Here is the second half of this list.
51. SALT OF THE EARTH. During opening credits, Esperanza is shown, outdoors in a miners’ residential camp, splitting wood for a boiling pot and boiling water. Post-credits, in the mine, a defective blasting fuse causes a near disaster. The new rule is that Mexican-Americans must work by themselves, denying them the precautions that have been extended to “Anglo” workers. Esperanza and her husband, Ramon, quarrel. Ramon insists workers’ safety must be the union’s priority, while Esperanza pleads for sanitation. When Ramon accuses her of selfishness, Esperanza replies, “If I think of myself it’s because you never think of me.”
Seeking economic justice, Mexican-American workers went on strike, beginning in 1951, against the mining company Empire Zinc in Silver City, New Mexico. Salt of the Earth brings documentary realism to its fictional reconstruction of the event. Perhaps its most electrifying aspect, though, is its portrait of the womenfolk, who crash the barrier of Hispanic machismo in their parallel quest for marital and communal equality. They join their spouses in the strike, take over the picket line when necessary and endure consequent incarceration. Anything but a reductive “message movie” of the liberal sort that producer Stanley Kramer periodically discharged, this is a remarkably holistic account of a community’s multiple efforts toward equality.
The film, befittingly, is also an exemplary blend of objective and subjective, documentary and fictional elements. Playing Ramon, union president, Juan Chacon really was President of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, other members of which populate the cast. Blending perfectly with these, in the film’s central role, is superb Rosaura Revueltas, the Mexican actress who plays Esperanza.
Salt of the Earth was made by a cooperative of blacklisted artists, among them writer Michael Wilson and director Herbert J. Biberman.
52. THE SEARCHERS. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #54.
53. THE WRONG MAN. Following eyewitness identifications, Christopher Emmanuel (“Manny”) Balestrero (Henry Fonda, tremendous) is picked up by the police as an insurance office thief. The ordeal of his trying to prove his innocence, which the deaths of two alibi witnesses confounds, plunges wife Rose (Vera Miles, heartrending) into an abyss of psychotic guilt premised in the fear that her own financial demands triggered Manny’s presumed crime. In The Wrong Man, Alfred Hitchcock once again is well understood as a Roman Catholic artist.
Frighteningly combining arrogance and stupidity, the police seize on every opportunity to disprove the latter but each time confirm it. The passage where Manny is booked, incarcerated and, after a long night, arraigned in court encompasses Hitchcock’s most brilliant filmmaking. Almost pure pseudo-documentary, it is absolutely objective and, simultaneously, absolutely subjective—a profound revelation of Manny’s shame, distress and fear. Throughout the film, Robert Burks’s black-and-white cinematography blends documentary realism and dreamy noirishness.
Beginning with a “chance” configuration of Manny a step ahead of, and visible between, two police officers on the street, the three-shot is a recurrent motif. It reaches its apotheosis in a psychiatrist’s office: seated Rose, despondent, desk lamp, enormous from camera perspective, standing psychiatrist, face obscured by the lamp.
Finally, someone else is arrested for the crimes in question. There is a telling discrepancy between how much “the right man” is supposed to look like Manny and how little he actually does. Manny turns on him: “Do you know what you have done to my wife?” Ah! But there is as little reason to believe in this new man’s guilt as there was to believe in Everyman Manny’s guilt. The system, given its internal flaws, may have lighted upon another “wrong man.”
Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail wrote the terrific script.
54. ON THE BOWERY. There is a through-story in Lionel Rogosin’s otherwise documentary On the Bowery, and its precise accumulation is like a first-rate short story by Ring Lardner or Ernest Hemingway. Ray drifts into New York’s skid row, accompanied by his suitcase, which contains all his earthly possessions, including a pocket watch. Gorman, an older man, convinces Ray to part with clothes—the watch is off-limits—in order to pay for drinks for the both of them. When Ray passes out in the street, Gorman takes the suitcase, thus paying for himself a night in a flop-house rather than on the street. He sells the watch, giving Ray some of the proceeds, making up a story about the money’s source.
Rogosin’s tone is non-judgmental. In peerless black-and-white images, Rogosin captures the raucous, loose-ended lives of (mostly) men in Bowery bars, streets, a mission, a flop-house. The documentary and fictional elements seamlessly blend to create a penetrating series of observations—a piece of reportage anticipating cinéma-vérité, not to mention the documentary-styled fictions of John Cassavetes, who acknowledged Rogosin as his cinematic guide.
The richest aspect of this beautiful film is its embrace of down-on-their-luck humanity. In this, Rogosin may be indebted to John Huston, whose own later Fat City (1972) seems especially in tune with Rogosin’s film.
55. TOUCH OF EVIL. When during a murder investigation in a U.S.-Mexican border town the “Anglo” police captain complains how tough his job is, a Mexican narcotics officer shoots back, “A policeman’s work is only easy in a police state.” Despite the misplaced modifier, this is one of the most compelling utterances in American cinema.
In Touch of Evil, his brilliant film noir, Orson Welles plays Captain Hank Quinlan, a corrupt detective with more than a “touch of evil.” The title can refer also to Mike Vargas, the narcotics officer and “hero,” who, in order to snare Quinlan, sinks to the level of his quarry.
