May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
May 20, 2009
A month or so ago I spied a new edition of Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die at the bookshop. I’ll say right off the top, I’m conflicted: as much as I dislike being told what I have to do – in order to be a good enough human being, one of the cool kids, a literate cinephile – that’s about exactly how much I love lists. I’m always on the hunt for the next terrific film, the next aesthetic experience, the next encounter with God, the next belly laugh. Tell me I need to do my homework and dutifully make my way through a required reading list of cinematic texts, I’ve got no interest. But tell me about movies that lots of movie-lovers love, you’ve got my attention.
Paging through the fifth edition of Schneider’s apparently annual tome, I got to wondering which films I no longer needed to see before I die: what got bumped from the list to make room for the now-obligatory flicks newly added? Which led to a spreadsheet, tallying which titles appeared in which of editions. (Turns out that since the first edition came out in 2003, there are 55 titles that have been deemed essential in one volume or another which we no longer need worry about cramming in before kicking this mortal bucket. Good to know.). Which led to a tally of the 1000 films John Walker deemed essential in Halliwell’s Top 1000 (2005), then The New York Times Guide To The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004).
While Roger Ebert’s series of Sunday film essays The Great Movies was never meant to be a complete (or obligatory) list of any sort (which suits me just fine), I couldn’t help being curious about how his almost random picks of films he loves would correlate with the volumes already mentioned, which aimed to be more comprehensive or definitive. Then I started to wonder how an especially highbrow selection – the once-a-decade Sight & Sound Critics and Directors poll, which named about 80 films on their combined 2002 list – might stack up. Balancing that with what is arguably the most populist tally available – the IMDb Top 250 movies (as voted by their users) – and tossing in another web-based effort to round things out – the 1000 top films listed at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They – I had in hand a pretty slick little spreadsheet. (If you’ve got Excel, let me know your email address and I’ll send you a copy.)
Turns out there are thirty films that show up on every single list. Steve and Rodge and Johnny like ’em, auteurs and critics and plain old movie buffs like ’em. Probably not going to go wrong with this batch. Here they are.
2001 – A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968, UK)
The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959, France)
8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963, Italy)
The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960, USA)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979, USA)
The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948, Italy)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982, USA)
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942, USA)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974, USA)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941, USA)
City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931, USA)
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, USA)
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, USA)
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962, UK)
M (Fritz Lang, 1931, Germany)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927, Germany)
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954, USA)
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, USA)
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980, USA)
Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985, Japan)
Rashomon (Akira Kurusawa, 1951, Japan)
The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954, Japan)
The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden)
Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952, USA)
Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959, USA)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927, USA)
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950, USA)
Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, USA)
Taxi Driver ( Martin Scorsese, 1976, USA)
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949, UK)
A Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958, USA)
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948, USA)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA)
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939, USA)
Now that summer’s here and the dreaded superheroes have begun their annual takeover of my local movie houses, I’ve queued up the fourteen of those flicks I’ve never seen (or never seen all the way through) and started watching.
I began with The Apartment (Billy Wilder, USA, 1960) – because it’s my movie-buddy’s favourite film and I thought it would be fun to watch it with him, because I’ve only seen three or four Billy Wilder pictures and couldn’t help noticing BW ties Kurosawa for most films on this list, and because I had a hankering to visit Manhattan. An auspicious beginning; thoroughly engrossing, the movie nods in the direction of several genres without settling into the predictable patterns of any.
And I can see why my pal Jason loves it so: a film-maker himself, he is a student of screenwriting, and this is an extraordinary script, utterly economical, where every detail is either a set-up or a pay-off (or both), without feeling contrived or formulaic.
Some cinephiles feel the film falls short of greatness in not being particularly visual, that “it’s all screenplay.” I see what they are saying: there’s something more thoroughly cinematic in Tarkovsky or even Fincher. (But then, they didn’t make the list, did they…) The Apartment feels almost like a play – which is no objection at all for me, a live theatre guy. It focuses on character, as revealed through story, and that story is rooted in dramatic action (choice / action / consequence) that unfolds in relationship (rather than fight scenes, chases and explosions), expressed through dialogue (rather than, well, fight scenes, chases and explosions).
A detail I particularly admire: when Dr Dreyfuss finally tears into our hero, C.C. Baxter, chastising him for his womanizing and self-serving irresponsibility, challenging him to “be a mensch,” the good doctor has it all exactly wrong – yet it’s exactly what Baxter needs to hear. There’s real artistry in that sort of writing: Wilder is able to speak directly to the heart of the situation, but the dramatic irony of misunderstanding makes it palatable for us. It doesn’t feel on the nose because it’s so far off the mark – and yet, so completely true.
As much as we don’t want characters to preach, I think we go to stories to hear truths spoken, or to watch them lived out, and we thrill to characters who finally say what needs to get said – so long as they earn the right to say it, and say it true, and say it well. It feels almost prophetic. We sense that Dreyfuss is a thoroughly good, thoroughly human, character – a mensch. From the outset, he senses something wrong in the heart of his next door neighbour, he perceives an absence of integrity, and his diagnosis is right: the fact that he misunderstands the specific details of that soul-compromise only adds to the weight of the essential truth when he speaks it. He may get the facts wrong, but he reads the heart unerringly: he’s not correct, but he’s wise, and when he speaks, it is transformative.
Next up, Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959, USA), then Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950, USA). If the fifties continue to appeal, maybe Sweet Smell Of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, USA) and A Touch Of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958, USA) after that, or maybe I’ll jump the pond and savour another movie pal’s great favourites, Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985, Japan) and Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1951, Japan).
Looks like a fine movie summer after all.