Archive for the ‘Top 50 Countdown’ Category

Top 50 Countdown - #1

Saturday, December 5th, 2009


Once Upon a Time in the West


Year: 1968

Director: Sergio Leone

And so my Top 50 Countdown finally comes to an end. Except it doesn’t. After all, I want to do justice to my favorite film. I have much to say about Leone’s great Once Upon a Time in the West and so look for my review coming soon. In the meantime you can read a little something I posted a while ago here.

Top 50 Countdown - #’s 10-2

Friday, December 4th, 2009


Once Upon a Time in America


Year: 1984

Director: Sergio Leone


With shootouts, murders and Prohibition speakeasy parties aplenty, Once Upon a Time in America is, no question, a virtuoso genre piece, but Leone also manages to transcend the gangster genre, transforming it into an exploration of the unreliability of memory, the subjectivity of truth, and the ephemeral nature of time by filtering everything we see through the hazy prism of his elderly ex-gangster protagonist, Noodles (Robert De Niro), a man haunted by his perceived betrayal of his best friends 35 years earlier. Through a series of flashbacks, always triggered by Proustian links between the past and the present, Noodles, worn and withered by time, looks back on his botched life and eventually realizes that he was not the betrayer but the betrayed.

As Noodles, De Niro gives one of his finest performances. He’s especially good as the elderly incarnation of Noodles, movingly expressing his characters’ deepest emotions, particularly his sense of regret, through the poignant inflections of his line readings and his equally poignant facial expressions and bodily movements - a particularly nice touch is the way he walks slightly hunched over, as if he were carrying the weight of 35 years of crushing guilt. Aided immeasurably by Ennio Morricone’s genuinely haunting score, Once Upon a Time in America achieves an emotional profundity of Proustian proportions, and often seizes this viewer with a paralyzing sense of melancholy.

Read about my favorite scene from the film here






Year: 1960

Director: Alfred Hitchcock


Hitchcock might have been playing the audience like a piano with Psycho, but he gets great support from Bernard Herrmann’s famous screeching violins and from Anthony Perkins, who stutters and stabs his way to a legendary performance.

Listen to Herrmann’s menacing strings-only score here while reading my longer review of the film here.




Taxi Driver


Year: 1976

Director: Martin Scorsese


The definitive study of loneliness, alienation and insanity, Taxi Driver achieves a rare authenticity through 1) disturbing voice over narration that sounds as if it were lifted directly out of an actual diary of a crazed loner, 2) grainy location shooting that looks as if the grime of the streets was captured on the very film stock and, above all, 3) De Niro’s frightening portrayal, which digs so deeply to the core of his unbalanced character that he doesn’t seem to be acting the part of Travis Bickle so much as manifesting a deeply disturbed side of himself.




The Godfather Part 2


Year: 1974

Director: Francis Ford Coppola


As the film flashes back and forth between Vito’s rise to power at the beginning of the century and Michael’s moral/emotional downfall in the ‘50s, Coppola crafts a thematically sophisticated, visually stunning and emotionally powerful epic chronicling, among other things, the ruination of the traditions and values of family, a theme which enables Coppola to transcend the particulars of the gangster genre and give his film universal significance.

Read my longer review here.




2001: A Space Odyssey


Year: 1968

Director: Stanley Kubrick


Eschewing conventional storytelling techniques, Kubrick’s quasi-mystical tale of humankind’s evolution from primitive ape-man to angelic Star-Child (the final evolutionary leap of which hinges on man’s ability to harness the potentially destructive nature of his technology, here embodied by Hal, the all-too-human computer run amok) employs an elliptical, ambiguous narrative structure which greatly deepens the enigmatic, mysterious power of this visually and aurally stunning sci-fi masterpiece. Remarkably, the farther Kubrick’s spaceships traverse the far-flung expanses of deep space, the deeper the film penetrates the equally mysterious recesses of the mind, resulting in an odyssey through both outer and inner space, ultimately leading to a mind-blowing climax in which the infinitude of space and the consciousness of Man seemingly become indistinguishable.




Kind Hearts and Coronets


Year: 1949

Director: Robert Hamer


Hamer once said about Kind Hearts and Coronets, a witty, literate satire of British manners and murders about a disgruntled castoff of an aristocratic family who murders his way to the dukedom, that he was trying to make a film that was 1) “not noticeably similar to any previously made in the English language” and that 2) “paid no regard whatever to established moral conventions”, and given the utter originality and dark, irreverent wit of the resulting film one would have to conclude he succeeded brilliantly on both counts.

Read my longer review here.




Sherlock Jr.


