Friday, September 21, 2012

My Misnamed Top Ten Movies List, Part 1

(My brain isn't in to doing a real Friday Favorites for the next two weeks, so this is an unedited,  completely off-the-cuff post on a subject dear to my heart.  Beware of falling blather....)

I mentioned earlier that I had probably 50 or 60 movies in my "Top Ten" list.

And just to test that, I recently sat down and wrote down a list... and ended up with 75. And some really important flicks came in at the end, like Metropolis and Dr. Strangelove.  (And I don't have any D.W. Griffith on there because he was a rascist/sexist jerk, even though he made some pretty fab movies like The Wind.)  And I'm sure, if I were to write down a list of best movies in a couple of weeks, I'd come up with a different 75 titles.

That's how it is with lists of top ten movies.  And songs.  Book people tend to rebel openly at being limited to ten, and seldom fall for it when asked to rank a top ten, but movie and music people seem obsessed with top ten lists.

I think it's a "geek" thing.  It's a way of talking and analyzing and dissecting, and obsessing, about this ephemeral thing we hold in common.  It's also a way of creating that commonality: When we discuss Top Ten lists, it's a way of sharing the titles that mean a lot to us, especially the more esoteric ones.  It's also a way of sharing our thoughts and interpretations as to what makes something great.

In some ways it's about setting and exploring the criteria as much as it is picking the titles.  We talk about artistic achievement or historic value, or thematic importance.

And we usually end up creating sub-lists.  Top Ten Great Cinematic Achievements.  Top Ten Milestones in Movie History.  Top Ten Flicks In Which Things Blow Up for Absolutely No Reason Whatsoever.

When you're doing a basic Top Ten Movies list, though, all of the criteria matter.  It's like every movie gets points for all sorts of things, and those which hit the target in multiple ways. And creating an Ultimate Top Ten List is a way of looking at what is important to you.

This week and next, I'm going to take a quick look at my own personal top ten list.  Here are the first five, (with off-the-cuff notes).

1. Casablanca, 1942

I talked about Casablanca in a recent Friday Favorites post.  In Short: Casablanca beats the pants of any other movie out there.  And that's because it hits every single solitary target on the map.  Depth, artistry, sheer entertainment, historic and creative gestalt, theme, fabulous script, fabulous cast down to the tiniest parts. 

2. The Prisoner of Zenda, 1937

This flick was so beloved of the filmmakers that, when Richard Thorpe remade it in 1952, he had the 1937 version running on a Moviola on the set, so they could copy it shot-for-shot.  And that wasn't really that unusual.  This classic "cloak and sword" swashbuckler was made into movies and plays and comic books and TV shows over and over again.

But the 1937 version is the quintessential version.  Gorgeous black and white cinematography by James Wong Howe, splendid cast (except maybe for Madeleine Carroll, who I felt overplays her semi-thankless role while others get to underplay theirs). 

One of the things that makes this picture so special to me is that the story has all these interesting triangles and reflections in terms of the main characters and their motives and the archetypes they are based on, and the psychological and symbolic (almost mythic) part they play. The unworthy king and his rival, the worthy underling and his rival, and each side has a love triangle.... Interesting stuff, which I will talk about at length in a coming Friday Favorites.
3. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, 1966

This may seem like just another of those silly madcap comedies of the sixties with a huge cast and lots of physical comedy, but it's also directed by Norman Jewison.  The very next two flicks he want on to make were In The Heat of the Night, and The Thomas Crowne Affair.  Jewison was always good at both the commercial side and the artsy side, but right then, he was really one of htose "too hip for words" guys.

The thing that makes this picture stand out, to me, is that it is an all-out silly madcap comedy -- you could watch it without ever realizing there was any real serious intent behind it -- but also it's something more.

