Fifty Films: a Covid-19 project
My wife, having more or less grown up without film, suggested that we watch a fair sample of films ‘everyone’ has seen but she had not. Only fifty, you say? Well, there are other things to do after all. I’m neither a film historian nor a film buff, so for what it’s worth…
All the President’s Men (1976): Not unlike a Ken Burns epic where there is much early detail and then it leaves you hanging at the end, Redford and Hoffman break the story of the decade and then exit stage left. Still a good lesson in power corrupts given our Trumpist times.
Rear Window (1954): Irascible James Stewart and the perennially perfect Grace Kelly almost let their imaginations run away with them. In spite of her timeless beauty, it is Kelly’s gaminesque exploits that win the day, lightly echoing the period’s male desire for the feminine to become oddly masculine.
Dirty Harry (1971): Cop flick on overdrive features the debut of Harry Callahan, master of cinema epigram. Now did Eastwood make six films in this character, or only five? Guess punk, do you feel lucky? To have seen them all, yes, I do.
Vertigo (1958): Dolly zooms aside, don’t cast your lead and then later complain that he’s ‘too old’ for the part to be believable. What about driving down the wrong side of the highway, or that a national historic site is open at all hours, including its bell tower? The movie’s plot mimics its action. Just climb up and fall off.
Citizen Kane (1941): For six decades the ‘best film ever made’ maintains its relevance by capturing the character of the most dangerous type of modern person; the one who cannot love. Still a far better film than ‘Vertigo’, which for some reason has recently assumed pride of place on the A list, it was itself never the best – ‘The Battleship Potemkin’, ‘Metropolis’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘The Seventh Seal’ and ‘2001’ all come readily to my mind as better films. Nevertheless, the film remains a great work of art if only because the truth upon which it was based is yet more terrifying.
North by Northwest (1959): In what must have been a very mature thriller for the time, Grant morphs from self-interested ‘Madman’ into espionage agent as if he were born to do so. Aside from the ludicrous ten second denouement, this is still a solid film with many famous sequences and a clever plot.
Easy Rider (1969): Disturbing piece of ethnohistory is shot alternatively as docudrama and experimental. Its theme – our persistent and perennial refusal to even attempt to understand one another – is regrettably still current.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Coming at the height of the Suez crisis, this still eminently watchable thriller exhibits the excellent chemistry of Day and Stewart, who appear to have equal agency and wit. Hitchcock’s women were always active and represented a slightly different ideal to the prevailing winds.
Network (1976): Still a reasonable, and very prescient, satire of commodity media. Pythonesque influences abound here a few years after that show went off the air.
On the Waterfront (1954): Early Brando as a naive but gutsy longshoreman is a solid film for its time, though you can hardly hear it through the blaring Bernstein score. Almost as if Lenny went to Kazan and said, ‘shoot me some background footage for my new incidental music’.
Apocalypse Now (1979): New extended version to 3.5 hours has some interesting additional scenes that would have been good in the original cut. Still one of the best films ever made, in my opinion, but the so-called director’s cut is far too lengthy. Even Joseph Conrad would have fallen asleep.
Gandhi (1983): I may be becoming cynical in my old age but this epic left me cool. Amazing film as films go but repetitive and preachy as go narratives. Kingsley himself very convincing, Gandhi not so much.
The French Connection: (1971): Hackman and Steiger engage in one long chase video which includes the famous Harold Lloyd inspired car and train sequence – though Lloyd never actually crashed a vehicle in his chase scenes, just himself. A passable crime thriller supposedly true to actual case.
Remains of the Day (1993): Genius atmosphere but regrettable characters. Hopkins is brilliant as a complete loser and Thompson is basically the female version. A solid contemporary tragedy that just manages to avoid nostalgia.
Five Easy Pieces (1970): Early Nicholson verges on film noir, then in its third and final(?) phase. A slightly interesting character study that must have been a fair sample of such doings during the generational upheaval of the era. Otherwise: huh?
The Mission (1983): Still in my personal top 10, and me not of a religious suasion. Irons is exact in his portrayal of a living ethic and De Niro grasps this only to let it fall from his grip right at the end. Another true account, apparently, and certainly believable. Fantastic film and the winner of the Palme D’Or amongst many others.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Intriguing plot makes this archetypical courtroom drama fairly watchable and current in spite of its length and some dated and sexist dialogue. The fact that over six decades later women are still cast as willing actors of their own demise in many assault cases raises questions about the legal system and society more generally, which this film adeptly initiates given its time period. The snappy Ellington soundtrack and the moment where Stewart and Ellington share a piano also lend interest.