Year: 1924

Director: Buster Keaton


Forty-five minutes of pure, unadulterated cinematic joy, Sherlock Jr. has been widely celebrated for its surrealistic exploration of cinematic illusion, notably in the justifiably famous sequence in which Buster enters a movie screen and becomes bewildered by the editing process, but the rest of the picture is equally as impressive, boasting a series of masterly, impeccably timed gags, each one rounded and complete with hugely satisfying payoffs, which will have you smiling appreciatively, laughing hysterically, or staring at the screen in utter amazement wondering how the hell he just did that.






Year: 1974

Director: Roman Polanski


Brilliantly realizing Robert Towne’s fascinating screenplay about corruption in the L.A. water department, Polanski fashions a knowing homage to film noir, a thoroughly engrossing mystery tale, and a penetrating examination of personal and political corruption, using color photography every bit as expressively as the light and shadows employed in older B&W noirs, and benefiting from both John Huston’s delicious turn as the sinister Noah Cross, whose greedy abuse of the land mirrors his sexual violation of his daughter, and Jack Nicholson’s superb turn as P.I. Jake Gittes, a man whose attempts to exorcise the ghosts of his past only succeed in creating more for himself.




The Third Man


Year: 1949

Director: Carol Reed


Featuring stylish direction, an intelligent script, stunning photography/location shooting, superb performances, notably Orson Welles’ unforgettable turn as despicable villain Harry Lime, and topped off by Anton Karas’ famous zither score, The Third Man is one of those rare productions in which all the elements fortuitously cohered into a seamless masterpiece.

Read my longer review here


Top 50 Countdown - #11

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009


McCabe & Mrs. Miller


Year: 1971

Director: Robert Altman




Altman’s stated intention in making McCabe & Mrs. Miller was to “destroy all the myths of heroism”, and the result is so thorough a revision of Western movie mythology that the abiding impression one is left with might best be described by an ironic inversion of that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the facts become legend, print the facts.” Instead of glorifying the pioneering spirit, Altman depicts a harsh portrait of pioneering life (and death) in the wintry Northwest. Instead of celebrating rugged individualism, Altman shows Big Business running roughshod over the small businessman. Instead of mythologizing heroic gunmen, Altman presents a hero hardly worthy of the appellation. Far from being the noble larger-than-life savoir of civilization from western movie lore, Beatty’s John McCabe, though rumored to be the gunfighter who shot a bad hombre named Bill Roundtree with a derringer, is actually a belching, heavy-drinking, two-bit gambler and businessman who operates a profitable, “high-class” bordello in a small frontier town with his partner and lover, Mrs. Miller, an ambitious, no-nonsense, opium-addicted English madam.



Apparently lacking any loftier sense of purpose, McCabe is just trying to survive in a dangerous environment and to find a little female companionship. Finding said companionship is made frustratingly difficult by the noncommittal Mrs. Miller, who bewilders McCabe by steadfastly making him pay for sex with her (she’s less a hooker with a heart of gold than a hooker with a heart for gold), while simple survival becomes a dicey proposition when a powerful mining company, upset with McCabe after he turns down their offer to buy the town, enlists the services of a hired gun to take him out, ultimately leading to a climactic gunfight in the snow between McCabe and a ruthless bounty hunter and his merciless henchmen (one of whom murders likable Keith Carradine in one of cinema’s most devastating death scenes). As Mrs. Miller lies zonked out on opium and the rest of the town scurries to put out a church fire, the outnumbered and overmatched McCabe makes a poignant last stand against his murderous adversaries, and when in the end he whips out a derringer, the gun with which he reputedly shot one Bill Roundtree, we’re forced to reassess everything we thought we knew about the seemingly unheroic John McCabe. Perhaps Altman found room for the legend, after all.




Other notable elements:

• Production designer Leon Erickson’s meticulously hand-constructed sets have a remarkably realistic “lived-in” quality:

• Vilmos Zsigmond’s stunning cinematography beautifully contrasts the overcast, wintry barrenness of the outdoors with the sepia toned amber glow of the candlelit interiors:


• Altman’s free form style is at its best, using overlapping dialogue and skillfully improvised performances to further enhance the film’s naturalism.

• Leonard Cohen’s haunting songs. Critic Danny Peary once wrote, “If you aren’t one of singer-composer’s Leonard Cohen’s eleven fans, beware of the soundtrack.” Apparently I’m one of the Cohen Eleven because I think his folksy ballads add immeasurably to the film’s elegiac mood. Listen to “The Stranger Song” here.

