0034: The 100 Best Films (81-90)
- 81. The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) – This is not a mystery; it is only pretending to be a mystery. Hawks and his many screenwriters do not give much of a damn discovering who did what, because the who and the what that had already happened is that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fell for each other and fell hard. The Big Sleep captures two of the last century’s most charismatic, sexy people crawling the ceiling for each other, and if this film had been simply a documentary, it may well still be a classic. Hawks draped his actors in a sultry, steamy atmosphere and used plot devices to ratchet up the tension. Many critics try to praise second-rate films that are personal favorites by claiming the plot just does not matter very much, but The Big Sleep is one of the few films for which that saying holds true. You feel this film as much as you watch it. You sink into it. It sinks into you, too, until it becomes one dream from which you never wish to wake.
- 82. His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks) – If you have ever watched The Front Page unaware of this film, it is safe to bet that you never thought, “This movie is good, but it would be even better if one of the main characters was a woman instead of a man.” Whoever had that wacko idea was a genius. Hildy Johnson as ex-wife in addition to Hildy Johnson as abused, workaholic employee gives this material a sexual surge that races it far ahead of the excellent original. That brilliant idea married to Hawks’ frenetic pacing and the cast’s abandon to a comic frenzy turned His Girl Friday into one of the finest comedies ever made. Many critics claim it is the fastest film ever created; it certainly is in the competition. Grant and Russell race through ever line, every action is hurried, and even contemporary workplaces seem sluggish compared to this 1940s newsroom. With this battling sexual banter and the film’s occasionally self-referencing jokes, this film fragmented the screwball comedy into a new sliver, one that would resurface gloriously in the 80s with the television program Moonlighting. It is a spastic explosion of chaotic energy, energy infectious and addictive. Like Hildy, viewers are continuously sucked back in to this office’s searing electrical storm.
- 83. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, Walt Disney) – Perhaps one of the only things odder than Disney’s idea to make an hour and a half long cartoon is the actual animated film itself. Disney’s feature-length debut still plays as bizarre as ever. There is the fairytale story, still incredibly Grimm (imagine a modern Disney film discussing cutting hearts out of people). The animation clashes idyllic scenes with the dark realms of nightmares, just as the goofy, unreal dwarfs somehow share the screen with the human Snow White. And just what is it with Snow White’s voice? Walt not only knew the value of the strange, but he also knew that this film would never work as a lengthy cartoon. It had to be a real film, only animated, and it should take full advantage of the weird elements only a drawn feature could realistically provide. So, really then, Disney did not make an hour and a half long cartoon. He made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one of his studio’s best films ever, and the one the public today most sadly overlooks.
- 84. Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) – Hooking a couple of pairs of wagon wheels to Grand Hotel is a laughable idea. Was not half the appeal of that hit the opportunity to peek into wealthy, lush surroundings of the pampered? Move the concept to the dusty trails, and nobody will line up to watch. Besides, Grand Hotel had the big stars to draw the masses. This silly western idea will never attract a huge name. It has no star. It will bomb. John Ford, however, had a huge ace up his sleeve. He had a star; the public just did not know him yet. Maybe Ford did not even realize just how huge his co-worker’s potential was. John Wayne entered that stagecoach a relatively unknown actor, but he left it further down the road to becoming cinema’s biggest star than anybody could have guessed. Not only did Stagecoach boost Wayne’s fortunes, it also reestablished the Western as a major genre. Using Hotel’s idea of throwing diverse characters (including the older film’s alcoholic doctor type) into close quarters, Stagecoach often plays closer to a drama than an oater. That attention to characterization and situation only enhances the tension, even down to the ending that other films copied so often that it is now a figure of speech. Ford’s Monument Valley became *the* old West in America’s mind, and Bert Glennon’s deep-focus photography inspired Citizen Kane, among other classics. Past this staggering influence, however, is an involving story filled with characters, and that is a major part of what makes Stagecoach one of the greatest Westerns, not to mention films, ever made. It dared to make an A-film out of B-movie conventions.
- 85. Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder) - Some films personify a genre, some films create a genre, and some films so completely define a genre, firmly fashioning its every feature, that over time, it nearly plays as a parody. In that last category, Double Indemnity certainly finds its home. Almost every cynical, dark, and thrilling facet of the film noir genre finds its ultimate expression here. Like its main actors, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, this film oozes such a sweaty intensity that any former stereotypical impression of the viewers melts away in minutes. Even Billy Wilder shocks; up to this point, his most successful film was The Major and the Minor, a farce (though one with some seriously dark undertones). Probably few expected him to get down and dirty, and even fewer would have predicted he would be this damn good at it. This is no formula flick. This is a supreme moment in cinema; for many, this is THE film noir. Even more amazing, Wilder somehow got the public to adore this grimy, pessimistic movie, a trick of which his future classics would prove him the master.
