· Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War Epic Apocalypse Now is a film all about madness – which isn’t surprising, considering he pretty much went mad making it (the documentary Hearts of Darkness is THE best making of doc in history, and gives you insight into just what it took to make the film). All the characters in the movie are in some way, shape or form mad. Even before we get into the heart of the film – the journey up the river to find the violent Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who is living like a God in Cambodia, we get the delirious opening sequence, of the films main character, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), having strange fever dreams in his hotel room. From the time the journey begins though, the film descends further and further into insanity, as we are drawn, right alongside Willard, towards Kurtz – and the more craziness we see, the saner Kurtz sees. By the time we finally meet Kurtz, we have already gone on one of cinema’s greatest head-trips – and its only beginning. The film is big, long and hugely ambitious. And if you watched Apocalypse Now Redux, Coppola’s 2001 “Directors Cut”, bloated. But the original cut of the film is a brilliantly constructed, endlessly re-watchable masterpiece. It may have cost Coppola his sanity – he hasn’t made a film approaching its greatness (or the greatness of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II or The Conversation) since. But what he made here was an absolute masterpiece – and my favorite film of all time.
· Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)For this list, I easily could have picked Kurosawa’s most entertaining film (Seven Samurai), his most influential (Rashomon) or even his most ambitious (Ran), but for me, Kurosawa’s masterpiece is this tragic, subtle, quiet film about a Japanese bureaucrat, who like all bureaucrats specializes in accomplishing nothing, who finds out he is dying, and decides he wants to accomplish something meaningful before he dies. Played by Takashi Shimura in an astonishing, Mr. Watanabe is a man who has led a life where he has little other than regret. He became what he is for the sake of his son – but his son has become cold and heartless towards his father. When he finds out he’s dying, he decides to try to go out and have a good time – but realizes he doesn’t know how to do it. Near the center of the film, he sings a song in the middle of crowded bar – his voice breaking, singing softly, that brings the bar to silence, and the audience to tears. He befriends a younger woman at his office – not for sex or anything so crass, but perhaps just because she seems to be the only one in the office who cares – and he doesn’t want her to end up like him. This is a quiet film – and a subtle one. And while Mr. Watanabe’s plight and his final accomplishment (combined with the haunting, iconic image of him on a swing) never fails to bring to tears, it is ultimately an uplifting film. It is never too late to do the right thing – to give your life some meaning. Mr. Watanabe realized this too late in his life – but because of him, and this film, we don’t have to.
· Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is perhaps the most dreamlike of all films. I think I could explain all the films mysteries if I wanted to – and wanted to make this entry 5,000 words – but for me it is beside the point. This is a film where dream logic is more important than reality, and it never fails to take me under its spell. The film is about two women – the perky blond (Naomi Watts in her star making performance) and the voluptuous, femme fatale (Laura Elena Haring, in what should have been a star making performance). Watts wants to be in the movie, and is staying at her Aunt’s apartment in Hollywood – and Haring is about to be murdered when her limo gets into an accident – and she stumbles into Watts’ apartment, with no memory of who she is, and how she got there. And so, the two try to piece together her life. And then, the characters start to fracture – becoming each other, or becoming other people, or perhaps finally becoming who they were all along. As I said, there have been countless explanations as to what the film ultimately means – and I have my own theory. But that’s not really the point of the movie. Mulholland Drive is constructed and plays like a dream – a film of images and events that haunt us, that make sense while you’re in the moment, and then dissipates when you wake up. Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a more straight forward film (at least by comparison), and his Inland Empire takes the more surreal, dream logic to even greater extremes. Somewhere between of those two films – masterpieces in their own right – comes Mulholland Drive, which is the perfect distillation of Lynch’s work – and a film I find endlessly fascinating.
Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. earns a spot on this list for a few reasons. First, I felt an out and out comedy deserved a spot on the list, and since I think Keaton is the greatest comedic director of all time, and Sherlock Jr. is his best film. Second, I think any list of the greatest films should contain at least one silent film – and Keaton was the greatest director of the silent era. And finally, because Sherlock Jr. is one of the first films to realize the power of film itself. The movie is about a movie projectionist, played by Keaton himself of course, who is also studying to be a detective, and trying to win the heart of his beloved. After being accused of stealing her father’s watch, Keaton fails miserably at playing detective in real life – and heads back to his projectionist job. He falls asleep during the film – which has a plot similar to his actual life – and he dreams himself in the middle of the movie- this time of as a great detective. The sequence of the film inside a film may seem standard today – but was daring and innovative in its time. And the sequence is utterly brilliant – especially when Keaton first enters the screen, and find himself in an ever shifting set of backdrops – safe in one, in danger in the next, in the middle of the desert one second, and then on the edge of the ocean. The film also contains some of Keaton’s greatest stunts – him running atop a moving train, and then riding the drain pipe to the ground (in a scene where Keaton actually got hurt for one of the only times), a brilliant scene of him getting off the roof of a building into the backseat of the car of the man he is tailing, and of course, the brilliant motorcycle chase scene climax, where Keaton, riding on the handlebars, doesn’t realize the driver is no longer in control, and yet he somehow manages to survive unscathed. Sherlock Jr. understood the power of movies before most people did – when they were seen as many time wasters. Keaton understands why we go to the movies, and Sherlock Jr. is his greatest achievement – and his most influential. We go, at least in part, because we want to be the people we see – they teach us about ourselves, and even how to act – which Keaton brings to life in the brilliant final shot of the film.
· Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)I could have easily put Scorsese’s Raging Bull, GoodFellas or even The King of Comedy on this list instead, but for me, Taxi Driver will always be my favorite filmmaker’s best film. Travis Bickle is the prototypical man on a downward spiral – a Vietnam veteran who returns home to New York and is disgusted by the filth he sees around him. But rather than avoid it – or move – he wallows in it, driving a taxi at night, picking up fares no one else would, and patrolling neighbourhoods no one else would, he simply exasperates his descent into madness and murder. Along the way, he does try to reach out for some sort of human connection that could save him – but he is so clueless that he takes the one date he gets to a porn movie, and is devastated later when she rejects him over the phone (in one of the film’s most interesting shots, as the camera pans away from the lonely Bickle on the phone to look down the hall – this scene of rejection too painful to see in full). Inspired by John Fords The Searchers, Bickle then tries to save a child prostitute – a young, brilliant Jodie Foster – who does not want to be saved. Bickle's story has become all too common in real life – where young, white men try in vain to find some sort of human connection, and eventually cannot take all the rejection and snap. We know when Bickle finally kicks over his TV – that he spends far too much time watching – that he is too far gone to be saved, and that the movie will not end all. The bloody massacre that ends the film is one of the most brutal and bloody in cinema history. As Bickle, Robert DeNiro gives what in my opinion the greatest screen performance in history. Taxi Driver is about rage and rejection, violence and murder. And it is the best film Scorsese has ever made – and considering that I think he’s the best director in history, there is no higher praise I can give the film.
· There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)From the mesmerizing, wordless opening 15 minutes to the bloody climax that ends the film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a film about the American dream becoming a nightmare. Like Charles Foster Kane before him, Daniel Planview should be an American success story – a man of humble beginnings who becomes wealthy and powerful beyond he could dream – and is still miserable. Plainview is the ultimate misanthrope – he hates everyone. He may have a soft spot for the baby he adopts, but eventually, even he will abandon Plainview. Anderson’s film is about the origins of America – the twin pillars of commerce and religion (represented by Paul Dano), and he sees both as utterly corrupt and worthless. The film was made on the eve of the economic collapse in America in 2008, and it, more than any other movie of its time, shows just what led to the collapse – corruption, unfettered greed, blatant self-interest. As Plainview, Day-Lewis gives one of the greatest of all screen performances – simultaneously larger than life, and yet really just a hollow, empty shell of a man, who has nothing but money. The film may only be five years old, but yes, it deserves a place on this list.
· Three Women (Robert Altman, 1977)Robert Altman is best known for his large, sprawling movies – masterpieces like Nashville, The Player or Short Cuts – which have large casts, interlocking stories, and his trademark overlapping dialogue. All three of those films are great – as are others like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye – but for me, his greatest achievement in this under seen masterpiece. Like Mulholland Drive earlier on this list, Three Women seems to be taking place in a dream more than reality. It has three women at its core – played by Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule – whose identities seem to run together. By the end of the film, they are either a strange family unit, or just one person, depending on how you look at it. The three women start out as archetypes – Rule, the pregnant woman, married to a drunken lout who sees himself as something greater than he is, Duvall as a woman constantly looking in the mirror, doing whatever those women’s magazines tell them to, and Spacek, as a young, unformed woman. What they have in common is that other people – especially the men, who are mostly in the background – never really see them. The movie takes place in a dream world – but it is a shared dream. Each of the women need to the other two in a way – need to invent them to make themselves whole. Altman has made a lot of great films, but never one as mysterious as this one – as haunting as this one. One that sticks in your head – much like dreams themselves.
In the past, I have usually put Welles’ Citizen Kane on this list. But this time, I decided to put his Touch of Evil on the list instead – in part because I put Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a similar film to Citizen Kane, on the list. But mainly because these days, I find Touch of Evil even more fascinating than Kane. From that brilliant, three minute opening shot, that sets the movie up brilliantly, to its dark, violent climax, Touch of Evil tells a labyrinthine, noir plot about violence in a border town. The movie is a clash of ideals – that gets an interesting twist – as Charlton Heston plays a Mexican cop, in this small town with his new wife (Janet Leigh), who is unwittingly drawn into the investigation involving the exploding car in that brilliant first shot. Yet, while we are used to seeing Mexican cops be corrupt, Heston here is virtuous – perhaps even to a fault. It is Welles’ Hank Quinlin, the larger than life, racist Sheriff of the town who is corrupt. He “knows” who committed the crime, and has no hesitation in ensuring that they have the evidence to convict him – and he grows to resent Heston when he stands in his way. Like many of the characters Welles had himself play in his films, Quinlin in an ambition, smart man, destroyed by his own inflated sense of self-worth. He is right, goddamnit, and you better stay out of his way. This is Welles’ greatest performance in front of the camera – and perhaps behind it as well. The plot is, at times anyway, rather ludicrous and overly complicated – and yet, I hardly care, because even when - like in the climactic scene that involves Heston running below Quinlin and his underling on a dock to stay with radio range - there is a much simpler, logical way for Heston to get what he wants, you don’t mind, because Welles’ directorial tricks are so mesmerizing that you do not notice. Touch of Evil was the final time Welles got to work within the Hollywood system – and like many of his films, post Kane, it was taken away from him and recut by the studio. We now have a pretty much definitive version of the film available to us – and the end result is a masterpiece. Welles was a cinematic genius, way ahead of his time and one that was determined to play by his rules - which is often why he ran afoul with movie executives. Perhaps that’s why he wanted to play Hank Quinlin – as evil as Quinlin is, Welles understands him. Yes, Citizen Kane is probably the most “perfect” film on Welles’ resume, but Touch of Evil is the one I return to more often – to sit there in awe of what Welles could do with a camera – and in front of one as well.