The Exorcist (1973): Almost coherent thriller spawned a new genre that has itself become so tired that the original views brilliantly, with Blair’s command performance well worth the Golden Globe and a should-have-been Oscar. Penderecki’s score adds to the surreal quality of the sequences while we are left to ponder the mortal weaknesses that mark our own very human descents.
The Seventh Seal (1957): One of the great works of art of the post-war period, Bergmann’s solemn meditation on the meaning of life in the face of death yet resonates underneath the shill of the mundane. The Knight’s inordinate pride provides Death with the latter’s in; the former sharing his chess tactic with an apparent monk. That one moment, seemingly too obvious for a film of this depth, reminds us that human genius contains its own tragic character flaw.
Sudden Impact (1980): This is the film with the single most famous line in cinematic history, besting the nostalgic turning away of ‘Play it again, Sam’, the fatalistic resentment of ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’, and even the ominous deadpan of ‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’. It’s not as profoundly pointed as ‘Deserves got nothing to do with it’ but it’s simplicity sums the entire human endeavor; its resistance, its refusal, its dare: it is what existence utters to history, it is what thought utters to the tradition. So go ahead…
Goodfellas (1990): Scorsese’s personalist take on the gangster film brings a fresh view to the sub-genre, with Liotta narrating his biography; a guy who wanted to be something he could not, due to ethnicity and scruple. Another apparently true story and a decent film.
The Matrix (1999): Although it could be generously interpreted as self-satire, this abysmally cartoonish rescript of ‘Metropolis’ has one good thing about it: it makes Fritz Lang look all the more the genius he actually was.
A Walk in the Woods (2015): Gentle journey narrative places aging Redford and Nolte in the position of asking two questions each of us must come to ask: what is the meaning of a life well lived, and have I myself done as much? Since these are both existential and ethical questions, the principles serve as characters in the finest of Greek tradition.
Magnum Force (1973): The second of the Harry Callahan quintet takes its cue from Bond-style action and conspiracy but fashions it into a more realistic and serious ‘Star Chamber’ style plot. Eastwood plays his signature role ‘knowing well enough its limitations’ to make it both believable and entertaining.
Tie me up, Tie me down! (1989): Bathos and pathos meet head on in this Spanish tragi-comedy. Why do I wonder if the theater of mental illness and that of the pornography industry are more closely related than meets the eye? A very good film but one leaving one counting one’s blessings.
The Enforcer (1976): The third ‘Dirty Harry’ film is well known to be the weakest of the five but even here interesting themes such as the novel experience of women in the work force and doing dangerous work to boot are explored, with Tyne Daly, the put-upon greenhorn partner of Callahan, making her case for the later ‘Cagney and Lacey’ TV series.
The Pelican Brief (1993): In this barely passable political-legal conspiracy drama – melodrama? – the subtext seems to be as much about Julia Roberts’ ever-changing hair styles as anything to do with the now – but at least not then – tired opposition between environment and resource extraction. The film owes much to Hitchcock’s similarly gender-paired thrillers but this is not always a good thing. Instead of a ludicrous ten second denouement this one is ten minutes long.
The Man who Loved Women (1977): Truffaut’s good-natured yet poignant tribute to a now rather unfashionable sense of romance is both amusing and all too close to the truth of things. The ‘hero’ is very much a man I recognize, and this makes him more than himself, as it were, even if in the end he is immolated upon his own passions. Sound familiar?
The Dead Pool (1988): By now an expected formula, the last of the Callahan set yet entertains on the once. Eastwood himself stated afterwards that given his age there would be no more as the risk of self-parody was just evident even in this film. Still, a ‘swell’ series of almost archetypical character.
Marnie (1964): Sean Connery (still alive at 89), fresh off the first three ‘Bond’ films in succession, is still not famous enough to displace friend-of-lions activist ‘Tippi’ Hedren (still alive at 90) in the credits of this quite serious piece about child abuse and murder. One of Hitchcock’s last films has strong dialogue and is generally intriguing. It must have been tough on the audiences of the day, but at least the adorable Diane Baker (still alive at 82) really was adorable.
The Hit (1984): The absurdity of life gets in the way of the calculatedness of death. Like watching the Godfather vacationing in Fawlty Towers, Peter Prince’s writerly precision is far sharper than any would-be assassin’s eye.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999): A fluffy piece of inconsequential nonsense, much like the Kidman character herself. I rarely find a need to quote a popular culture critic, but Edelstein’s comments at the time nailed it: “Who are these people played by Cruise and Kidman, who act as if no one has ever made a pass at them and are so deeply traumatized by their newfound knowledge of sexual fantasies—the kind that mainstream culture absorbed at least half a century ago?” At least, given the film is based on a 1926 Freud-inspired novella. The only mystery herein is why Kubrick apparently imagined this was his greatest film. But ask me if I’m going to obsess over that mystery.