Top 50 Countdown - #12

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Year: 1966

Director: Sergio Leone


 “The Good”

clinteastwood1.jpg Clint Eastwood as Blondie, a super cool bounty hunter

“The Bad”

angeleyescleef1.jpg Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes, a super bad mercenary

“The Ugly”

tucogbu1.jpg Eli Wallach as Tuco, a super talkative trickster


Leone’s nihilistic, survival of the richest view of the Wild West reached its peak in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a hugely entertaining picaresque adventure tale about a trio of cunning rogues searching for a hidden cache of gold during the Civil War. “I had always thought that the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense”, Leone once said, “and it seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western.” Clint Eastwood is “the good”, Lee Van Cleef “the bad” and Eli Wallach “the ugly”, but morally speaking there’s very little distinction between them; you could rearrange the labels without making much difference. After all, throughout the film the “good” guy, bearing no resemblance to the traditional Hollywood Western hero, cheats, steals, lies and kills out of pure, unadulterated self-interest. Shane, he ain’t. And Wallach’s Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez somehow emerges as the film’s most sympathetic character, despite having committed the following litany of crimes, as read by his would-be executioner:

tuco01df01.jpg ”Wanted in fourteen counties of this State, the condemned is found guilty of murder, armed robbery of citizens, state banks, and post offices; the theft of sacred objects, arson in a state prison, perjury, bigamy, deserting his wife and children, inciting prostitution, kidnapping, extortion, receiving stolen goods, selling stolen goods, passing counterfeit money, and contrary to the laws of this State the condemned is guilty of using marked cards and loaded dice…assaulting a Justice of the Peace, raping a virgin of the white race, statutory rape of a minor of the black race, derailing a train in order to rob the passengers, highway robbery, robbing an unknown number of post offices, counterfeiting and passing counterfeit money, promoting prostitution, intention of selling black fugitive slaves, hired himself out as guide on a wagon train, after receiving his payment in advance, he deserted the wagon train in the hunting grounds of the Sioux Indians, misrepresenting himself as a Mexican general in order to receive a salary and living allowance from the Union Army…”

Said Leone, “my most profound sympathy always goes towards the Tuco side…he can be touching with all that tenderness and all that wounded humanity.” Only Leone could make a greedy, gluttonous, garrulous little troll like Tuco a sympathetic figure!


Leone was also interested in “showing the absurdity of war”, a theme which becomes particularly evident when Union and Confederate troops engage in a pointless battle over an insignificant bridge. Watching the carnage unfold Blondie says, “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly”, the key phrase of the film according to Leone. Even Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, the baddest of the bad, shakes his head with a mixture of pity and disgust when he sees the wounded and maimed at a Union encampment. For Leone the actions taken by his three protagonists for purposes of private gain are child’s play next to the wholesale carnage resulting from warfare.


Much of the film’s humor derives from how the Civil War keeps intruding upon the trio’s relentless pursuit of personal profit. In the end the only thing separating them from their coveted gold is this mindless battle and Tuco and Blondie respond by simply blowing up the bridge! Now with the inconvenient Civil War finally out of their way they are free to continue their quest for the gold, which ultimately leads to the quintessential Leone sequence: the now-classic survival of the quickest three-way showdown between the good, the bad, and the ugly.

good-showdown1.png       good-bad1.png       21-2.jpg

The trio square off in a circular arena (or do they triangle off?) and ritualistically stare each other down with all the drama and sense of anticipation of a corrida. As the first few notes of Morricone’s mariachi trumpet lament sound Leone’s “dance of death” begins, slowly cutting back and forth between virtually abstract shots of glaring eyes, ready hands, and loaded guns. With Morricone’s iconic music keeping pace the tempo of the editing steadily quickens, getting faster and faster until the sequence builds to a remarkably intense crescendo and finally ends with a near-orgasmic spurt of potent violence.

This, my friends, is cinema.

Top 50 Countdown - #’s 15-13

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009



Singin’ in the Rain

Year: 1952

Director: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen

Thanks to Comden-Green’s knowing screenplay, which sharply satirizes Hollywood types and hilariously parodies the industry’s awkward transition to sound pictures, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the best movies about movies ever made, whether in the musical genre or not. Mix in the musical numbers, most of which are among the genre’s most memorable moments, including, of course, the ebullient title number, and the film now becomes not just one of the best movies about movies ever made but also the greatest musical ever made - all of which is to say that Singin’ in the Rain is simply one of the greatest movies ever made…period.

To read my longer review click here




Miller’s Crossing

Year: 1990

Director: Joel Coen

Arguably the Coen brothers’ best film, Miller’s Crossing boasts an impressively labyrinth plot, memorably stylized dialogue, a superb score, and several stunningly executed, incredibly violent set-pieces, notably the electrifying Tommy gun shootout cut to the sorrowful strains of ‘Danny Boy.’ But it’s Gabriel Byrne’s brilliant performance as Tom Reagan, a gangster boss’s brainy right-hand man who’s so hell-bent on outsmarting everyone around him that he ultimately outsmarts even himself, that gives the film genuine emotional heft and elevates it to the very top of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre: like the anti-heroes of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, Tom slyly plays both sides against the middle and ultimately emerges victorious - but, in his case, at a great personal cost: in the process he loses both his best friend and his girl, ending up as the last man standing and perfectly alone. Happiness for Tom seems to be as tantalizingly elusive as the haunting image of that hat blowing away in the woods.




