A couple weeks before the spring semester ended, one of the students in English 425 (Film Studies) asked if I would make him a list of my top twenty movies. I said I would try, but wasn’t sure what I could offer. I didn’t have one at the ready, not having kept these sorts of lists since I was in about seventh grade, making and circulating lists of my Top 10 songs around the classroom. (I recall with some embarrassment that “Hotel California” was way up there.)
The problem today is that I like too many movies, and have seen enough in the last decade or so that I barely remember many of them. Shortly after I started teaching English 425, around 2004, I made a point to spend many hours each summer catching up on essential films, directors, and traditions that I had missed along the way. Once, I watched ten Bergman films in a little over a week. I was amazed and moved by them all, but only Persona and Scenes from a Marriage have remained distinct in my mind. I did the same with Antonioni, with Kurosawa. Impossible to pick a top 20 from among these, to say nothing of the much larger cohorts of 1940s and 50s Classical Hollywood and noir films that I watch again and again, or the New Hollywood films (Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II) that first showed me that there could be more to film than escapist entertainment.
I gave up quickly on the effort to make a definitive list, and instead decided just to write up short descriptions of the first twenty or so movies that came to mind when I thought about movies that seem great to me. This list is quite predictable, I suspect. It has no consistent aesthetic, though it is skewed heavily towards my classical Hollywood comfort zone and to the auteurs (Hitchcock, Kubrick) that first ignited my fanboy enthusiasm for film. They are in no particular order: “first to knock, first admitted,” as Saul Bellow put it.
If anything holds them together, it’s that even the heaviest among them (2001, Children of Men) give some sort of characteristically cinematic pleasure, and even the lightest (Casablanca, His Girl Friday) provide something to think about.
Since the summaries were written for students in this spring’s class, they refer here and there to the films we watched together. Most of these would go on my list of great films as well, but I didn’t include them here since the students already know them. They were: Sherlock Jr. (Keaton, 1925); It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934); The Conversation (Coppola, 1973); Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954); Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941); Shutter Island (Scorsese 2010); Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944); Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947); Nightmare Alley (Goulding 1947); Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989); Fruitvale Station (Coogler, 2013).
Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
Still more disturbing than Shutter Island, which is an homage to it. It’s an extreme exercise in focalization, as well
as a psychoanalytic nightmare, set largely in sunny, outdoor locations in San Francisco. Scotty (James Stewart) is an ex-policeman who has a fear of heights resulting from a past trauma (paging Dr. Freud!). He has been hired to follow the disturbed wife (Kim Novak) of an old associate. Or has he? The British Film Institute recently bumped this to number 1 on its all-time list.
The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941)
One of the many alleged “first film noir” candidates. Humphrey Bogart leads a great cast from Warner Bros. talent-laden bench of character actors. At the end, you may not be able to disentangle the plot. But the old-style classical acting and the snappy dialogue are very pleasurable, and Huston, working with a small budget on soundstages, comes up with some memorable visual compositions.
The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)
Very lyrical, but it nonetheless makes the medieval European countryside in the grips of the Black Death seem utterly real. What else is there to say about this movie except that, late in the plot, a guy plays chess against death, and you totally buy it? A beautifully concretized, highly philosophical film that reaches a place of sublime, insightful ambiguity on the tension between belief and agnosticism.
Hannah and Her Sisters (Allen, 1986)
Influenced by Bergman, this is the high point of the New York, group-of-interconnected-intellectuals phase of Woody Allen’s career. Funny, real, moving. Among the most convincing characters you’ll ever see.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948)
What Humphrey Bogart could do when he got to play the bad guy. There’s a very Marxist critique of capitalism at the center of this story of three freelance gold-miners whose unconventional play for “upward mobility” gets the best of them.
Casablanca (Curtiz, 1943)
Deluxe popcorn. Possibly the high point of the classical Hollywood studio machine, this World War II era propaganda piece is
set in exotic Morocco but all filmed in Burbank CA on the back-lot. It’s pure hooey, but irresistible, partly because of the cast (much of which came straight over from The Maltese Falcon) and partly because of Michael Curtiz’s gorgeous direction. If your eyes don’t moisten just a bit when they sing “Le Marseilles,” your heart is made of stone.
Goodfellas (Scorcese, 1990)
Do I really need to say anything? Scorcese deftly orchestrates the swirling pleasures of the moving camera—a style that would become excessive in his later films. The best voice-over in film history. (See Sunset Boulevard below for another contender, besides Double Indemnity.)
2001 A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
Very demanding on the viewer; requires and rewards close watching. Admirable for its sheer audacity. Formalist to the nth degree. They had good drugs back then.
The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, 1935)
Hitchcock before he moved to the U.S. It’s amazing what he can do with sexual innuendo without seeming to do a thing. Very brisk, absorbing narrative, with some dark Freudian corners lurking if you look closely. The best of pre-Paramount Hitchcock.
