Last week I talked about the top five movies in my top ten list (which actually has about 75 movies in it). The thing you might notice about that top five is that they're all relatively low-brow. That is, they are commercial, accessible entertainment flicks.
The more "important" pictures start showing up on my list at #6 and below. And here is the interesting thing: I change my mind about this list relatively often, and when one of those pictures in the top five drop down, I tend to replace them with something further down the list. The "important" pictures tend to stay in the second tier -- even though I love them, and will watch them forever, and all that.
Because the top of the list is about story. Story story story.
Those top five all put story ahead of artistry. Or to put it another way, the artistry is in service of story.
With "great" film, artistry often likes to step out and take a bow ahead of story, and that's okay too. It's the artistry that keeps the world on its toes. I put the word important in quotes above -- but the artistry stuff really is important. It makes us think and breaks us out of our ruts. The world progresses because of artistry.
But story beats artistry every time, because it gets into our system, almost unconsciously. It's much more potent.
But anyway, on with the list....
6. Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, 1964
If you want to talk about artistry, this movie has buckets of it. The amazing thing about it is how it uses the camera and sound. It's all so still -- the camera sits still and the takes are long, and we see many scenes from a discrete distance. The sound track is mostly just sound effects -- we hear what is in the scene. Music only shows up for punctuation, as ironic commentary on what is happening.
It's showy and a little uncomfortable, because the quietness is the opposite of what you want from the "flavor" of the story. The world is going to come to an end! The Bomb is on its way to being dropped. Fail Safe is being overridden. And the style is persistently quiet and ordinary. The result is a kind of tension that makes everything funny. It's so frustrating you give up.
It's a perfect black comedy style. (It's also an interesting counter point to the other cold war picture on the list - The Russians Are Coming - so maybe I'll talk about the pair of them together someday here on Friday Favorites.)
7. The Third Man, 1949
So if Strangelove has artistry in buckets, The Third Man has it in barrels. It's another Cold War story, but from a time before the Cold War had become terrifying and insane and ironic. At the time The Third Man was made, it was a more personal thing. It was about how politics and bureaucracy affects people.
And so this movie is more relaxed, more a mystery and human story, but it uses some of the same techniques to raise it above the simple thriller plot that drives it along. With The Third Man, the artistry is in service of setting more than plot, but the plot is partly a matter of setting. Vienna is shaken and destroyed and occupied by forces hostile to even each other. But it's still Vienna. Still the city of cafes and a kind of quiet grace. So... every shot is gorgeous, the camera may move and track, or it may sit and wait for characters to travel long distances.
And though it's a thriller, the only music is a running track of zither music (one of the most famous tunes to get stuck in your head ever), which gives a spritely humor to even deadly chase scenes.
8. North By Northwest, 1959
In some ways, I think Rear Window should beat out North By Northwest for the Hitchcock slot in this list. It is by far the more ambitious film -- a great balance of artistry and story, so controlled, so perfect -- but NbyNW will always be my favorite. It was the first movie I owned in Beta then VHS, then DVD.
I think North by Northwest ultimately wins with story. It is the height of Hitchcock's mastery of suspense, but it also harks back to his more accessible, engaging and human stories. It's the very definition of what "thriller" means (or meant until about a decade ago, when it started to mean "horror"); an ordinary man caught up in events so far over his head, he hasn't a hope... and yet he manages to survive and triumph.
9. The General, 1926
I am a huge fan of Buster Keaton. There is just so much great material with him, mostly two reelers (as with so many silent comedians). In my opinion, and without reservation, he is the greatest silent comedian ever. Like Fred Astaire, he had a way of bringing objects to life - to the extent that he often played the straight man to a freaking prop! The prop itself seemed to be giving a great comedic performance.
But the biggest thing about "Old Stone Face" as he was known, is that he embodied a level of quiet determination and focus that made his characters admirable. The General was his masterpiece. (And I mean that in the modern sense of the word - crowning glory of his career.) In it he's an engineer in the South at the outbreak of the Civil War, and some Yankees steal his train. And he chases them down. On foot. Alone.
One of my favorite shots in movie history is in this picture, when Buster has recovered his train and has rushed to town to bring a warning. When he gets there, trains are hard to stop -- they take a long time. Keaton used the timing to set up this shot where the he pulls the break, and the train continues to travel across the screen, while he jumps up and runs along the top of the train -- remaining in the center of the screen (and the center of this distant shot) the whole time. The the train stops and he stops with such perfect comedic timing, it's like they're dance partners.
I wish I could fit more silent movies into the top ten, but this one really does stand head and shoulders above the rest.
10. Singin' In The Rain, 1952
I like musicals, but I am generally bored by at least half of what's on the screen in most of them. Some good numbers... but the story? Meh. Singin' In The Rain, however, has always kept my attention for nearly the whole picture -- with the possible exception of the big "serious" Broadway Rhythm dance number. Even that has too many parts I love to bore me long. There's hardly a moment that isn't clip-worthy. Just pick any moment of that movie and it's... fun.
I've been thinking about it, and in many ways, it's like the whole darn movie is one long, funny, joyful dance number, even where people aren't singing or dancing.
(This movie, by the way, is the only one, other than Casablanca, which is on both my list and on has been in the top ten of the AFI's 100 movies list.)
Well, that's all for now. I may talk again about the 65 alternates for this list, but odds are I'll just talk about them individually and not bother to rank them.
See you in the funny papers.