.

Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles). This is no mere vote for the status quo. Citizen Kane is as great as everyone always says it is, and I have always thought so. It's difficult to go into a first viewing of Kane knowing what everyone says about it, and knowing that you are probably either going to adopt that opinion or actively repudiate it. But the movie should have you under its spell in no time, and force you to consider it on its own grand terms. Welles broke new ground in so many areas with this film that it's almost impossible to enumerate them, so I won't even try. In fact, I won't even spend my limited space on it trying to provide my own unique explanation of what makes it so great. I'll just say that this was a slam dunk pick for me, and that it is definitely a better film that Vertigo.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee). I like to be honest with you on this blog, so let me be brutally honest and say that I didn't want my list of the greatest films to include only white guys. But Do the Right Thing belongs on this list even if you are not taking into consideration the race of the filmmaker. Spike Lee made one of the most volcanic perspectives on the way human beings can fail to understand each other that I've ever seen, one that sticks with you for decades after watching it. But this film also contains moments of intimacy and grace that are equally unforgettable, as Lee employs a multiplicity of styles to portray his multiplicity of moods and characters. The film also provides possibly the best depiction on film of the way the heat can oppressively blanket a region and mess with the minds of everyone in it. One important function of cinema is to fill its viewers with a sense of righteous indignation, and after Do the Right Thing, you're quivering with that sensation -- without feeling like you've been manipulated into it.

Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese). When you are debating Martin Scorsese's greatest film, I know the "right" answer is either Raging Bull or Taxi Driver. And I don't care if it makes me seem like a new school cinephile if I choose Goodfellas instead. (And since a film that came out 22 years ago is my newest film on this list, I can't be that new school, can I?) There are countless amazing things about Scorsese's masterpiece, which take the best techniques of cinema history and amplify them to exhilarating effect. But the thing that has always amazed me about Goodfellas is the one way that it actively defies the logic of what makes a good film. While cinema is consummately a medium of "show don't tell," I'd argue that Ray Liotta's narration is not only a boon to Goodfellas -- but that it wouldn't be the same film without it. Goodfellas is so epic and satisfying that it needs to be both shown and told -- and does both brilliantly.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg). I have a friend who wears his love of Raiders of the Lost Ark on his sleeve. He's been Indiana Jones for Halloween multiple times, and any time there's any story about Raiders in the news, someone posts it on his Facebook wall. In short, the thing that everyone knows about him is that he loves Raiders. I, on the other hand, almost never talk about it. But when I was reloading my Flickchart account last year (or was it the year before?), meaning I systematically ranked every movie to the spot where I believed it belonged, I came to the realization that I was going to rank Raiders #1. This exercise showed me just the kind of respect I have for Steven Spielberg's masterpiece. Without even consciously knowing it, I decided that Raiders had no cinematic equal. And so even though I don't even own it, it simply had to have a spot on this list. (And besides, I decided Spielberg should have a movie on here as well -- with apologies to Schindler's List.)

Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen). And here we have the one truly "me" pick on this list. Every other film I've chosen is something I can defend externally, objectively. With Raising Arizona, it's all about love. The Raiders of the Lost Ark Flickchart experiment notwithstanding, I have recently decided that if I cleaned house on my rankings again, I would install Raising Arizona as my #1 movie. (So if they ever come up against each other organically in a duel, watch your back, Raiders.) The last time I watched Raising Arizona earlier this year, I was tingling with my enthusiasm for every quirky, wonderful moment of this film. The characters are instantly memorable, the dialogue crackles, the funny moments are all funny, and the tender moments give me chills. Unlike in some of the Coens' work, the way they ridicule these characters goes hand in hand with an overwhelming sense of sincere affection, and the result is one of the most tonally perfect films I have ever seen. But for everything else this film does perfectly, there may be no greater segment of storytelling than the film's opening, which gives us 13 minutes of back story before finally delivering the opening credits accompanied by Carter Burwell's unforgettable "Way Out There." As with Goodfellas, Raising Arizona is another film that wouldn't be the same without Nicolas Cage's terrific narration. I see a pattern developing here. Lastly, let me simply say this: No list of great films is complete without something that makes us laugh.