The General

Year: 1927

Director: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman

Featuring an endlessly inventive string of impeccably executed gags centering around Confederate engine-driver Buster’s indefatigable efforts to retrieve his stolen train (and his girl) from Northern spies, The General, whose expressive camerawork, imaginative editing and painterly compositions brilliantly expand and enrich Buster’s comic purpose, proves once and for all that Keaton possessed a far greater command of the visual possibilities of the medium than Chaplin.


Top 50 Countdown - #16

Monday, November 9th, 2009



Crimes and Misdemeanors

Year: 1989

Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen: “I just wanted to illustrate, in an entertaining way, that there is no God and that we’re alone in the universe, and there is nobody out there to punish you. That your morality is strictly up to you. If you’re willing to murder and you can get away with it and you can live with it, that’s fine.”

Woody fully understands that a universe devoid of God cannot have an absolute/objective moral structure and that without such a structure moral rules can be no more than arbitrarily agreed upon conventions, mere human constructs which render notions of right and wrong utterly meaningless. Whether one chooses to observe a particular moral rule, say, thou shall not murder, becomes an entirely subjective matter, no more obligatory than, say, the rule instructing us not to split infinitives. In a godless universe everything, Dostoyevsky wrote, is permitted. And nothing, I would add, ultimately matters. The bleak implications of nihilism are more than most can bear, and religion and morality are the boards and beams out of which great bulwarks of comforting delusion are constructed against the harsh truths of nihilism.

But Woody is not interested in providing comfort, and the film’s theme, that God and morality are mere figments, couldn’t be bleaker. Few filmmakers dare to consider this issue, let alone base an entire film around it. That Woody Allen, one of the screen’s great comedians, should grapple with so troubling an issue with such uncompromising rigor is a testament to his intellectual courage. It is a theme Woody has been preoccupied with for years, but never has he explored it as profoundly as he does in Crimes and Misdemeanors, a bold, thought-provoking masterpiece about injustices big (crimes) and small (misdemeanors).


The weightier of the film’s two stories (both in terms of subject matter and screen time) introduces us to renowned ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau). In the opening scene he is being honored for his “philanthropic efforts” at a banquet with family, friends and colleagues. Judah, you see, is a pillar of the community - a charitable man, a good family man, an important man. So, then, why does he look so uneasy? In flashback we learn that the good doctor has been living a double life, carrying on a clandestine affair with a highly unstable woman, Dolores, who is now threatening to expose his dirty secrets - not just marital infidelity but financial indiscretions too. Worried and confused, Landau seeks the counsel of two very different people: his rabbi friend and patient (who is, significantly, going blind) and his mob-connected brother. The rabbi talks to him about a “moral structure to the universe” and urges him to come clean; his brother has a more pragmatic solution: deep-six her. In the end Judah rejects the rabbi’s “moral structure” because he simply values his marriage, his stature in the community, and his privileged lifestyle more than Dolores’s life. “I will not be destroyed by this neurotic woman,” Judah declares, and so he hires a hitman to dispose of his troublesome mistress.

After the deed is done Judah, wracked by guilt and tormented by thoughts of eternal damnation, endures a few long nights of the soul. But his crisis of conscience, triggered by long dormant religious beliefs he has rejected, soon passes. One day he wakes up and realizes that nothing is going to happen to him. He is not going to be punished. He has gotten away with murder. His life returns to normal, as if nothing had ever happened, as if Dolores had never existed. And he’s happy. In a flashback Judah remembers a relative of his commenting about a hypothetical murderer: “if he can get away with it and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he’s home free.” Judah is living proof. The title of Woody’s film recalls Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but although both novel and film deal with murder and its (moral) consequences Woody’s handling of the issue departs radically from Dostoyevsky’s by removing the “punishment” from the narrative equation: there is no higher form of justice to which Judah can be held accountable because God is simply not part of the fabric of reality in Crimes and Misdemeanors. In such a cold, indifferent universe, where innocent life can be snuffed out and sucked into the vacuum of eternity without consequence, where can one possibly find solace? In romantic love, perhaps?


Alas, Woody casts a suspicious eye even at romantic love in the film’s other story, which stars Woody himself as a serious-minded but financially strapped documentarian, Cliff. Out of financial considerations he reluctantly agrees to shoot a documentary profile of his brother-in-law, Lester, an egotistical, superficially charming, and hugely successful producer of TV sitcoms. Lester’s lofty opinion of himself, however, is matched by Cliff’s low opinion of Lester. Cliff regards Lester as a pompous ass and a phony and holds him in utter contempt, even as he envies his wealth, success and popularity (especially with the ladies). But Cliff, whose marriage is falling apart, thinks he’s found a kindred spirit in Halley (Mia Farrow), a television producer who takes an interest in the “important” documentary Cliff is making about an obscure philosopher (who espouses a life-affirming philosophy of love and ends up killing himself); even better she seems to see through Lester’s superficial charm.