Meet Joe Black (1998): Ever-eloquent Anthony Hopkins cannot carry this twice-too-lengthy piece of sentimental nonsense. If you want an authentic understanding of how love can overcome death in life, listen to Mahler 2. Please.
Independence Day (1996): About as gripping as a popcorn epic can be, we are meant to be inspired by a global community that unites in the face of the end of everything. However unrealistic this may be, it is an ideal that is not only worth pursuing, but, specific to our own times, must be achieved.
American Gangster (2007): Another supposedly true story that explores the link between the Viet Nam war and a new generation of drug culture and use in the USA, as well as exposing the largest single police corruption case in US history. Gritty and yet strangely sentimental, the account was apparently so heavily fictionalized that in this specific case Ridley Scott may mean close to didley squat.
Monster’s Ball (2001): This was a surprisingly good film about persons who manage to survive the worst and find a new life outside everything they thought they knew. Not ‘heartwarming’ in the Hallmark Card sense of the term but still a relief vis-a-vis the human spirit.
The King of Hearts (1966): Excellent satire of social organization in all its absurd glory. The question of what constitutes insanity is thoroughly explored and sent up in this unassuming little gem from France. Features a youthful Genevieve Bujold.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1977): And speaking above of ‘huh?’, here Nicholson is a much more well-adjusted persona who plays Abel to his brother’s Cain. Perhaps this is the more subjectivist version of ‘The Big Chill’ of the following year, but a pretty sad affair all round.
Boost (recent): Quebec film about the immigration story is quite good, though inevitably tragic. The sequence in which Canadian identity is defined from the outside in is alone worth the price of admission.
Antigone (recent): Another Quebec hit retells the archetypical conflict between public and private morality, centered once again in the state versus the family. Definitely for young persons, it was still a good take on the narrative, though less convincing for older viewers given Antigone’s own tragic flaw.
Will you ever forgive me? (2001): Sordid but true story of a has-been writer who fakes famous writer’s letters etc. and then gets caught. Not worth making a film about but still entertaining.
The Game (2012): Mike Douglas ends his once endless streak of never being in a mediocre film.
High Plains Drifter (1973): Shot on the abandoned Salton Sea in California, this is an early Eastwood directed film. A decent idea for a western and of course Clint is always appealing as the justice-seeker who has at his disposal unlimited means to find it. Reminds me of some of my saga’s characters.
Amelie (2001): This film became such a cult hit that it almost seems cliché on second viewing. There is something so very Gallic about the whole thing that is both charming but also frustrating. Love may indeed be innocent in general, but surely not of itself.
The Day After (1983): The most horrifying fictional film I have ever seen, and thus the most important. Though we are in fashionably collective denial about the greatest threat to the future, nevertheless that same old threat remains. Watch this film, just don’t watch it alone.
The 24 Hour War (2017): The epic sports car and specifically Grand Lemans battle between Ford and Ferrari in the 1960s is eloquently explored in this fascinating set of interviews, archival footage and contemporary retrospective. Ferrari took the first half of the decade, Ford the second. Either way, a great watch.
All or Nothing at All (1997): My wife and I became instant fans of Frank Sinatra after viewing this poignant and powerful four hour affair. A heroic tale tinged with bitterness presented the man himself as both a larger than life character and one who nonetheless could not master that very life he came to represent.
Williams (2018): Wincingly intimate portrait of one of F1’s most famous racing families, living through both complete success and utter misery. Documentaries like this one almost make me able to forgive the BBC for cancelling ‘11th Hour’.
American Factory (2017): Top notch organizational ethnography about a Chinese reboot of rust belt infrastructure shows the conflict between two systems of labor and production. Practicing Buddhist billionaire Cao’s self-doubts regarding his actions ruining the world appear genuine, and thus one wonders if anyone in either Beijing or DC is listening.
The Road I’m On (2019): Oddly, this was probably the most disturbing film of the fifty on this list. Garth Brooks has apparently become some all-too-certain ‘family values’ propagandist due to his consuming guilt about missing part of his children’s childhood. I didn’t think I could so intensely dislike a celebrity, let alone the seemingly benign, or at least inoffensive and inconsequential Brooks, but after three hours it wasn’t a problem to shoot out the dance.