Sunday, June 15, 2008

From 'The African Queen' To 'Zabriskie Point': My 70 All-Time Favorite Movies

Pauline Kael's power -- and sometime cattiness and myopia -- as a film critic is no more evident than when I filter her thoughts through my own favorite movies and inevitably come away with a greater understanding. Or bafflement.

Here is a list of my Top 20 favorites and another 50 to boot in the form of abridged Kael capsule reviews.
(Note that she stopped reviewing in 1991, which explains the absence of Battlefield Earth and other more scintillating contemporary fare.)

As you will see, my picks are heavy on comedy and social conscience, likely a result of my upbringing in a home where both cracking wise and caring about the important stuff were most evident.

Feel free to offer your faves -- and why they are your faves -- in the comments section below. You can do so as an Anonymoose.

MY TOP 20 . . .
THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) This is a comedy, a love story, and a tale of adventure, and it is one of the most charming and entertaining movies ever made. . . . the comedy was not present in either the novel by C.S. Forester or in the original screen play by James Agee . . but it grew out of the relationship between Hepburn and Bogart, who were just naturally funny when they worked together.

ATLANTIC CITY (1981) Burt Lancaster gives what is probably his funniest (and finest) performance. Susan Sarandon plays an uneducated girl studying to become a croupier, and for once her googly-eyed, slightly-stupefied look seems perfect.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) You may not be able to figure out the plot even after the dénouement . . . but it's the dialogue and the entertaining qualities of the individual sequences that make this movie. . . . All of the actors talk in innuendos, as if that were a new stylization of the American language, but how reassuring it is to know what the second layer of meaning refers to.

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939) By taking her spangles and feathers into the Old West and dropping her sultry voice to a howling baritone, Dietrich revitalized her own career. James Stewart is charming and even a little bit sexy as the mild-mannered Destry.

A DUEL IN THE SUN (1946) Hilariously florid -- sometimes referred to as "Lust in the Dust."

THE HARDER THEY COME (1973) Jimmy Cliff, the reggae singer, has the verve of an instinctive actor. . . . The film is feverish and haphazard, but the music redeems much of it, and the rhythmic swing of the Jamaican speech is hypnotic.

THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951) The nearly perfect fubsy comedy of all time. It's a minor classic, a charmer.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) The first of several Westerns based on Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, and fairly rousing for about two thirds of the way. . . . Ragged when it tries for philosophical importance. but it's fun to see so many stars at an early stage of their careers.

THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) John Huston brings some course melodramatic vitality to the Tennessee Williams play, but whatever poetry it had seems to have leaked out.

NINOTCHKA (1939) Garbo brings her incredible sensual abandon to the role of a glum, scientifically trained Bolshevik envoy who succumbs to Parisian freedom -- ie., champagne.

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) It is one of the most powerful American movies of the 50s, and few movies caused so much talk, excitement and dissension -- largely because of Marlon Brando 's performance as the inarticulate, instinctively-alienated bum, Terry Malloy. . . . It's a near-great film.

REBECCA (1940) Magnificent romantic-gothic corn, full of Alfred Hitchcock's humor and inventiveness. . . . Joan Fontaine gives one of her rare really fine performances -- she makes her character's shyness deeply charming.

THE RED SHOES (1948) The most imaginative and elaborate backstage musical ever filmed, and many have called it great.

SLEEPER (1973) Set 200 years in the future, it's the most stable and sustained of [Woody Allen's] comedies, with a clean visual style and an elegant design.

SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961) William Inge wrote the baroque primer-Freud screenplay about the frustrations of adolescent sexuality, set in a small town in Kansas in the 20s, and Elia Kazan whipped it up. The picture is hysterically on the side of young love, and this hysteria seems integral to the film's moments of emotional power, and its beauty.

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) Elia Kazan's direction is often stagey . . . but who cares when you're looking at two of the greatest performances ever put on film and listening to some of the finest dialogue ever written by an American?

THE THIN MAN (1934) New audiences aren't likely to find it as sparkling as the public did then, because new audiences aren't fed up, as that public was, with what the picture broke away from. It started a new cycle in screen entertainment . . . by demonstrating that a murder mystery could be a screwball comedy.