But in the most emotionally devastating moment in Woody’s work, Cliff has his worst fear realized when he sees Halley and Lester arrive together at a social event. Speechless and dumbfounded, Cliff can only impotently stare at the couple as he tries to process the stunning reality of seeing the woman he loves on the arm of the man who represents everything he loathes. In this heartrending moment of crushing disillusionment Woody Allen demolishes the concept of True Love. How, Woody seems to ask, can we possibly believe in genuine romantic/spiritual love when our affectations are so often determined by the superficially pleasing attributes of others (looks, charm, wealth, success etc.), when men seemingly come equipped to deposit their seed in the nearest nubile young thing (Cliff’s documentary catches Lester hitting on beautiful actresses) and when women, no matter how independently minded they may be, tend to gravitate toward “alpha males”, no matter how shallow and conceited they may be?

Crimes and Misdemeanors

The two stories dovetail beautifully in the great final scene between Judah and Cliff, who strike up a conversation during a chance encounter. Their meeting might sound like a contrived narrative device, but in the film’s context it feels absolutely right and necessary. Unlike the blind rabbi, Judah and Cliff have had their eyes opened and see the world the way it really is rather than the way they would like it to be. Their discussion inclines toward the philosophical when Judah describes a movie plot about a man of wealth and privilege who gets away with murder. When Cliff suggests that the man should turn himself in at the end to give the story tragic proportions, Judah scoffs at the notion, “if you want a happy ending you should go see a Hollywood movie.” In Crimes and Misdemeanors, no Hollywood movie, Woody peals away human delusion and exposes a most unpleasant truth: we’re flailing away blindly in an amoral and godless universe bereft of cosmic justice, spiritual love and ultimate purpose. Oh yeah, it’s funny too.

Top 50 Countdown - #’s 20-17

Saturday, October 17th, 2009



Touch of Evil

Year: 1958

Director: Orson Welles

Finally given the opportunity to direct with a free reign after being stymied for years by short-sighted studios, Welles responded with a stylistic masterpiece of unparalleled virtuosity, as if years of pent-up creativity and artistic inspiration were finally released and came gloriously gushing forth onto Welles’ cinematic canvas. With its bizarre camera angles, distorted visual effects, expressionistic lighting, and offbeat editing, Touch of Evil - in which crackerjack Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and formidable U.S. police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) butt heads in a seedy border town after Quinlan plants evidence on a Mexican national accused of the car bomb murder of a rich U.S. developer - seems to be taking place less on the Mexican border than in some nightmarish, shadowy netherworld, populated by sleazy criminals, degenerate weirdoes, world-weary whores and corrupt cops wallowing in all manner of perversity in and around dark alleyways, seedy bars, and squalid hotels.

From the justly celebrated opening three-minute traveling crane shot which follows the abovementioned car until the ticking time bomb attached to it explodes, to the exciting, tension-packed climax in which Vargas tricks Quinlan into implicating himself with a concealed wire, Welles’ direction is beyond reproach. But as in Citizen Kane the great director also delivers the film’s finest, most memorable performance. Oozing corruption from every oily pore of his grotesquely bloated body, Welles’ Quinlan fits right into the film’s sleazy milieu, yet he’s no simple heavy. On the contrary, he’s a complex figure whose unconscionable actions in the present appear to be motivated by a tragic event in the past that continues to haunt him - his wife’s murder and his subsequent failure to bring the culprit to justice. So traumatic was this experience, which resulted in his tendency to plant evidence, that he was never the same afterwards, his sense of justice having been compromised and his true potential undermined. Calling upon his prodigious acting skills, Welles manages to generate sympathy for his fatally flawed character and to endow him with the stature of tragic hero: Even though Quinlan sold out his integrity long ago, we sense that, like Kane, he could have been a great man.




