Thursday, November 11, 2010

Zagat's got nuthin' on Steve's Top 20

By Steve Evans

Zagat is known for ranking restaurants, but recently got into the film-ranking bidness by releasing a top 20 list of rather predictable titles. The Godfather and its sequel, Part II, topped the Zagat list. Yawn.

These sorts of things are calculated to create buzz for Zagat out of nothing by sparking conversation and perhaps even controversy through the release of an arbitrary list built around a handful of opinions. Since theirs are no better than yours or mine, I'll let you in on a secret...pssst: wanna know the real top 20 films of all time? Ol’ Cinematic Cteve will tell you…

20. John Houston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Houston directed his dad Walter to an Oscar and gave Humphrey Bogart one of his best roles as the paranoid prospector Fred C. Dobbs, whose lust for gold elevates the plot beyond a mere western thriller with elements of noir. Greed, loyalty, madness and redemption are themes Houston explores in this dark window into the soul.

19. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Still an effective shocker half a century later, even when you realize what’s coming, as almost anyone past a certain age already knows. Pure filmmaking from a master. The ultimate in audience manipulation, as Hitch shifts our loyalties from one character to the next until we are spinning in a vortex toward the shocking reveal. Film critics fell over themselves studying this little tale of a boy and his mother.

18 Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient. Doomed love is still love – and better than no love at all in this film of contrasting stories set before and in the waning days of World War II. Exquisitely photographed with finely-detailed performances all around, this multiple Oscar-winning tale of love and regret features career-defining work from actors Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, who won an Oscar, with able support from Kristen Scott Thomas and Willem Dafoe. No matter how many times you see it, The English Patient will make you sob helplessly as the poor choices of these doomed characters lead inexorably to an inevitable conclusion.

17. Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. If a Ménage à trios by definition must ultimately be doomed, the protagonists of Jules and Jim are damned as well. Luminous Jeanne Moreau serves as the troubled object of the title characters’ affections, although neither man ever really understands her appeal to their collective and everlasting regret. Jules and Jim is the archetype of the French nouvelle vague and one of the great classics of the second half of the 20th century.

16. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. A brilliant, chaotic, hallucinatory depiction of war and madness, each linked inextricably to the other. Coppola pushed his vision to the edge and almost fell over into the abyss as chronicled in the great documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of this film. This picture could serve as the textbook for a course on cinematography. Stunning set pieces, such as the unforgettable helicopter raid set to Wagner and Robert Duvall’s immortal speech about napalm.

15. Carol Reed’s The Third Man. “I remember old Vienna….” So begins this post-WW II noir as a low-rent writer of pulp Western novels arrives in Austria to meet a friend who, as it happens, is already dead. The novelist is always one step behind the weary cynics in devastated Vienna as he tries to solve the riddle of Harry Lime and his mysterious associates. Seldom have so many evil characters been portrayed with such disarming charm.

14. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. A finely-oiled machine built exclusively to terrorize, this film owes more to the Oscar-winning editing than anything a then-27-year-old Spielberg brought to the table in his sophomore directing effort.

13. Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The Bolshevik Revolution altered the course of 20th century history. Potemkin changed the course of world cinema. While Team America spoofed the cliché of montage, Eisenstein showed how it was done and how this editing technique could be used for maximum effect.

12. Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game. The son of an Impressionist painter provoked outrage among the French bourgeois with the release of this fascinating look at class and society. Ambitious in scope, yet intimate in execution, this is a quietly devastating social commentary as relevant today as it was on release in 1939.

11. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The picture that introduced Americans to the notion of art-house cinema is practically redolent with symbolic imagery. Max von Sydow famously plays a game of chess with Death, but oh, there’s so much more.

10. Henri Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. This sordid tale of four desperate men transporting nitroglycerin through the South American jungle may be the most suspenseful film ever made. It’s also one of the mostly sharply drawn portraits of the toll taken by American Imperialism on people who have no choice but to deal with the (lousy) hand of cards they are dealt.

9. Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! This supremely surreal allegory follows the rise, fall and redemption of one Mick Travis, coffee salesman (Malcolm McDowell), as he wrestles with greed, avarice and ambition. With the radiant Helen Mirren and keyboardist Alan Price, whose songs serve as a sort of Greek Chorus, commenting on the strange meanderings of the plot in this fantastic film.

8. Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. The title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance.” The picture is a highly stylized exploration of beautiful landscapes juxtaposed against the horrors of an urban existence. This provocative, mind-expanding and deeply disturbing film is perhaps more relevant today than it was on its release in 1983. Features the ultimate use of music by minimalist composer Philip Glass.

7. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Three friends go to Vietnam out of a sense of misplaced patriotic duty that lingers even after two of them return. Cimino paints a rich, vivid portrait of working-class life and simple American values, where no one questions government policy and the query of “why?” is always answered with “because.” Stunning. Heartbreaking. Unforgettable. The scene in the POW camp may deliver the 15 most unbearably tense minutes yet committed to film.

6. Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. A masterpiece of pantomime and poignancy, with a heart-rending final scene. The Little Tramp contemplates economic struggle and saves a blind girl. Dare you not to cry.

5. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. One of the greatest of all action films, all the more so because it is driven by character first and mayhem second. We care about what happens to these warriors and the villagers they are paid to protect. Get the Criterion edition.

4. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. De Niro’s greatest performance. A mesmerizing and tragic character study of a life twisted inside-out and left hollow by sadomasochism. It’s also a boxing picture for people who hate movies about boxing.

3. Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Individuality and iconoclasm clash with bureaucratic authority in this deceptively simple morality play set inside an Oregon asylum for the insane. As the unyielding Nurse Ratched, Louise Fletcher creates one of the most vile and ultimately dangerous characters in cinema history.

2. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Greatest cinematic satire of all time. This film will tell you everything you need to know about political power, class struggles and the disingenuous maneuverings behind government policy, with a spot-on examination of the human condition. “I’m singin’ in the rain….”

And the greatest film of all?

Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. One of the most purely enjoyable pictures ever made, this is a movie constructed like magic on a foundation of nothing. The plot collapses under close scrutiny, but why would you bother? It’s all such glorious fun. Cary Grant plays Cary Grant. James Mason embodies suave villainy. Eva Marie Saint is the woman they both want. Classic set pieces include the crop-dusting biplane chase and the desperate climb acrosss the faces of Mt. Rushmore to a literal cliff-hanger climax. The picture contains everything a movie lover could ask of the cinema, with the greatest double-entendre closing shot in the entire Hitchcock oeuvre.

Cinema Uprising copyright (c) 2010 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.