TIME BANDITS (1981) It's far from a bad movie, but it doesn't quite click together, either.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962) It's all terribly conscientious -- the clapboard houses, the slatted porch swings on rusty chains, the Chevy phaetons on dusty streets, the high moral sentiments, the specs on Peck's nose. . . . The movie is part eerie Southern gothic and part Hollywood self-congratulation for its enlighted racial attitudes.

YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968) Good-natured, full of verbal-visual jokes, and surprisingly entertaining, thought the love is less impressive than the music.

. . . AND 50 MORE
ALL IS QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930) Over a hundred million people have gone to theaters to see it and have -- perhaps -- responded to its pacifist message.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) Too fancy and overblown . . . but the two dancing lovers have infectious grins and the Gershwin music keeps everything good-spirited.

THE ARRANGEMENT (1969) Kirk Douglas is a successful Los Angeles advertising man in his early 40s who tries to kill himself, and as he recovers we begin to see the tensions that have made him self-destructive . . . [Elia Kazan] mistakes the noise for having something to say. This is a monstrously unconvincing movie.

BAMBI (1942) The picture is a classic of sorts, if only for the uncannily awful sound of the young woodland creatures in conversation; when puberty sets in and these voices suddenly change, Walt Disney begins to seem as berserk as Busby Berkeley. Still there's no denying that for many people some of the sequences . . . have an enduring primal power.

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971) There's no logic in the style of the movie, and the story dribbles on for so long that it exhausts the viewer before that final magical battle begins.

BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) Once again, a "daring" Hollywood movie exposes social tensions -- touches a nerve -- and then pours on the sweet nothings.

BLOWOUT (1981) It's hallucinatory, and it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability, but you'll never make the mistake of thinking it's only a dream.

BRIGADOON (1954) Probably the material was too precious and fake-lyrical to have worked in natural surroundings, but the way it has been done it's hopelessly stagey.

BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960) The John O'Hara novel that seemed perfect for the movies, plus the role that seemed perfect for Elizabeth Taylor -- and this is the garish mess it became.

CATCH-22 (1970) Mike Nichols' third picture was this hugely ambitious failure. . . . There's a beautiful flight-tower sequence early on, and there are startling effects and good revue touches here and there, but the picture goes on and on, as if it were determined to impress us. It goes on so long that it cancels itself out; even out of people's memories.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) In this movie, so full of "realism," nothing really grows -- not the performances, not the ideas, not even the daffodils, which also are so "real" they have obviously been planted for us, just as the buildings have been built for us.

FELLINI SATYRICON (1970) Fellini draws upon his master-entertainer's feelings for the daydreams of the audience, and many people find this film eerie, spellbinding, and even profound. Essentially, though, it's just a hip version of De Mille's The Sign of the Cross.

THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN (1981) Meryl Streep gives an immaculate, technically accomplished performance as Sarah Woodruff, the romantic mystery woman of John Fowles' novel, but she isn't mysterious.

GUNGA DIN (1939) One of the most enjoyable nonsense-adventure movies of all time -- full of slapstick and heroism and high spirits.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (1952) Oscar Wilde's deliriously convoluted, perfect comedy -- the most preposterous work of art ever written. . . The film is stagey, but highly enjoyable.

IRMA LA DOUCE (1963) Abominable, inexplicably popular sex farce.

JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) The story ends happily, and the movie made millions, though Presley never begins to suggest the vitality that he showed in documentary footage.

KLUTE (1971) Jane Fonda in possibly her finest dramatic performance.

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) This straightforward, involving, narrative picture about growing up in a small town in Texas in the early 50s was Peter Bogdanovich's first great success. . . . Robert Surtee's stylized cinematography is in black and white, and the frequent silhouetting -- so that we seem to be looking at a map of life as it was -- helps to clarify the subject matter.

LOLITA (1962) Wild, marvelously enjoyable comedy.

M (1932) It is Peter Lorre's triumph that he makes us understand the terrified, suffering human being who murders.

THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) This film, the first directed by John Huston, is an almost perfect visual equivalent of the Dashiell Hammett thriller. . . . It is (and this is rare in American films) a work of entertainment that is yet so skillfully constructed that after many years and many viewings it has the same brittle explosiveness -- and even some of the same surprise -- than it had in its first run.

M*A*S*H (1970) -- Robert Altman's marvelously unstable comedy -- a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry.

MILDRED PIERCE (1945) Miss Crawford's heavy breathing was certified as acting when she won an Academy Award for her performance here.