Double Indemnity

Year: 1944

Director: Billy Wilder

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for the money. And for a woman. And I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” With those words, perhaps the most memorable of Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s endlessly quotable script, Walter Neff just about sums up the despairing, doom-laden essence of film noir. Like many film noir protagonists Walter finds himself caught up in a world of greed, lust and murder, after having been ensnared by and manipulated into carrying out the nefarious schemes of a seductive, duplicitous femme fatale, unforgettably played here by the sizzlingly sexy Barbara Stanwyck. By the time Walter realizes he’s been played for a fool his fate is already sealed, for his overpowering sexual obsession for Stanwyck has led him inexorably down the path to betrayal, murder and, ultimately, his death. Many similarly themed films followed in the wake of Double indemnity but none quite matched its bleak tone of existential despair and romantic fatalism, which set the standard 60 years ago and continues to captivate us today despite scores of imitations and parodies. Brilliantly written, powerfully acted, impressively photographed and moodily scored, Double Indemnity remains the quintessential film noir. _______________________________________________________________



The Manchurian Candidate

Year: 1962

Director: John Frankenheimer

Drawing on then-current fears of McCarthyism, communist infiltration and psychological brainwashing/conditioning, The Manchurian Candidate is both a ripping good yarn and a savvy political thriller which doesn’t really endorse one ideology over another as much as it condemns fanaticism, both Right and Left, while reserving its sympathies for the victims of such extremism. Raymond Shaw, the son of a prominent, right-wing political family, is one such victim. Brainwashed into unwittingly carrying out assassinations as part of a diabolical communist plot spearheaded by his own mother (Angela Lansbury in a legendary performance), the poor sap is pulled back and forth between the left and the right until he’s stretched to the snapping point and finally reduced to a mass of twitches with a rifle in his shaky hands and a McCathyesque demagogue and a Communism mole in his blurry sights. By the end Shaw can barely tell the difference between the two extremes, and neither can we, which is precisely the point, and that’s why his elimination of both the demagogue and the mole, respectively representing the far Right and far Left, carries as much symbolic weight as it does emotional power. _______________________________________________________________



North by Northwest

Year: 1959

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

After the relative box office failure of Vertigo, Hitchcock regained his commercial eminence with this classic espionage comedy-thriller, a hugely entertaining mix of humor, suspense and romance in which The Master revisits with a vengeance some of his favorite - i.e., quintessentially Hitchcockian - narrative situations/thematic preoccupations: an ordinary man (Cary Grant, superb), after being mistaken for a government agent, is falsely accused of murder and suddenly plunged into a dangerously chaotic situation about which he knows nothing, forcing him to go on the run and travel incognito; a plot built on a series of mistaken identities and revolving around a “MacGuffin”, here the attempt to prevent a spy (James Mason, also superb) from smuggling microfilm containing Top Secret information out of the country; a romance begun under false pretenses, here between Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who unbeknownst to Grant is a government spy/double agent posing as Mason’s mistress; a cliffhanging climax occurring atop a famous landmark, here Mount Rushmore.

North by Northwest also features a typically dynamic Bernard Herrmann score, several virtuoso set-pieces, including the famous crop-dusting sequence, justifiably celebrated for its slow, disquieting build-up - “that’s funny, that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops” - to the expertly edited plane attack on the bewildered Grant and, perhaps above all, Ernest Lehman’s witty, wonderfully complicated screenplay, surely the finest ever written for a Hitchcock film, which not only boasts great dialogue but also includes sophisticated themes about the nature of role-playing and the disparity between appearance and reality*, lending a thematically rich subtext to the film’s wholly enjoyable thriller elements.

* This is, perhaps, the ultimate film in which nothing is at it appears, with every single character playacting in one way or another : Grant assumes the identity of the (nonexistent) government agent for whom he’s mistaken; Saint poses as Mason’s lover; Mason masquerades as a UN Diplomat and wealthy art collector. Mason and Grant even allude to the role-playing games in this superb exchange of dialogue:

Mason: “Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles severely, Mr. Kaplan? It seems to me you fellows could stand less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actor’s Studio.”

Grant: “Apparently, the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.”

Mason: “Your very next role. You’ll be quite convincing, I assure you.”

Top 50 Countdown - #’s 25-21

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009




Year: 1965

Director: Roman Polanski

One of the creepiest visions of madness ever put on film, Repulsion stars Catherine Denueve as a deeply disturbed, man-hating young woman whose distorted perception and disintegrating mental state is reflected in a frightening array of unnerving sound effects and hallucinatory imagery.

To read my longer review click here




Citizen Kane

Year: 1941

Director: Orson Welles

So much has been written about Welles’ masterpiece that there isn’t much I could say about it that hasn’t already been said. So let me just say this. Years ago I watched Citizen Kane in a film class and I remember being particularly impressed with the professor’s analysis of the film’s innovative use of deep focus photography. He showed three scenes back-to-back - Kane being taken away from his parents; Kane signing away ownership of his empire; and Kane getting caught in the love nest - and pointed out that in each case Kane is relegated to the background, small and powerless, while the characters determining his very future are shown in the foreground, large and powerful. After demonstrating these interesting visual/thematic parallels the professor simply turned to us students and said, “and that is art”, and I’ve never looked at a film in the same way again. _______________________________________________________________



Mulholland Dr.