Laura (Preminger, 1944)
Right up there with Vertigo in its shrewd, implicit commentary on the male gaze, the idealization of women, etc. Dana Andrews, a superb Classical Hollywood leading man, is the protagonist who doesn’t want to be made a chump. The femme fatale is already dead when the movie starts: she’s the hottie in the painting. (Or is she?). This was the inspiration for Twin Peaks.
Melancholia (Von Trier, 2011)
Certainly one of the most radical films to ever make it into reasonably wide distribution. A depressed, unstable woman gets
married in a very long scene that is both realistic and trippy. We fast forward a few months, and she’s back at her sister’s house recovering; meanwhile a planet is heading towards the earth, so this might be the end of everything. It will blow your mind. Formalism on steroids.
The Best Days of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)
This movie made explicit what was implicit in the noirs. A serious, social-problem picture about men trying to reintegrate after World War II, it follows the fortunes of three men returning to a fictional, all-American mid-size city. That might sound stiff and unpromising, but the screenplay is tight as a drum, the director is William Wyler and the cinematographer Greg Tolland (of Citizen Kane), and the appealing cast includes a non-professional actor who actually did lose his hands in a munitions explosion. Moving and absorbing despite its length and earnestness.
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964)
Still probably my favorite of Kubrick’s (he also did 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket), a formalist black comedy about the cold war; at once dark and frightening and very funny. The phallic shape of nuclear missiles, it suggests, is not incidental. The talent of Peter Sellers, who plays three roles, is stunning.
Mildred Pearce (Curtiz, 1947)
More high-grade studio-system corn from the director of Casablanca. The pulp novel it’s based on is a stunningly feminist take on the discontents of a divorced mother of a bratty teen. The film mixed in an improbable film-noir murder plot. Insanely, it works, largely on the strength of Joan Crawford’s Oscar-winning performance. More than that: if the sanctity of the nuclear family is one of the fundamental building blocks of American ideology, then this movie’s dark vision of upward mobility makes it one of the most radical movies to come out of the studios. You won’t be surprised to see Mildred’s insurgent energy re-contained at the end, but not before she kicks much ass.
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)
Like Mildred Pearce, this is a noir-hybrid, with a Hollywood behind-the-scenes plot mashed up with the noir-ish protagonist, who is the source of one of the top three or four voice-over narrations in film history. (See Goodfellas above.) William Holden plays a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who, avoiding repo men, turns into the driveway of possibly insane silent film star Norma
Desmond, played by actual silent film star Gloria Swanson. Bad stuff ensues, including a monkey funeral and cameos by a number of silent film stars and directors. Director Billy Wilder also gave us Double Indemnity and a half-dozen other classics.
Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001)
Watch this in the same week as Sunset Boulevard, to which it alludes liberally. Along with Sunset Boulevard, Altman’s The Player, Singin’ in the Rain, and Sherlock Jr., this is in the pantheon of great movies-about-movies. Count the ways in which this movie messes with your expectations about what a movie should do.
Short Cuts (Altman, 1993)
Most people would say M*A*S*H is the indispensible Altman film, but I find this rambling, tragicomic look at life on the middle- to lower-middle-class margins in southern California imperishable. Based on the short stories of Raymond Carver, the film has a set of very loosely linked characters go through life-altering experiences, all expressed in a ruthlessly realistic way. (P.T. Anderson would riff on this, dispensing with the realism, and any hint of subtlety, a couple years later in Magnolia). A huge cast of great actors includes Tim Robbins, Tom Waits, Lily Tomlin, Julianne Moore, Robert Downey Jr. Another dark film set in sunny California (see Vertigo, Chinatown).
Fargo (Coen Bros, 1996)
Seriously, I don’t have to say anything about this, right? Every time I watch it, I’m sorry when it’s over.
Bad Day at Black Rock (Sturges, 1955)
A contemporary western and a bracing anti-racist film. Spencer Tracy plays the U.S. government official who has shown up in Black Rock, a tiny town on the remote western plains, to deliver a purple heart to the father of a Japanese-American soldier who fought in World War II. He finds out that something very, very bad happened in Black Rock. Will he get out alive?
His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
A screwball comedy with a strong heroine and more wisecracks-per-minute than you can keep up with, which makes this suitable for multiple viewings. “Hi Mildred, how’s advice for the lovelorn?” “Fine, my cat had kittens again.” “It’s her own fault.”
Children of Men (Cuaron, 2006)
Very skilled realist film-making in a lacerating diagnosis of the imminent environmental crisis and its connections to global inequality. Very fresh and surprising.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Del Toro, 2006)
Along with Children of Men, this film heralded new cinematic ways of being profoundly and effectively political without being preachy. I’ve never felt as invested in the fortunes of a protagonist as I did in the just-pre-adolescent girl at the center of this film. Stunningly inventive.