Monday, July 20, 2009

Phil Nugent's Top Twelve

Phil Nugent's Top Ten(-ish) Best Movies Ever! (Part One)

1. Double feature: THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939) & GRANDE ILLUSION (1937)


The balance of visual beauty, depth of sophistication in terms of character psychology, high wit, and unsentimental yet warm humanity that Jean Renoir achieved in his greatest works would earn him the title of World's Greatest Filmmaker if it could be laid on anyone's shoulders without smirking. Max Ophuls' love tragedy is one of the few movies that can be mentioned in the same breath as Renoir's without embarrassing it. By an odd concidence, all these movies are, in varying degrees, about the death of the aristocratic class; all manage to satirize these people without cheap condescension or programmatic rage, and all manage to partake of the seductiveness of opulence without ever slipping into the Merchant-Ivory vice of seeming to have been made by snobs for tourists. We may never get another movie that looks on such people and their way of life with such clear eyes again; it's hard just to believe that these films were made in the same century that saw the birth of reality TV.

3. McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)
4. Double feature: THE GODFATHER (1972) & LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973)

For people who were young when Marlon Brando first burst into movies, it must have really been something getting to watch him grow up. For those of us who were born when Brando was considered washed-up, with his impossible comeback still on the horizon, the older man is the Brando we first got to know--the broken-down, wise old monster of The Godfather and Paul, the middle-aged expatriate loser who might have been a success at something if he hadn't decided to instead be extraordinary. A case can be made that The Godfather, Part II is actually a greater film than its predecessor--I may have been known to make it myself a time or too--but even though Don Vito is present, in the singular and essential form of the young Robert De Niro, Brando is absent, all because he felt the need to throw his weight around (no jokes, please) and demand an exorbitant fee instead of doing a cameo as a favor to the director who'd made him relevant again. It was not entirely uncharacteristic and very petty of him, and they should have paid the son of a bitch whatever he asked for anyway.


Speed kills.

6. UMBERTO D. (1952)

Some goddamn way, Vittorio De Sica found a way to make direct contact with the human heart without any spillover into bathos, and he did it again and again. Eager to repeat this feat, and figuring that it would help if they could label it, some folks listed some of the methods the director seemed to favor, as if they were ingredients in a recipe, and called it "Neo-realism". Many people since then have since followed the recipe, with varying degrees of success. Some of them made pretty good movies, but nobody else has done quite what De Sica did.

7. THE LADY EVE (1941)

Veronica Geng: "The American filmmaker Preston Sturges had a supreme gift for making people laugh without representing the world as better or worse than it is... In [his films], politics is rigged, poverty is immune to charity, bosses are petty dictators and workers live on dreams of jackpots, romantic love is either a luxury of the rich or a fabrication of the con artist, and small-town America's morality is the kind that ostracizes an unwed pregnant girl while embracing a bogus war hero. Yet these movies sent waves of euphoria rolling through the audience." That's one way of putting it. Here's another: Once upon a time, in a place called Hollywood, there lived a great man who one day decided that, if he had anything to say about it, the world would never forget William Demarest.

8. Double feature: JULES AND JIM (1962) & BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)

The intellectual wild men of the French New Wave, in revolt against their country's "tradition of quality" and taking sustenance from the grungier products of the Hollywood dream factory, took their cameras to the streets and proved that, so long as they were left alone to get their movies made as best they could, the improvisational high spirits and smarts and humor and excitement and heady romance of their finest work would remain ever fresh. Then, after a few masterpieces, one of these directors settled down and practically turned into a one-man Tradition of Quality, while the other dependably went him own way, albeit with a destination pass that was frequently stamped "CRAZYTOWN." The fact that it all somehow resulted in an American movie culture where a movie starring John Travolta and Bruce Willis made for eight and a half million dollars could count as a triumph for independent filmmaking is actually one of pop culture history's better jokes.


Apocalypse now, and then some.

10. STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928)

By the time Buster Keaton hit Hollywood, he had been performing in vaudeville since he was three, the son of comics who incorporated him into their act. No man has, by his very example, provided a more stirring argument against the child labor laws. Keaton was a simple sort of man for a great artist: he just happened to be someone who, by the time he grew to adulthood, had mastered every skill that might be helpful to the creation of physical comedy and then, having taught himself the mechanics of filmmaking, turned out to have as strong an eye as anyone who's ever lived at staging physical comedy for maximum effectiveness on camera. It is dizzying to imagine what he might have achieved--on top of what he did achieve, which make no mistake about it, was a titanic body of work--if there had been no studio to get in his way.

11. Double feature: CITIZEN KANE (1941) & CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1967)

People call Citizen Kane, the debut film that Orson Welles directed when he was 25, a young man's movie, and it is, though in a way that not everybody may fully appreciate. It is an exercise in high-spirited flamboyance, but it is also, crucially, a movie made by a man who doesn't care about burning his bridges behind him, a self-styled "man of the theater" who, as a lark and a fund-raising expedition, decided to take a movie studio up on its offer of "creative control" and make one of those talking picture dealies, figuring that the worst that could happen would be that he'd generate a lot of publicity and a wad of cash that he could then plow into the stage career that he did care about. It is a movie made by a man who thought he'd be spending his life and doing his real work elsewhere, and so whose attitude towards the faded press baron whose face he was dunking in mud, and the scaredy-cat old studio heads who so dreaded what the press baron might still be able to do to them that they tried to pool their resources to buy and burn the film, was: Bring it on. Chimes at Midnight, made a little more than 25 years and many, many lifetimes later, is a movie made by a man who, in the course of burning those bridges, fell so completely in love with the medium that he would do anything to make another one, patching a film together with whatever spindly resources he could pull together. Strange as it may be that the cocky young bastard and the inspired old wizard were the same guy, we were lucky to have ever had either one.

12. Double feature: ERASERHEAD (1977) & BLUE VELVET (1986)

David Lynch arrived just as the American moviemaking renaissance of the 1970s was winding down, with a $20,000 movie that he'd been working on, off and on, over the course of some five years and that looked as if he'd been quietly reinventing moviemaking, starting with the period of silent experimental film and moving on from there, in blissful innocence of anything else going on in the world. Almost a decade later, everybody's favorite homegrown Surrealist achieved his apotheosis with a movie that was released at a time when indie filmmakers were asking to be congratulated on keeping things safely small and lo-fi and film geeks were catching up on what had come before through the miracle of VCRs hooked to small screens, and served notice that some dreams demand to be appreciated on the biggest screens available, with Dennis Hopper's heavy breathing tickling your ear in Dolby while the lushest nightmare on record unfolded before your eyes. Nowadays, David checks in from time to time via his website, and has responded to the digital information age with Inland Empire, which loses nothing when viewed as a YouTube video, and in fact practically demands to be seen that way. Time for somebody else to step up.

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