Year: 2001

Director: David Lynch

Like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Lynch’s mesmerizing film occurs entirely in the mind of his dying protagonist, “Betty”, a would-be Hollywood starlet who (re)casts herself in her near-death fantasy as the heroine of a mystery story, the solution to which only leads her back to the grim reality. In telling Betty/Diane’s sad story Lynch and Naomi Watts - whose shocking transformation from a naïve, endearingly optimistic aspiring actress named Betty to a disillusioned failed actress and jilted lover named Diane is utterly astonishing - expose the filthy underbelly of Tinseltown, whose glittery surface conceals a darker reality of shattered dreams, broken hearts and lost identities.




Gun Crazy

Year: 1949

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

In B-movie maestro Joseph H. Lewis’s low-budget masterpiece, the gun crazy lovers Bart and Annie meet carnal (not cute) at a fair where Annie, looking incredibly sexy in cowgirl garb and holsters, works as a trick shot artist. Bart is impressed with Annie’s sharpshooting prowess, and after he beats her in a shooting contest, she’s equally impressed with his. Rarely has the gun-as-phallic-symbol been as explicitly presented, as Bart is clearly turned on as much by Annie’s skillful handling of guns as she is by his prodigious gunmanship. It’s love at first shot. Their sexual obsession for each other only intensifies as they embark on a robbery and murder spree across small-town America of the forties, climaxing with an astonishing three and a half minute bank robbery sequence shot in one fluid, continuous long take from a camera positioned in the back of their car, a technically innovative, stylistically bold idea which thrillingly makes the viewer an accomplice in their crimes. From the extraordinarily erotic beginning to the tragic yet passionately romantic conclusion in which the trapped, doomed lovers clinch for the last time before the cops move in, Lewis’s fast-paced, imaginatively directed, sexually charged lovers-on-the-lam tale is cinema’s supreme expression of amour fou. ______________________________________________________________


Sweet Smell of Success

Year: 1957

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

In a career best performance, Burt Lancaster is utterly brilliant as J.J. Hunsecker, a power-mad Winchellesque gossip columnist who reigns supreme in the dog-eat-dog NYC newspaper world. His clipped tone, icy stares and steel-rimmed glasses are intimidating enough, but it’s his withering words that create the real damage. Operating within a noir inflected milieu of atmospheric B&W photography and jazzy music, Hunsecker sadistically destroys people with the business end of his pen and delivers devastating verbal daggers at the psyche with the pinpoint accuracy of a master archer shooting a poison arrow through the heart.* But J.J.’s absolute corruption is not fully revealed until his incestuous feelings for his sister compel him to break up her romance with a virtuous nightclub musician. To accomplish this he enlists the services of his smooth-talking press agent, Sidney Falco (a magnificently slimy Tony Curtis), to engineer a frame-up of the boyfriend. Because Falco’s professional existence depends on the blurbs Lancaster deigns to give his clients, he’ll do anything to get in J.J.’s good graces, so he latches on to the columnist like some fawning, eager-to-please mutt with an immaculately coifed hairdo (he’s Tony Curtis, after all) and willingly carries out his dirty work for him, ultimately leading to near-tragic consequences in this bleak, cynical study of greed, corruption and the abuse of power.

* Here are a few of my favorite Hunseckerisms, courtesy of screenwriters Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, whose great script is overflowing with quotable dialogue:

“You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried”

“Here’s your head; what’s your hurry?”

“Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?”

“I often wish I were dead and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.”

“This man is not for you, Harvey, and you shouldn’t be seen with him in public. Because that’s another part of a press agent’s life - he digs up scandal among prominent men and shovels it thin among columnists who give him space.”

“Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not one - none too pretty, and all deceptive.”

“Everybody knows Manny Davis - except Mrs. Manny Davis.”

“My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”

“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

“Sidney, this syrup you’re giving out with… you pour over waffles, not JJ Hunsecker.”

“The brains may be Jersey City, but the clothes are Traina-Norell.”

“Sidney, conjugate me a verb. For instance, “to promise”.”

“Match me, Sidney.”


Top 50 Countdown - #’s 30-26

Sunday, September 13th, 2009



The Wizard of Oz

Year: 1939

Director: Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz owes its enduring appeal not only to the captivating fantasy world created by its eye-popping Technicolor photography, imaginative set designs, memorable special effects, colorful costumes, catchy songs, and wondrous characters, but also to the film’s reassuring message which teaches us that, like Dorothy, we too can take control of our own destiny and successfully navigate down the yellow brick roads and through the haunted forests and poppy fields of life.


