Top 50 Countdown – #’s 10-2

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Once Upon a Time in America

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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

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Psycho

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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.

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Taxi Driver

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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.

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The Godfather Part 2

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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.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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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.

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Kind Hearts and Coronets

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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.

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Sherlock Jr.

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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.

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Chinatown

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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.

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The Third Man

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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

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