It was based on a book which had fun with the same premise: a Russian submarine, at the height of the Cold War, comes too close to shore of Nantucket, and gets stuck on a sandbar.  Soon the islanders and the crew of the submarine are at war, until they can break loose of each other.  The book is silly and fun, but the characters are all stereotypical, and yes, they hate each other, and the story doesn't do much more than exploit the premise.

Jewison took the idea and empathized with all of the characters.  And then decided to make it as an "issue" film -- without sacrificing any of the madcap comedy.  This comedy isn't built on hatred, but on fear.  Many many levels of fear; the fear all the characters have after decades of indoctrination (which the audience shared, and felt acutely) as well as the very realistic fear all the characters had of triggering World War Three.

Jewison went to a LOT of trouble behind the scenes to break cultural ground here.  He got Russian officials to screen it, and in the end broke political ground by not being political, just making a good-hearted movie which could appeal to everyone, regardless of where they stood.

This movie also gets extra points for having my favorite movie line of all time: "All right, I was trying to kill you, I admit that, but it wasn't anything personal."

It also gets extra points for all the Russian parts being in Russian, without subtitles!  And yet it's still clear what's going on.

I'll definitely talk about this one in a Friday Favorites sometime too.

4. A Night At The Opera, 1935

This one kind of stands in for a whole body of work. The Marx Brothers combined multiple kinds of comedy to really invent their own class of comedy.  They combined slapstick and madcap, baggy-pants and wit -- but unlike the silent comics who came before them, they were less cinematic, and stuck closer to their vaudeville roots.  The result was a greater connection with the audience, in some ways.  They wink at the camera, they break the "forth wall" and talk to the audience directly.   Though they open up the geography of the story with film -- which can follow the characters all over and do impossible things -- they still treat the camera as though it is an audience. They move across the stage like it's a stage.

In some ways, you could say that the Marx Brothers broke new ground in film by refusing to break new ground.  They had been performing on stage since they were children, and they had fine tuned their act (to the extent that they often completely add-libbed their lines) and they did what they did, and the filmmakers just had to keep up.

IMHO A Night At the Opera is the greatest of the Marx Brothers flicks.  Duck Soup is close, but I give Opera the edge because the story isn't just an excuse for a bunch of comedy bits.  It works as a whole, too.  Those comedy bits are mostly classics.  The musical numbers work (even the ones for Alan Jones and Kitty Carlisle).  And it's got the Stateroom Scene.

5. Star Wars, 1977

I'm talking here about the version from the original release, not the Ego Redo which Lucas serves us.  The reason it's on this list at all is because it was like a great exploitation film: the story is pure archetype.  It's mythic, and not because Lucas had some great conscious plan. It works because of the unconscious part.

And it's hard, now, to see what it did for audiences back then.  Several of our great optimistic genres were on the ropes.  Science fiction and westerns in particular, and even heroic fantasy, had been sunk in cynicism.  Science fiction in particular, had gone through the New Wave, and was much more intellectual and artsy.  Anything heroic had taken on a satirical edge.

And Star Wars was like this release of energy.  Like an explosion.  It brought that heroic ideal back to the popular culture.  And it worked because it was very plain, very clean.  Just the raw archetypes (cliches, if you will) simply stirred up with other genres.  And it brought back one other thing: during the cynical sixties and early seventies, we saw old time hero stories as like children's stories -- bowlderized, innocent.  The expectation was that good guys didn't die (or kill) and never shot first.

But this is a misunderstanding of those old "innocent" stories.  They were often very cynical too.  They depicted a world that wasn't the good clean place it ought to be.  It was a place full of injustice and suffering, and yes, even some cynicism on the part of a hero.

(So I'm sorry Mr. Lucas, but Han shot first.)

Next week I'll talk about five more flicks on my top ten: as a preview, here is what I think they are:

6. Dr.  Strangelove, 1964
7. The Third Man, 1949
8. North By Northwest, 1959
9. The General, 1926
10. Singin' In The Rain, 1952

But you know, that could change between now and then....

See you in the funny papers.

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