I have sat down and watched Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (and very possibly his A Clockwork Orange as well) more often than his 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is why I had in the past put Strangelove on this list instead of 2001. But I have to admit that while I may “enjoy” Dr. Strangelove more, 2001 is Kubrick’s greatest achievement- the most ambitious science fiction ever made, and one of the most profound statements on man’s place in the universe that any art form has ever produced. The movie opens with its infamous scene of apes, and their discovery of tools and then flashes forward millions of years to the title year. This is an alternate view of humankind’s history than the one put forward in the Bible. The Bible teaches us how far humanity has fallen since they had things perfect in the Garden of Eden – Kubrick shows us how far humans have progressed and evolved – and how we are still not done evolving. There are many mesmerizing sequences in the movie – far too many to name, but the “murder” of HAL, one of the great movie “villains” of all time jumps immediately to mind, as does the trippy star gate sequence, that made the film a favorite of drug addled minds. Kubrick’s film is odd because it is not really about the characters at all – HAL is the most memorable character in the film, and he is nothing more than a strange, calm voice and a giant red light. It doesn’t need to be about individual characters – because it is about us all. It trusts the audiences intelligence, which is what Kubrick valued above all else. And he has made a film that is impossible to forget.
· Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)The newly minted “greatest film of all time” by Sight and Sound has been a fixture on my list for years now, and I cannot imagine it ever leaving it. It is one of few films that seems to get deeper, more complex every time I see it. The first time through, you see a masterful Hitchcock thriller – an odd one no doubt, since the climax seems to come at the half way point, before the movie takes a bizarre twist. It’s this bizarre twist at the half way point that I think led many critics and audience members to not like the film when it was originally released – but it’s also this bizarre twist that makes the film so complex. The second time you watch the film, knowing the films mysteries, you concentrate on the details – especially focusing on Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie. Hitchcock loved to play with beloved stars screen persona – he knew audiences would immediately love and identify with Stewart, and he uses this pre-programmed love to drag the audience deeper into Stewart’s troubled mind they we really want to go. He plays a former cop, hired to tail the troubled wife (Kim Novak) of a rich man, who worries she may try to kill herself. He ends up falling in love with her, and she with him, but she is too far gone by the time he enters the picture. And because of his vertigo, he cannot save her when she climbs a bell tower and commits suicide. Stewart then goes into a deep depression, eventually, slowly coming out of it. And then, he sees someone who looks just like Novak – except with different hair. What he doesn’t know is this really is the woman he fell in love with – she was hired to “play” the rich man’s wife so he could murder her – and use Stewart as his witness. She fell in love with Stewart during their initial meetings as well – and so when they meet again, she goes along with his requests to make her into the woman he loves. The film, as many have pointed out, is in many ways about necrophilia – Stewart is in love with a dead woman, and wants this live one to become her. This would disturbing enough, and worthy of a spot among Hitchcock’s greatest films. And yet, the more times I watch it, the more I concentrate on Novak, and less on Stewart. If the first time through, you concentrating on the films mysteries, and second time on Stewart descent into madness and sexual deviancy, the third time, you start looking more closely at Novak. When she is merely playing a role – in the first part as decreed by the rich man, in the second part as decreed by Stewart – and when is actually herself. Where is the line between her “performance” and who she really is. The more you watch Vertigo, the deeper the damn thing gets. This is why it is the best film Hitchcock, one of the greatest of all directors who has made countless masterpieces, ever made. And that is why it deserves a place on this list – even at the very top, where Sight and Sound now ranks it.
Note: In keeping with my rule of one film per director, these are the other films I considered for my top 10 before deciding on what I did. When you’re talking about movies this good, the difference is so small that it doesn’t even exist. Any of these films could easily have been on the list above, as well as countless others had I considered more than one film per director, which is the reason why I refer to this whole exercise a fool’s errand – although I must admit, it’s a fun one:
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunul, 1962), A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957), Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1983), Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996), A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005), Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), M (Fritz Lang, 1931), Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937), Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976), Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947), The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939), Sansho the Baliff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954), The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998), The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932), Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952), Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992), A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974), Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007).