An ode to joy
The ten best films of the Top 100June 20, 1998
Web posted at: 11:07 p.m. EDT (0307 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Well, the American Film Institute's euphemistically named "Top 100 American Movies" list is now set in concrete, and, as I expected, it's a pretty nutty affair. There are unavoidable pitfalls in trying to compile something like this, the most obvious being that you can't exactly promote a face-off between individual statements made by individual human beings living in individual political, social, and business climates as if they came from the same bowl of batter. But what the hell, it was fun to watch the clips.
However, it needs to be said that any list of the greatest movies of all time that includes works by Robert Wise, Kevin Costner, Stanley Kramer and Quentin Tarantino, but ignores the fact that geniuses like Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Buster Keaton ever walked the face of the earth, is questionable in the extreme. The TV special breezed right past these heretical oversights, though; noted film historian Susan Lucci seemed thrilled with the whole thing.
In lieu of arguing the impossible to argue, I've selected the 10 movies on the list that have given me, personally, the most joy over the years. This is not a scientific experiment. If you asked me tomorrow, I might change five or six of the selections. But, preacher of The Word that I am, I hope that I can persuade people who may not otherwise do it to make a trek to the video store and look for these titles. They're American history, you know, but you don't have to take notes while you watch, and you will still be a better person for it in the morning.
Here they are, in alphabetical order.
"Annie Hall" (1977), director: Woody Allen.
"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), director: Arthur Penn.
"Chinatown" (1974), director: Roman Polanski.
"Citizen Kane" (1941), director: Orson Welles.Where do you start? You may be able to find movies that you're willing to watch more often than "Citizen Kane," but it's difficult to find one that's so full of small jewels, just waiting to be discovered through multiple viewings. A true revolutionary, Orson Welles co-wrote and directed "Kane" at the tender age of 25, and promptly blew the rest of Hollywood out of the water. He claimed to have watched "Stagecoach" while he prepared for the shoot, but the movie he came up with basically rewrote the book on how to tell a story through the film medium. The rise and fall of a power-mad newspaper magnate (based on William Randolph Hearst), "Citizen Kane" is the committed film student's textbook, while simultaneously remaining a piece of first-class entertainment. It's a cliche by now to list its numerous breakthroughs, but they run the gamut from unique camera setups, to radical lighting techniques, to Welles and cameraman Gregg Toland's monumental use of deep-focus shots. Some of the over-mannered performances stretch it a bit, but the movie drips with firebrand artistry. Welles, with a brashness that would have suited Frank Sinatra, proved to less-than-enthusiastic studio weasels that movies could be a major art form, and Welles was rewarded for his trouble by getting virtually blackballed out of the business.
"Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964), director: Stanley Kubrick.Kubrick gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that it takes him five times longer to make a movie than any other major director, and the final results are only periodically as devastating as everybody feels obliged to think they are. That can't be said of "Dr. Strangelove," though. This is a truly caustic black comedy about the occurrence of sudden worldwide nuclear obliteration, and Kubrick (along with co-screenwriter Terry Southern, who was a legitimate wildman) lines up a bizarre cast of characters that play like a cross between Mad magazine and an end-of-the-world screwball comedy. George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Peter Sellers (who has three different roles, including Strangelove himself) give the performances of their careers. The ludicrous dialogue - such as Hayden's theory on the underhanded Soviet infiltration of our "precious bodily fluids" - is screamingly funny, way over the top, because, hey, blowing up the entire planet for no good reason is way over the top, too. Watch Slim Pickens hoot and holler as he rides that phallic bomb to the ultimate orgasm, and then try to get some sleep. The unspoken joke of the movie is that, even if you've deluded yourself into thinking otherwise, a large group of sex-obsessed nincompoops is in charge of prolonging your very existence. Ha-ha.
"Duck Soup" (1933), director: Leo McCarey.In technical terms, anyway, this is far and away the weakest entry on my list. Marx Brothers movies aren't really movies so much as they're extended setups that afford Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (yeah, yeah- and boring old Zeppo, too) the opportunity to wield surrealistic wordplay and near-lunatic physical bits as deadly weapons. The general idea was to set the boys on a rampage through a strait-laced social setting, mocking the rich, mocking the beautiful, and mocking the mocking of the rich and beautiful. I think this is their best, because it jettisons the pointless romantic sub-plot that hampers all their other films, giving us more time to savor the pinpoint timing and profound illogic that constitutes their modus operandi. A bonus is that this one deflates, in decidedly bizarre terms, society's inclination toward war as a means of settling small arguments. You simply have to hear them say it and see them do it in order to understand what was so remarkable about The Marx Brothers. That's about all that needs to be said of their massive, highly unique contribution to American humor.
"The Godfather" (1972), director : Francis Ford Coppola.
"Rear Window" (1954), director: Alfred Hitchcock.
"The Searchers" (1956), director: John Ford.Jeffrey Hunter's abysmal performance almost drops this one from my list, but people who think that Westerns have nothing to offer but war whoops and quick draws will find it to be a revelation. Wayne's performance is monumental, bravely taking his iconic, flag-waving persona and standing it on its ear. His Ethan is a man with no home who sets out to possibly destroy the last remaining vestige of family that he's got -- a niece (played by the young Natalie Wood) who's been kidnapped by Indians after her family is slaughtered during a raid. (The scene when Wayne returns to the burning homestead is quoted, nearly shot-for-shot, by George Lucas in "Star Wars.") When Ethan vindictively shoots out the eyes of a dead Comanche warrior, "The Searchers" makes a more complex statement about the evils of racial hatred than the entirety of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the blunt object of anti-intolerance movies.
"Taxi Driver" (1976), director: Martin Scorsese."Raging Bull" is far flashier and very often just as powerful, but there's an emotional complexity to "Taxi Driver" that's not only missing from "Raging Bull," but is part and parcel of the times that spawned it. Urban paranoia was at a premium, with Watergate's dirty tricks and wiretaps infiltrating our collective view of the government, when Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader brought the story of Travis Bickle, avenging angel of the scared and lonely, to our movie screens. Robert De Niro, of course, is Travis, and if you ever feel the need to get the bejabbers scared out of you, just rent a video and cue up his provoking "You talkin' to me?" monologue, or maybe one of his more biblical voice-over screeds about ridding New York's streets of the unwanted (and very human) "scum" and "filth." There's also a weird sense of humor undercutting a lot of this, as if Travis is just a nice guy with a loose screw that'll be tightened as soon as he works out a few personal problems. His pretending that that's exactly what's happened at the end of the movie is a final moment of goose-bump creepiness.
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