- 86. The Wrong Trousers (1993, Nick Park) - Nick Park's classic clay creations, Wallace and canine Gromit, are the heroes of some of the greatest family entertainments yet to grace the screen (even if, at thirty minutes or so each, they didn't grace too many theaters). This is the best of the batch, serving both as a spoof of Hitchcock, Welles, and noir while also effectively mining much of the gold in the very vaults it was gently mocking. What begins as deliciously silly grows amazingly engrossing, and Park proves a terrific director. With the incredible use of music and vantage shots here (that scene with Gromit looking up into his room while that music drones on…), it really wouldn't matter that this short is the result of months of animation work. It could have been live action, and still, it would impress. This is simply a well-made film, and the talent it took to bring its characters to life only deserves additional kudos. The Wrong Trousers won an Oscar, but give it and its partners half a chance and it will win you.
- 87. Blood Simple (1984, Joel Coen) - The first feature of the celebrated Coen brothers, Blood Simple is certainly a product of their early days, before their desire to twist genres overcame their passion for making serious films, before the excessive accents started standing in for true humor, before plot was sacrificed to smug moments of convention deconstruction, before they lost all sense of proportion and gave in to creating two hour jokes that wouldn't be all that funny as short films, before the rot set in, before the fall. Balance is all; not a single element listed above is bad when it works in context. In fact, they are all present here. The script subverts the film noir genre, although here in the service of suspense, surprise, and a grim humor that never completely unravels the film. The accents are there, but they are not overdone to the point of destroying characters in search of lame laughs. The story does mess with many of the clichés of this style of film, but Blood Simple's deconstructive glee is firmly rooted in characters and their unique, realistic reaction to events, and the results of these elements add to the total effect of the film rather than sink it. The cast, including Frances McDormand and the amazing M. Emmet Walsh, share the spirit of the brothers, Barry Sonnenfeld proves a better cinematographer than director, and a little restraint from the film's creators all work to elevate Blood Simple to a towering position not only in the world of independent films, but in the world of cinema itself.
- 88. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott) - So, why is Alien so scary? Sure, there's the creature itself, a sleek, hissing vision from Giger's Freudian nightmares. There's the strange symbolism (again, Freudian) about the . There'sSpoiler: Highlight to viewdestruction of the mother, from the creatures that destroy their living hosts at birth to an oddly maternal ship that is destroyed as it expels its 'child', a slick trick Hollywood can rarely restrain egos long enough to pull off. Really, though, while all these ingredients add to the film, Alien is really frightening because it seems so real. The film often has the grain of a home movie, and the improvisational nature of the crew camaraderie seems incredibly natural and unstaged. The exposition is slow and woven into the scenes with an unassuming grace. Even the special effects have a gritty, grimy, dim presence you never see in these CGI days. Like the worst bad dreams, this film seems so believable, even as the horrific happens, that the viewer never knows what will happen next, and when something does happen, it resonates with a force rare for a feature film. Opting for a style closer to a documentary than an expensive science fiction film, Scott crafted a chilling vision. This spawned several sequels helmed by some great talent, but none of Alien's offspring can challenge the harrowing intensity of this brutal mother.Spoiler: Highlight to viewthe clever way the credits bury the name of the sole survivor
- 89. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Woody Allen) - Woody Allen worships Ingmar Bergman's artistic blend of philosophy and art, and he furiously worked to create his own concoction of these two realms at least since 1978's Interiors. One of his problems, however, is that he simply loves Bergman too much. Too often, these attempts have come across as cheap Bergman parodies rather than original works, and while a few remain interesting, none of them could really compete with Allen's other films until 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Why? Because Crimes and Misdemeanors aims at the same Bergmanesque results, but instead of coping the master, Allen uses his own style. As a result, the mixture of comedy, drama, and metaphysical exploration is convincing and natural rather than forced and reverential. A great cast, terrific script, and surprisingly well-developed symbols entertain while they provoke thought and even disturb, and Allen seems sure of himself throughout the whole affair. The result is a movie with a deceptive yet incredible power; you'll laugh out loud at times, but you will be left uneasy at the end. It was Allen's second masterpiece in four years, and one of his very best films in a career full of highlights.
- 90. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Robert Wiene) - All critics hail this film as a major, influential milestone in cinematic history, but it is difficult to determine just what this milestone marks. Over eighty years after its creation, this strange film still startles and captivates with its alien landscapes, its freakish lighting, and its dream / nightmare ambience. It is a hallucination that lasts under an hour, yet you are likely to dwell upon it for weeks. What exactly has it influenced? Nothing too strongly. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari walks a thin line between the accessible and the experimental, the surreal and reality, and not too many films have since been bold enough to inch that close to the edge. Still, it has seeped into the mainstream in watered-down streams. It is certainly one of the earlier horror films, and its expressionist tone would cast a huge, if not always easy to detect, shadow over early German films. From there, it has even bled, however diluted, into Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Brian De Palma, and Tim Burton. It also chose to dwell in the psychological elements of horror; sure, there are threats of physical danger, but one always feels a strain on sanity as well as on corporeal safety. Forget that, however, and just watch the film. It is one of the greatest films from the sadly forgotten silent age, and you will be amazed at the world you find here, even if you usually hate films without dialogue. This film will claim you.
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.