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock). Another moment of honesty: I decided that I couldn't submit a list of great films without saving a slot for Alfred Hitchcock. So even though I have somehow seen Rear Window only once, it had to go on here -- not only to represent Hitchcock, but to represent the thriller genre as well. What's so remarkable about Rear Window is not only that it presents us with a suspenseful and exciting murder mystery, but also that it famously doubles as a too-close-to-home metaphor for the essential voyeurism of watching movies. When we watch movies, we are essentially like Jeff Jeffries, watching characters who don't know they're being watched -- and trying to discover essential truths about them. But I'm going to leave my (probably unnecessary) defense of Rear Window at the superficial level, in part because I'm aching to watch it again and be reminded of why it left me with such a palpable sense of its perfection. I like this story so much that I even liked the Christopher Reeve remake, and that's saying something.

Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa). I guess 1954 was a good year -- it produced two of the ten films on my list. At 207 minutes, this is one of the five longest movies I've ever seen -- and it was so good, I saw it twice in the space of two years. Not bad for a kid who was alternately 17 and 18 years old. That I haven't watched it again in the past 20 years is only a function of its daunting length, because this is one of those experiences that stays with you, hitting on so many human themes (played out within the realm of a battle to save a village from marauding bandits) that it's like a ten-course meal for the mind. I had to have Kurosawa on my list, and this is his greatest of at least a dozen great achievements (of which I have seen about half). The fact that I'm making only a cursory defense of this great film is also that it's been so long since I've seen it. (Besides, I want to make sure you aren't all read out before we get to Don.) Now that it's made this list, I will have to carve out those three hours and 27 minutes again.

Star Wars (1977, George Lucas). I had some trepidation about including both this and Raiders of the Lost Ark on this list, since both feature the contributions of George Lucas and Harrison Ford, and both fill a certain quotient for escapist adventure. And then I decided, so what? And then I had trepidation about the fact that I don't even technically describe Star Wars as my favorite Star Wars movie, with that honor going to The Empire Strikes Back. Once again, I decided, so what? Star Wars is just one of those iconic forces (no pun intended) of nature that changed the entire way we watch and go to movies -- or if you want to dumb down its influence, it was just a rollicking good time. I defy you to name a movie where more individual characters can be described and remembered by a wider variety of people throughout the whole world. Even in movies you love beyond your ability to describe them, sometimes you have to refer to the characters as "the main guy" and "the girl." Not Star Wars. That cast of characters, and the old-fashioned and grandiose yarn in which they were featured, are seared into our memories -- and for those of us who owned the action figures, we even know such obscure side characters as IG-88, Bossk, R5D4, Dengar, Walrus Man and Lobot. (They aren't all from the first film, but sshhhhh.)

The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming). My final title is the inclusion that surprised me the most. As with a number of other movies on this list, I have not seen The Wizard of Oz in many years. But when I was growing up, we watched it every year when it came on television -- back in the days when we didn't have VCRs, before we could rent whatever we wanted. There was a reason the networks gave us The Wizard of Oz every year: You could always revisit it, and it would always fill you with joy. At its essence, the medium of cinema is something that can and should fill you with wonder, which is why some of the great film's in history are those that succeed with all ages. Star Wars could have filled the kids movie quotient for this list -- after all, it was the first film I saw in the theater -- but Star Wars doesn't have scarecrows, witches, ruby slippers, flying houses, tin men, cowardly lions, fields of poppies, yellow brick roads, and flying monkeys. One of the most iconic films of all time also has one of the most iconic songs in film history. If there's a movie moment that's more pure and universal than Dorothy singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," I don't know what it is.

So, there you have it. A list that even I could not have anticipated myself making -- but one I feel proud of nonetheless.

I do regret the disservice I've done to Don by going on for so long ... so take a break, refill your coffee, make a lap or two around the office, and tune back in for ...

Don's picks

The rest you will read is from Don Handsome, in his own words ...

In creating this Sight & Sound inspired list I was forced into shockingly hard decisions. Early on in the process, I found myself chopping many personal sacred cows (Badlands, Goodfellas, The Godfather, Army of Shadows, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction) and wondering what kind of hot mess I had gotten into. Coming up with the ten best films ever made is less a finesse exercise for me and more of a slaughter. And every slaughter should have rules:

1) No movies should be watched for the first time because they “should” be on this list. Furthermore, I should have seen all of the films multiple times;
2) To be included on this list, I must genuinely love a film (but I love so many films and also must recognize that I might “love” some films more than the ones on this list);
3) There must be an objective reason -- an innovation or a undeniable advancement of the art form -- for inclusion;
4) One film per director;
5) No reviewing the internet or actual copies of the films in an effort to get them on (or off) this list;
6) Recognize that conventions exist for a reason; and
7) No influences from other sources -- In my circles, it’s been impossible to avoid the current Sight & Sound poll and commentary on that poll. I didn’t try to avoid such opinions while making this list, but I did have to make a conscious decision not to be influenced to include or discount a film because of these opinions.