Quinlan has framed a Mexican hoodlum for murder. Welles’s outrage is such that even the actual guilt of the accused sharpens rather than blunts his civil libertarian point; and, when Vargas finally is reduced to secretly tape recording Quinlan’s unwitting confession, Welles completes his argument that corruption corrupts. Vargas has been somewhat Quinlanized.
Quinlan’s ethnic bigotry is matched by Vargas’s class bigotry, which blinds him to the fact that, up from the ranks, Quinlan can hardly like being referred to as a la-de-da “policeman”—and, at that, by a nattily dressed representative of the Mexican government’s elite. Welles, then, divides our sympathies, mixes things up. The morally clouded world in which both men function taints the whole idea of “justice.”
Quinlan has already committed murder and framed a drugged patsy, Vargas’s kidnapped bride, in order to discredit her spouse. It is the film’s most riveting passage: tilted, clipped shots, some in swollen closeup; outside, neon flashing; a dead-dark, seedy hotel room disintegrating into waking nightmare: America, distorted—deranged—at reality’s edge.
Helping to ensure its domestic commercial failure, Universal-International dumped the film on the market with scant publicity—another “touch of evil.”
56. RIO BRAVO. Texas sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne, gracious, wonderfully complex) stands against wealth, power, inhumanity, embodied by land baron Nathan Burdette, who wants to spring from jail his brother, being held for murder, and who terrorizes the town. Chance turns down help from townfolk, to spare them reprisals from Burdette, and confronts Burdette and his swarm of hired guns with three allies: his two deputies, alcoholic Dude and old, crippled Stumpy (Walter Brennan, brilliantly funny), and a teenaged fast gun, Colorado.
Howard Hawks’s greatest western was a response to scenarist Carl Foreman’s High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), in which Marshal Kane begs townfolk for deputies to assist him in standing up against a killer just out of prison. After every adult man turns him down, Kane faces Frank Miller and his men alone—except for his Quaker wife, who violates her religious principles by shooting Miller in the back. Kane may be described as a whining hero; Chance, as a man doing his job—and someone, however anxious, more at ease with himself than Kane.
The film begins with a nearly silent prologue that establishes two things: the plot (we witness the barroom murder); the relationship between Chance and Dude. Whereas High Noon’s characters are thinly conceived, those in Rio Bravo are richly human. Kane is fully formed, if along conventional lines; but Chance is still learning about life—as we see from his romance with Feathers, a younger gal with a past and, it turns out, an unwarranted bad reputation, and his exchanges with Carlos (Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales, marvelous), the Mexican-American proprietor of the hotel in town.
Chance and Dude’s nighttime walks, to ensure the town’s peace and safety, occasion passages of the utmost suspense and visual beauty—and a sense of pressing professional obligation: Hawks’s American faith.
57. ANATOMY OF A MURDER. With Anatomy of a Murder Otto Preminger began a trilogy of films that questions U.S. institutions. The other entries would be Advise and Consent (1962), about government, and In Harm’s Way (1965), about the military. But the first was by far the best. Through a sensational murder trial, it takes on the courts. The novel on which it is based was written by Robert Traver, the pen-name of John D. Voelker, a judge on the Michigan State Supreme Court.
Justice is hard to locate in Preminger’s film. A palette of gray tonalities eliminates anything so harsh or glaring as that from an adversarial system of lawyerly points and parries. All that’s determined is whether the man on trial, who admits to killing the man who (perhaps) raped his wife, is found by a jury “guilty” or “not guilty.” As in Mervyn LeRoy’s audacious They Won’t Forget (1937), the crime depicted remains unsolved. Even the accused, whose “innocent” plea is based on a claim of “irresistible impulse,” ends up making a joke about the trial’s inconclusive outcome!
Preminger thus makes his spirited case against the inconclusive nature of American justice—and this, after skewering conclusive justice, in another time and place, in his Saint Joan (1957). Perhaps the financial failure of that (deadly) film helped dictate Preminger’s inspired choice to direct Anatomy as an ironical comedy.
Skillfully represented by a wonderful cast, especially James Stewart as the cagey defense attorney, Preminger finds in the courts a metaphor for both representative government (the lawyers) and democracy (the jury). This is why the second entry in his iconoclastic series, Advise and Consent, which takes on Congress directly, despite fascinating sidebars, is superfluous.
58. PSYCHO. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #60.
59. (THESE ARE) THE DAMNED. Joseph Losey’s science fiction-horror film is a withering piece of prophecy. Children who have been born radioactive as the result of countless nuclear “accidents” are raised underground, by remote control dictate and interaction with adult authority, and studied as models for survival for the “inevitable” event of a nuclear holocaust that will affect everyone. In the process of their captivity, they attempt to escape, guided by adults who have chanced upon them. These orphaned children are the British casualties of World War II ally America’s atomic “experiments” involving Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In its broadest scope, The Damned is a stinging antiwar film.
