[7 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Truth be told, this is pointless. You can’t usurp the powers that be—even if they are among the members of your own peer group. Last week, the British Film Institute through its seminal magazine, Sight & Sound, unveiled its decennial list of the Best Movies of All Time. A compilation of hundreds of entries from artists, writers, critics, journalists, filmmakers, scholars, and other VIPs, it’s become the benchmark for the always questionable discussion of what, exactly if the greatest achievement in the history of the cinematic artform. The news, of course, was not good for those who’ve championed Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane for the last half century. The winner turned out to be Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and by a margin wider than one might imagine. One masterpiece beating out another.
Perhaps more disturbing was the lack of variety in the choices. While some favorites fell out completely (Singing in the Rain, Battleship Potemkin), the usual celluloid suspects appear present and accounted for… meaning, aside from the order, it’s more or less business as usual. For us, however, there are dozens of movies that deserve to place higher than some of the selections. We love Sunrise, but think there are better examples of the silent film format out there. Man with a Camera might signify the start of the documentary movement, but why not celebrate some true found art? As consolation, we offer up these ten titles, alternates to any of the otherwise unexceptional choices out there and each one, dare we say it, capable of walking toe to toe with said titans. We aren’t suggesting that the battle between Kane and Vertigo is void, just that there is something more special than The Searchers.
We aren’t slagging off S&S, just letting them know that, in order to be a bit more inclusive, they should broaden their hemmed in horizons. In alphabetical order, here are our suggestions…
Robert Altman may have made more popular films (M*A*S*H*, The Player) or more critically acclaimed efforts (Nashville, Short Cuts), but if one is looking for something truly special from the amazing movie maverick, this is it. Supposedly arriving via a troubling dream and then fleshed out with the help of his female leads and collaborators, Altman crafted a clever, complicated look at gender, personality, and the acceptance/rejection of both circa the arid deserts of Southern California. Shelly Duval and Sissy Spacek were never better, and as a statement of cinematic purpose, few can argue with its artistry. A honest to goodness masterpiece.
David Lynch came close to making the Top 20 in the S&S list, though it was for his brilliant deconstruction of the Hollywood dream factory, Mulholland Dr. For our money, this is the title to include from one of America’s most complicated auteurs. In fact, if the list were to include anything remotely close to experimental, Lynch’s loony look at love, marriage, children, and the horrific responsibility that comes with all three would be front and center. Like the best dreams, it’s non-linear, allegorical, and insular. Like the list supposedly celebrates, it’s visionary.
Horror has been around as long as cinema. As a matter of fact, one of Edison’s first experiments with the medium was a take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A Best of List without a fright film is, therefore, incomplete (or at the very least, snobbish). Considering that William Friedkin managed to make William Peter Blatty’s novel about demonic possession and into a meaningful metaphor for the growing generation gap argues for its import outside the genre. Even now, some forty years removed, it is a riveting piece of storytelling… and it’s still scary as Hell.
In clamoring for some comic recognition, we are going way back to before there was such a thing as an ‘old school’. Instead, we will focus on the founders of film funny business, and while Chaplin gets all the glory, we prefer our wit with some wild cinematic invention as well. That’s why The General is here. Not only does Keaton excel in the always complicated realm of physical shtick, but he does so within a truly epic dynamic. The train sequence is often viewed as one of the best, most inventive comic action scenes of all time. We agree.
Again, it’s time to champion an underrepresented genre… in this case, the documentary. Sure, Man with a Movie Camera is included, but it’s more important as a landmark than an actual entertainment. No, when Albert and David Maysles stumbled upon the story of the fallen relatives of Jackie O, they got the best of all movie worlds. Within the dilapidated East Hampton manor were two classic characters, a marvelous backstory, and reels of fabulous footage. Today, Big Eddie and her similarly named daughter would be relegated to some ridiculous reality TV side show. Here, they shine like the stars they are.
The Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining the past for their perfectionist postmodern motives. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods—they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.
You can have The Searchers. You can keep John Wayne and his flag waving pilgrim jingoism. As brilliant as that movie is, with all its flash and dramatic flourishes, this is where the Western was destined to go. Dirty, defiant, and dark, dark, dark, Sergio Leone infused the stodgy cinematic stereotypes with a foreign fire that burns even brighter today. While some still favor his Man with No Name Trilogy, this is the title that cements the spaghetti western’s import as a postmodern precursor. It also established Leone’s legacy as a legitimate master… where he remains to this day.
Another genre missing from S&S’s so called conclusive list is animation… and who better to represent the motion picture MIA than the man who turned cartoons into classics, Walt Disney. Some may argue for Snow White, or the far more experimental Fantasia, but when it comes to showing off the best of what the pen and ink approach has to offer, nothing can compare to this rich, robust take on Collodi’s celebrated character. Meticulous, detailed, both heart-stopping and heart-breaking, it cemented Disney’s idea that the fledgling film format could compete with the big boys. The proof is pure imagination.
Quentin Tarantino may still be the punchline to an indie item’s fad gadget dismissal, but no one can deny the power of this near-perfect film. Like a shot of aesthetic adrenaline placed directly into the motion picture pleasure centers of your brain, the ex-video store clerk turned cultural lynchpin took your standard cops and robbers routine, subtracted the law, and let his amazing way with dialogue drown everything in couplets of quotable splendor. Sure, there’s an insular cleverness that always keeps the audience guessing, but the results are so resplendent we’re happy to wait until later to figure it all out.
Yes, S&S has this poised at number 17, meaning it actually makes the Top 20, but it should be placed a lot higher than it is. A lot higher. Kurosawa’s influential epic may seem like nothing more than a stayed action thriller with sword wielding warriors battling baddies to save a small village, but it’s much more than that. It’s statement of Japanese pride, a post-war compact on a still warm national wound. It’s also an influential blueprint for the kind of ensemble excitement that would come later, with efforts like The Magnificent Seven (a direct remake) and The Wild Bunch.