MONKEY BUSINESS (1952) Grating screwball farce.

NATIONAL VELVET (1944) One of the most likable movies of all time. Under the direction of Clarence Brown, the 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor rings true on every line she speaks; she gives what is possibly her most dedicated performance.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977) An honest failure.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975) Smashingly effective version of Ken Kesey's novel about a rebel outcast.

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981) Taste and craftsmanship have gone into this Bob Rafelson version of James M. Cain's hot tabloid novel, but Rafelson's detached, meditative tone is about as far from Cain's American tough-guy vernacular as you can get.

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969) The movie has been too conventionally directed . . . but Maggie Smith, with her gift for mimicry and her talent for mannered comedy, makes Jean Brodie very funny.

THE PRODUCERS (1968) Terrible as this picture is, a lot of it is very enjoyable.

THE QUIET AMERICAN (1958) It was a commercial failure, and it's also an artistic, but the theme and the principal characters are of such immediacy and interest that it's far more absorbing than many more successful movies with conventional subject matter.

RAGING BULL (1980) Scorsese puts his unmeditated obsessions on the screen, trying to turn raw, pulp power into art by removing it from the particulars of observation and narrative.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) Kinesthetically, the film gets to you, but there's no exhilaration, and no surge of feeling at the end.

RICHARD III (1956) Laurence Olivier makes Shakespeare's "son of hell" such a magnetic, chilling, amusing monster that the villainy arouses an almost immoral delight. As director and star, Olivier succeeds with the soliloquies as neither he nor anyone else ever did on film before.

ROCKY (1976) A low-budget winner.

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) De Mille, with God as his co-maker. . . . All in all, the film does not enhance the glory of De Mille or his Associate; its splendors are purely in the camp division.

SHANE (1953) Superficially, this is a Western, but from Shane's knightly costume, from the way his horse canters, from the Agincourt music, it's all to recognizable as an attempt to create a myth.

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) This exuberant satire of Hollywood in the late 20s, at the time of the transition from silents to talkies, is probably the most enjoyable of all American movie musicals.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) Curtis demonstrates a parodistic gift with an imitation of Cary Grant . . . and Lemon is demonically funny -- he really gives in to women's clothes, and begins to think of himself as a sexy girl. Monroe gives perhaps her most characteristic performance, which means that she's both charming and embarrassing.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) Set in Austria in 1938, this is a tribute to freshness that is so mechanically engineered and so shrewdly calculated that the background music rises, the already soft focus blurs and melts, and, upon the instant, you can hear all those noses blowing in the theater.

SPARTACUS (1960) This may be the best-paced and most slyly entertaining of all the decadent-ancient-Rome spectacular films.

STAGECOACH (1939) Perhaps the most likable of all Westerns.

THE THIRD MAN (1950) There is an ambiguity about our relation to the Cotten character: he is alone against the forces of the city and, in a final devastating stroke, he is even robbed of the illusion that the girl . . . is interested in him, yet his illusions are so commonplace that his disillusion does not strike us deeply.

TOPPER (1937) Much fun; a sophisticated fantasy.

TRAPEZE (1956) Trapeze work is so graceful, so scary, and so marvelously photogenic that it has always been a source of regret that circus movies generally slight the high flyers and dwell on the seamy side.

WEST SIDE STORY (1961) The irony of this hyped-up, slam-bang production is that those involved apparently don't really believe that beauty and romance can be expressed in modern rhythms, because whenever their Romeo and Juliet enter the scene, the dialogue becomes painfully old-fashioned and mawkish, the dancing turns to simpering, sickly romantic ballet, and surgary old stars hover in the sky.

THE WILD BUNCH (1969) It's a traumatic poem of violence, with imagery as ambivalent as Goya's. By a supreme burst of filmmaking energy, Sam Peckinpah is able to convert chaotic romanticism into exaltation.

Z (1969) How a political murder is made to look like an accident. Costa-Gavras' extraordinary thriller -- one of the fastest, most exciting melodramas ever made.

ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) It's a very odd sensation to watch a message movie by a famous European artist telling us what's wrong with America while showing us something both n
aïve and decrepit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lots on your list I've never seen or even heard of. Will try to expand my cinematic horizons. A few faves:

The Swimmer
Days of Heaven
Full Metal Jacket
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest