0033: The 100 Best Films (91-100)
- 91. Defending Your Life (1991, Albert Brooks) - Al Brooks is a very subversive man. He is always making fun of his everyman self, and by extension, us. He is so gentle and funny about it, though, we don't care. We love it. Classically, this is one of the most subversive tricks ever, and Al is our modern master of it. Five minutes into this chronologically-structured film, the two main characters die. Tell me that's not one hell of a setup. Defending Your Life's vision of an afterworld where we can eat all we want without gaining weight, where we all have to wear togas, and where we are judged by a court while being forced to watch all the times we were cowards in life on a huge television screen is a brilliant and original conception. The acting is some of the finest comedic work ever; Brooks, Meryl Streep (!), Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and one terrific surprise cameo are unbelievably perfect. Of course, there is a final judgment, and Brooks begins to despair when the woman he falls for is obviously going to advance while he, well, he obviously ain't moving on up. The rare comedy that get better and funnier with every viewing, Defending Your Life deserves a much wider audience than it seems to have won. It is a masterpiece, but again, it is so gentle and subtle, you may not realize it at first.
- 92. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese) - This film is diseased. The colors are starved and infected, the saxophone whining for air, the night naked and nasty. Taxi Driver is a festering scab growing green and yellow and promising no cure. Travis Bickle is also sick. He despises the illness around him unaware that it has spread to himself. He is a modern leper, cast off and unable to connect with any one or any thing. He is disfigured and deformed, and every attempt to reach out is answered with rejection. At some point, this foul cancerous malady will mestasize, and then... The ratings board made them desaturate the blood. Now what might have been shocking red simply seems sicker than ever, drained of all color and light. Besides, we don't need to see the gore. We can smell its seeping stench. Many critics claimed this film was sick. They were right. It is sick. It is meant to make you gag. It is trying to make you see that the city also is sick. It is trying to make you see that you are too.
- 93. The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock) - In many ways, this is the definitive Hitchcock film. Here, most of his style and themes first successfully solidified into a fairly final form. The innocent accused man on the run, the mysterious clue that leads the chased victim to begin his own chase, the dangerous woman who may just be a foe rather than a friend, the grand finale, the blazing pace of thrill spilling into thrill, the light comedy even in scenes of death - This certainly is not Hitchcock's best film, but for the most part, it is the film that made Hitchcock; after The 39 Steps, Hitchcock became one of the few directors the public could name, and most of the paths he would take later either begin or were first explored here. About the only Hitchcockian theme missing is psychology, and I know I'm in the minority here, but that is probably a blessing. Sure, he had made spy thrillers with a chase before, but this is the first one where all the elements combined to make a masterpiece. It is still tons of fun today, though I can't shake the feeling that if it first opened today, all I'd hear would be complaints about how unfaithful it is to John Buchan's classic novel; Hitchcock, of course, would continue this trend throughout his career, using a novel's title and character names and little else for many of his films. As in most cases, with the passage of years, nobody really gives a rip. It is the film that matters, and in the grand scheme of cinema, man, does this film matter.
- 94. L.A. Story (1991, Mick Jackson) - And here the tomatoes begin flying. Steve Martin is one of the greatest modern screen comedians, and for my money, this film is his best. On the surface, this may appear to be a simple, flighty romantic comedy, but that really won't do. Not when this film satirizes, savages, and falls head over heels with Los Angeles in much the same way Woody Allen ridicules and loves New York. He often aims for a heightened magical realism that achieves a lyrical beauty to those willing to ride along on Martin's flights of imagination. In many ways, this is two completely different strains grafted into one another - a carving up of reality and an attempt to project the romantic images of the heart into celluloid fantasies on a film screen. I believe it is the tension between these two different beasts living in the same film that keeps this entire affair barely on the right side of cheesy or corny. It is a dangerous tightwire walk, but rather than falling into triteness, Martin walks into magic. L.A. Story largely gave the film world Sarah Jessica Parker and Enya, but it also introduced many to the stunning Victoria Tennant, here the closest thing in the early 90s to a classic screwball heroine (she even has the haircut for one). Have I even mentioned how funny this film is? Counting in the occasional dated scene or slightly-off transition, I absolutely love this film. It is one of the more under-rated films of early 90s, and the absolute best traditional romantic comedy of the entire decade. Really.
- 95. Apocalpyse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) - While it is true that Heart of Darkness was one of my favorite books I read in high school, I really don't believe the structure and story of this film float. They certainly don't carry this along nearly as well as Chief's boat hoists its crew downstream, and yet...There are images in this film as powerful as any ever filmed, and the growing sense of doom, evil and madness barely holds this film together. Sure, it threatens to explode before our eyes as every moment rushes by, but somehow, Apocalypse Now reaches the end of the river still aloft. On the excellent DVD versions, that sickly yellow-green-brown smoke floats off the screen, the rotors swoosh about just above your head, and the explosions are beautifully horrible in their burning, blazing blossoms. This very film is mad, mad as Kurtz ever was, but, amazingly, there is some sort of redemption at the end of its 150 minutes. There are a million reasons to hate this film, but somehow, we love it.
- 96. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann) - I am absolutely convinced that High Noon is more of a tightly-wound suspense thriller than a Western. That damn clock - it dominates the film. Nearly every scene cowers under the face while the second hands race north. High Noon is not even quite an hour and half long, and that is a great thing. The suspense winds so tight, I'm not entirely sure the audience could take much more of the (almost) real time dread. Of course, it is not only this tightly-strung structure that works against the classical Western formula here. John Wayne threw a fit over this film. The sheriff is abandoned by the 'decent folk' of the town and even resorts to begging for help, to no avail. This ain't a pretty picture of America, and the screenwriter, blacklisted Carl Foreman, no doubt understood what it felt like to be abandoned by friends who were simply too chicken to stand up for a principle or a pal. While many believe the revisionist Western began in 1956 with The Searchers, at the very least, the genre started to grow dark in 1952 around High Noon.
- 97. The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin) - Charlie roasting and eating, piece by piece, his shoe, sucking up a shoestring like a strand of pasta. A cabin dangerously balanced on the edge of a cliff, swaying from one side to the other as Charlie develops an unfortunate case of hiccups. Two starving men seeing each other as chicken legs. The backdrop of the California gold rush certainly doesn't scream out with comic potential, but Chaplin manages to forge some of the greatest and most famous bits of hilarity out of a barren winter landscape, even while working in some timely jabs at greed and a touching tribute to unrequited love. Nearing 80 years old, The Gold Rush remains one of the great comedies not by virtue of its influence or its place in Chaplin's career, but by its sheer creativity and warm, often side-ripping, humor. Curious as to how Charlie got his reputation as a master? Rent this today and enjoy.
- 98. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock) - Following Hitchcock's grand, colorful (not to mention expensive) North by Northwest, Psycho was one of the most successful stylistic detours ever created by a major studio and an established director. With a small budget of $800,000, Hitchcock sandblasted his usual production values to a stark, black and white, gritty skeleton, and he chose to use a simple television crew rather than film professionals to shoot his edgy film. The film's script broke many of the very rules of suspense he had spent decades creating, leaving an audience that had learned what to expect from a Hitchcock film lost and completely unsure of what might happen next. With its violence, humor, shocking story twists, perversions, with almost every frame of this daring film, most of the conventions of Hollywood films strained and burst, and we are very fortunate that Hitchcock didn't rest content only to innovate and to shock. He didn't simply raze the rules; he created new ones to take their place. In some ways, this film signaled the beginning of the experiments that broke forth in the late sixties and early seventies to challenge and to change the look, style, and intent of mainstream films forever. I'm staying tight-lipped about the plot for the benefit of the two people in North America who haven't seen this film yet. The fact that I feel like this silence is almost completely unnecessary says volumes of how successful this cutting-edge experiment was.
- 99. It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra) - It is amazing and amusing how often major, multi-million-dollar studios can be so very, very wrong. Annoyed at Clark Gable, MGM, a major film studio, loaned Mr. Gable out to Columbia Pictures, then a rinky-dink, 'independent' studio, in order to teach him a lesson. Because of this punishment, Clark Gable won an Oscar for best actor. The film that was supposed to discipline him was It Happened One Night, the mother of all screwball comedies. Attempting to create sexual tension amid the new, restrictive censors, screenwriter Robert Riskin decided to sublimate the physical yearning into a sparkling script full of wit and conflict. Claudette Colbert is the wealthy, spoiled brat running incognito from her father, while Gable is the cynical, lower-class newspaper reporter who helps her reach New York in exchange for an exclusive, inside article for the newspaper he has recently been fired from. Of course, they fall for each other after several scenes of sharp dialogue and sham scorn. It Happened One Night lifted its director, Frank Capra, to the big league, earned Oscars for best picture, actor, actress, and director, promoted Columbia to major studio status, and set the mold for all screwball (and most romantic) comedies to follow. The story is a formula now, but the glowing banter and smoldering sexuality still can start fires.
- 100. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Jacques Demy) - A unique attempt to bring, simultaneously, the classic Hollywood musical down to earth (with a realistic, working-class story) and to lift it to high-art heaven (with an entirely sung, pop-opera script), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg dazzles with an explosion of color and song that is nearly overwhelming. In many ways, this might be the film West Side Story wanted to be, but this French production has all the juice and style and none of the awful dialogue of that American counterpart. This film revealed Catherine Deneuve to the world while snagging four Oscar nominations (including best original screenplay, not a common achievement for a foreign-language film) and took home Cannes' Palm d'Or and best actress awards. While it is tempting to label this film as the Moulin Rouge of its time, that is unfair to this superior effort; this is the original rule-breaking, doomed-romance musical melodrama, and it is still a mesmerizing delight to watch and to listen to today.
Influence and historical importance mean nothing here. Each and every film is ranked based solely on its own artistic merits. All official theatrical releases are fair game. This is it - the best films ever.
I will be adding entries as time allows. The list is complete, but I wish to write a bit about each movie, so it may be several weeks until all films are listed. I hope to add at least two or three entries each weekday and more if I have the chance.
Creating this list hurt. Great films were left on the cutting room floor, and sadly, I fear movies near the bottom of the list may be looked down upon. Make no mistake - any film on this list is a fantastic work well worth your time. The difference between closely ranked films was microscopic at best.
To prevent this list's size from becoming prohibitive, I am breaking the hundred entries into blocks of ten.