So rules were applied and cuts were made. Ultimately I came up with these Ten Best Films Ever Made. I’m not ranking them beyond this point, so I’ve presented them in alphabetical order. Here we go:

Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) – Only on its most crude level is Annie Hall a story of a couple, and thus the greatest romantic comedy ever made is not really that romantic. Allen isn’t interested in telling a love story as much as he is interested in stoking the smoldering ashes of a doomed relationship and building a world from the resulting fire. I tend to think of Annie Hall as a lesson on how (and how not) to self-process. The Woody stand-in, Alvy Singer, has processed every nuance of himself to such extremes that New York City appears to exist solely to serve his neuroses and whims. That Annie and Alvy don’t end up together is inconsequential, as I’m just so thankful that they were together once so I can continue to enjoy the little mysteries (why do Alvy and Rob call each other “Max”?) of this treasure of a film.

Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) – A tone poem about the primordial ooze of suburbia and inhabited by creatures of various evolutionary stations. Blue Velvet uses its B-movie spine as a vague structural excuse for wonderful and wicked trips down several breathtaking rabbit holes. Each shot is conceived and staged with meticulous detail and is filled with rich color that feels poured into the frame. Blue Velvet is high-art that is infected with low-art. This is an avant-garde film that isn’t afraid to admit that it cares about the mainstream. Blue Velvet feasts on popular culture, reprocessing it into nightmares. With Blue Velvet Lynch delivers a punching bag so enticingly overstuffed with blood that we can’t help from picking away at its seams, waiting for it to burst.

Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard) – Forget that it’s a trifle, but remember that it’s the best of the French New Wave films. Forget its vapid pretentiousness, its American obsession, and its pseudo-existentialism, but remember that Godard imbues Breathless with a revolutionary visual language. This film is visual jazz and its images are associated through jump cuts that careen viewers through the world of this film. Every cut and every shot of Breathless is the result of a master craftsman hitting a note. String these notes together and we’re left with a free solo of a film that reflects the heartbeat of Paris and of Godard in its very DNA.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene) – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a living surrealistic painting. While this film takes place in a terrestrial plane, it takes us to more out-there and interesting landscapes than most fantasy or science fiction films. In this film, setting is manipulated more than the characters are and the effect is transportive. Wiene gives us the sharp angles and deep shadows that will go on to form the architecture for Film Noir and modern horror films - much has been borrowed from Caligari but it remains robust, unique, and unreproducible as a whole. Physics doesn’t work this way and people don’t look like this, but it’s still impossible not to “get” the nightmare world at the core of Caligari nor is it possible to avoid being sucked into it.

Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) – In any discussion about Chinatown, it’s only a matter of time before someone injects the line "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." It’s a cool-but-meaningless line -- and that’s the real essence of this cynical film. Chinatown is gorgeous and well-acted and filled with cool lines and cool people
wearing hats and driving cool cars but all of it is meaningless because in the end it all unravels. What entices me the most about Chinatown is that it fully owns its sinister heart. In its fiber Chinatown demonstrates the idea that no matter what we do, no matter how we try to right our own ships or to seize on to what is in front of us, we’re always going back to the same horrible end. To Chinatown, Polanski brought no small amount of distrust and disdain for humanity – and this is undeniably his film.

Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) - This is the film that teaches us the language of film. While Welles delivers a master class in cinematic technique, and while Gregg Toland throws unending camera and lighting innovation at us, it’s the way this film is edited that cements its place on lists like these. Robert Wise almost
recklessly eschews conventional storytelling and weaves perspectives together over time (and seemingly space) with montage, matching shots, and associative imagery that 70 years later are still fresh and invigorating.

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee) – Do the Right Thing is a popular film – one that, it can be argued, is too heavily grounded in commercial culture – that actually dares to engage in real conversations about race, motivation, and people. Do the Right Thing has a blistering, generation-defining soundtrack. Do the Right Thing is the first “important” movie I saw on my own volition in the movie theater. Do the Right Thing is one of the best movies about the best season ever made. Set these facts aside, and Do the Right Thing still stands as a unique and vivacious accomplishment. Spike Lee treats his audience to the full fabric of the city, with previously unseen depth and definition. Too often in film, the elemental aspects of a city blend together into gray mess. Yet there are nuanced actual colors on display in Do the Right Thing. While there is bleakness at play, there is no gray. Do the Right Thing pops. It is vibrant and full of life and pulsating with the people and language.

Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg) – The shark is clearly fake and it does things that no shark would do. But it doesn’t matter, Jaws has it where it counts. Jaws is rich in character, light on shark, and profoundly heavy on quotable lines. It is a blockbuster that warmly rewards repeat visits. A horror movie at its core, Jaws is a simple treatment of unstoppable nature plowing repeatedly into our insular world. Yet on a cinematic level, it never ever fails to deliver the spectacular. Take a look at the framing of the famed U.S.S. Indianapolis scene, or Quint’s ear-melting first appearance as a fish out of water, or the way Spielberg migrates his cast of extras
back onto the beach to gradually expose us to a victim’s panicked mother, or any other of the countless masterful moments and it is undeniable that this film is a juggernaut that shouldn’t be discounted for its girth. Jaws is the whole package and it is the truth.

The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)– Do existential crises always makes for such tightly-wound and explosive films? The Wages of Fear is pure TNT – an exercise in seismic tension of personal and imperial scales. We follow four men carrying nitroglycerine on trucks into the mountains of South America - the action flick implications are undeniable, but this is not an action flick. Clouzot is unsentimental about his characters and allows us to suffer with them. We see desperate men making desperate choices. We all could be making these choices, so we all bring our own baggage to the story and Clouzot skillfully winds that into his tale as well. That The Wages of Fear is dated and arcane in parts only very slightly diminishes the raw power of this transcendental classic.

The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah) – It starts so small - with kids torturing scorpions with red ants - but very quickly grows uncontrollably big as a menacing horde of robbers ride into and end up destroying the town. The Wild Bunch is a movie about the death of the scorpions. Fearsome killing machines being broken by swarming, seemingly organized threats to their lifestyle. Peckinpah sets forth to tell the story of two bank robbers and the different path that they took in their lives and ends up opining about brotherhood, imperial greed and expansive war machinery. A quintessentially American film, The Wild Bunch is unafraid of its violence and its characters' use violence to advance their own goals. But Peckinpah is also nostalgic for a different kind of personal violence, and warns us all against the machinery of war that has the power to reduce the expanse of North America into shreds.

Okay, now, use this comments section to a) discuss our picks, either for or against them, and b) insist to Don that he should be writing his own blog. (Not because he's not welcome on mine, but because his thoughts on film are that interesting and worth hearing.)

Thanks for reading. Check back here in ten years to see if our thoughts have changed.


Don Handsome said...

Thanks Vance for letting me stretch my writing out a little bit. It's been tremendously fun. I only take issue with one thing that you wrote: forget ten years, it might even be worthwhile checking back in ten days to see how my opinions have changed.

Vancetastic said...

My pleasure, thanks for joining me.

I notice that our lists ended up being pretty conventional in the end. I know it was accidental on my end, and I'm sure it was for you as well, but we each chose only two films that did not appear among the top 250: Raising Arizona and Raiders of the Lost Ark for me, Jaws and The Wages of Fear for you. I'm actually kind of surprised that The Wages of Fear did not make the top 250, to be honest. I agree it's a masterpiece and I even considered it for this list, but I think I've just seen it for the first time too recently (about two years ago). Also, it's really more of a "you" movie. Don't want to be stealing your thunder.

Don Handsome said...

Am I that predictable that a somewhat obscure existential French film from 1950s is a "me" movie?
Yeah, I guess I am.

I don't think you can really be anything but conventional here...there is certainly room for the Raising Arizonas, but I don't think you could have picked a list of ALL Raising Arizonas. If my list had been ALL Don films, you would have rightfully skewered me.

I said this privately to you, but I will say it here that I am extremely jealous of Goodfellas on your list. I think that missing the only movie (besides Jaws) that I am physically unable to turn off on my list is my biggest "regret". But no regrets… there are no wrong answers.

And if I didn't say this before: GREAT LIST.

Vancetastic said...

Is it a great list? I'll take it, even if I'm not sure I believe it. I think I am more inclined to put quirky choices on a list like this, and I think I restrained myself a bit. Still, I'm proud of it.

I just know what Wages of Fear means to you. It's not predictable -- it's just something you've flat-out told me.

I wonder if anyone other than the two of us gets the significance of the artwork that accompanies this post? I guess it's not that hard to piece together, but taken only at face value, it is completely random.

Vancetastic said...

"Is that Sarris from Galaxy Quest?"

"Yes. Yes it is."

Don Handsome said...

Is Galaxy Quest on your honorable mention list? It should be.

Vancetastic said...

Yes, it's right next to Anonymous.

Someone coming across this will say "Wow! SEVEN comments! I really need to read that post!"