To read my longer review click here





Year: 1979

Director: Woody Allen

Using beautiful black-and-white widescreen compositions and Gershwin’s gloriously evocative music to capture the essence of his romanticized vision of NYC, Woody’s sublime romantic comedy - in which his character breaks up with his seventeen year old girlfriend, Tracy, and begins an affair with the mistress of his married best friend, only to realize, perhaps too late, that he’s made a mistake - makes you want to celebrate the things that make life worth living, like Brando, Groucho, the second movement of the Jupiter symphony, Tracy’s face and, yes, Woody Allen movies.





Year: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Hitchcock once referred to Jaws as “that fish movie”, a comment that might reflect a bit of professional jealousy, for Spielberg struck a collective nerve with film audiences and preyed on our elemental fears - of monsters from the deep rather than from the sky - in a way that nobody but Hitchcock ever has, a feat accomplished with sharply cut suspense sequences worthy of The Master and a chilling score featuring the most memorable ostinato since those screeching violins from Psycho.





Year: 1931

Director: Fritz Lang

One of the best of the early talkies, M not only benefits from Peter Lorre’s legendary performance as the pudgy, sweaty child killer, whose guilt-ridden speech before an underworld kangaroo court - “I can’t help myself!” - is at once deeply chilling and surprisingly sympathetic, but also from Lang’s creative use of sound and image, such as Lorre’s unsettling off-screen whistling of an eerie tune from Grieg’s Peer Gynt whenever he stalks a victim, or a mother’s desperate calls to her missing daughter echoing on the soundtrack intercut with poignant shots of the child’s empty spot at the dinner table, leaving us to imagine the gruesome details of her murder. ______________________________________________________________


Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Year: 1964

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Like Kubrick’s great Paths of Glory, Strangelove is an equally stinging indictment of the military mind, though here straight drama is replaced by a black comedy in which gung-ho warmongers, paranoid madmen obsessed with “precious bodily fluids”, venal Russkies, humanoid Nazi Doomsday Machine bomb makers, and rodeo cowboy bomber pilots engage in an absurd conflict that can only result in their mutual destruction, concluding appropriately with that yahooing cowboy riding a huge phallic missile to oblivion, a fitting final image of life as we know it and proof that the world will end not with a whimper but with a bang.

Top 50 Countdown - #’s 35-31

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009




Year: 1953

Director: Luis Buñuel

Buñuel’s most scathing, wickedly funny attack on the Church, El explores the irrational jealousy of a respectable churchgoer, whose deeply ingrained sexual neuroses, firmly rooted in the repressive practices of the Church, come to the fore soon after his marriage, sparking within him paranoid suspicions of his wife’s unfaithfulness and ultimately compelling him to attempt a ghastly act against her person using a needle and thread, pathological behavior which ironically drives her into the very relationship it was intended to prevent.


To read my longer review click here.




Bride of Frankenstein

Year: 1935

Director: James Whale

Featuring gothic sets, expressionistic lighting, stylish direction and Franz Waxman’s glorious score, Bride of Frankenstein mixes humor, scares and pathos to astonishing effect, leading to a deliriously staged Grand Guignol climax in which the Bride, that funky corpse with the lightning-streaked hair, breaks the Monster’s decomposed heart with her repulsed “Eeeek!”




This is Spinal Tap

Year: 1984

Director: Rob Reiner

A spot-on send-up of the sexist lyrics, thundering music, ostentatious stage shows, pseudo-profound philosophizing and internal feuds and breakups of the typical heavy metal band, This is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen, featuring inspired improvisational performances by Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher “these go to 11″ Guest, who not only created hilarious but credible characterizations but also wrote all the Spinal Tap rocks songs, including such classics as “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm”.





Year: 1999

Director: Alexander Payne

Never mind that the story is set in high school, Election is one the most politically astute films ever made, a sharply written, hilariously irreverent satire of the election process featuring a truly great cast of characters, notably Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, an all-American go-getter whose cute-as-a-button looks, chipper demeanor, and school girlish attire disguise the vindictive, conniving, power-hungry little egomaniac within, traits that help her win the election and pave the way for even higher political office in the future.

To read my longer review click here





Night of the Living Dead

Year: 1968

Director: George Romero

George Romero’s landmark debut, Night of the Living Dead, remains one of the greatest of all horror films, one depicting a world in which the human species is literally consuming itself as a consequence of its voracious appetite for violence and destruction, offering a frightening pitch-black vision of human nature that departs as far as one would want to imagine from reassuring notions of innate goodness, as if the better angels of our nature had been devoured by our inner zombies. In Romero’s nightmarish world there is no safe place to run or to hide. Nor is safety to be found within the bosom of the family - forget mere Darwinian dog-eat-dog, Romero’s hellish world is one of brother-eat-sister, daughter-eat-mommy-and-daddy. Nor did the film hold out any hope for the future, as every single character, even the hero, perishes in the end. Simply put, it is an apocalyptic vision of uncompromising bleakness, the likes of which had never before been seen on movie screens.