Losey, who forsook the U.S. for England in the 1950s after being blacklisted, and Arthur Grant, his black-and-white cinematographer, have devised a series of stark images suggesting a near end of the world to which its inhabitants have reasonably adjusted, as though their whole lives are an evasion of the evidence of imminent annihilation already in their midst. Waves crash against rocks in a seaside setting. There, a sculptor, Freya (Viveca Lindfors, superb), the most decent human being imaginable, sculpts seemingly primordial forms of animal life and fantastic human forms that, by harkening to long-ago beginnings, anticipate life’s end. The children’s government program is hidden almost in Freya’s backyard.
Freya is a friend to Bernard, who runs the program. When she learns about the program and objects to it, he has her killed.
Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s glib Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), The Damned is genuinely concerned about the fate of humanity. It decries the web of authoritarianism in which societies ensnare children and all the rest of us. Losey doesn’t love the bomb or the nuclear nightmare it plunged us into. He cares about the children.
60. THE EXILES. London-born Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles begins with Edward S. Curtis photographs: the Native American Past. Cut to the present, on a Bunker Hill, Los Angeles street; through this shot, which initially appears to be another photograph, a trolley moves. This first, unexpected bit of motion establishes a tension with the preceding stasis, motionlessness: moving in time; frozen in time. Homing in on a community of young Native Americans, most of whom have moved off reservations, the film provides this glimpse in a café: the camera pans leftward across a group of seated patrons, and then moves rightward as, standing, one Native American, cornering her, presses another for a date. This passage again combines instances of motion and stasis, creating a tension between them. This isn’t haphazard; it is thematic, to the point.
In lustrous black and white, The Exiles covers a period of twelve hours, one Friday night and Saturday morning. Three of the characters provide stream-of-consciousness voiceover that they themselves wrote; all the “actors” play themselves. Yvonne’s partner, Homer, who routinely abandons her for a night on the town, drinks and doesn’t hold a job. Pregnancy, expectancy, possibility: “He might change when he sees the baby,” Yvonne tries to convince herself. “He does like children”—although her remark that Homer especially wants a boy introduces a note of uncertainty. Later, when we see Homer in a bar observing other patrons as sharply as MacKenzie observes people in the film, we think: Ah, Homer might have become a filmmaker, too.
On Hill X, the men end their day by beating tribal music on drums. At dawn they go home. Tomorrow will be the same. The men know they are not really “off the reservation,” and they also know they have no place else to go.
61. THE TRIAL. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #7.
62. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #10.
63. CULLODEN. Peter Watkins was not yet thirty when he revolutionized the genre of historical documentary, thus becoming one of the most influential serious filmmakers, with Culloden, whose form expands the creative and expressive possibilities of the genre, for example, by its interviews/testimonies of participants in the 1746 battle at Culloden between rag-tag Highland Scots, French-supported Jacobites attempting to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne, and the well-heeled Hanoverian English army and Lowland accomplices. We are there; we see for ourselves and keenly feel the horrible suffering that war, that armed confrontation, entails. Equally vivid, gut-wrenching in fact, is the post-battle slaughter of Highland families, including women and children.
Impoverished clansmen have been forced into, for them, the “suicidal” Battle of Culloden with threats by landowners of losing their rented homes and other meager property. Some leaders, though, are motivated by the fact that Charles Edward Stuart is, like them, Catholic; they hope he replaces Britain’s Protestant king. (“God is on our side,” Stuart insists, thus believing he will prevail despite the fact that his army is outnumbered, out-armed.) After his defeat, we are told, Stuart abandoned his cause and those who had fought for it, numbers of whom awaited his return indefinitely, creating a glowing legend around “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”
Voiceover—Watkins?—provides a wealth of factual detail. Soldiers and their outcomes—deaths; maimings—are identified. We discover for ourselves how the winning general, the Duke of Cumberland, King George II’s son, acquired the nickname “Butcher.”
Surely this black-and-white film owes something to John Huston’s on-the-spot World War II documentary, San Pietro (1945), but, set in the past with unknown actors in the roles of combatants and other victims of the English massacre, Culloden is also unlike any film I know of before it.
64. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #71.
65. CHELSEA GIRLS. The exclusively interior scenes of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s Chelsea Girls largely take place, shot by Warhol, inside apartments in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Its cast members, consisting of friends and acquaintances of Warhol, play themselves, improvising along the episodic route of Warhol’s script. The original version ran 6½ hours, but a second version cut this length in half by splitting the screen and running two titled episodes simultaneously. The result, occasionally lame, is much more often brilliant.
One paired episode is always mute; sometimes both are silent. Zooms startle the one with a fixed camera; on the other side, the camera may be intensely moving about. Earlier on, both screen halves are in black and white, but one may be relatively dark in complexion while the other is relatively light. (Changes occur in both actual lighting and exposure levels.) Later on, color is introduced to one side of the split screen and then both sides.
Sometimes it appears, quite by accident, that human images on both sides of the dividing line merge, like pieces of glass in an Italian kaleidoscope; sometimes sound seems to correspond to the drama on the other side of the dividing line as well. “Stand up!” someone screams here, and there, on the other side, the camera drops, giving a seated person the appearance of rising up. Although such visual and aural connections between left screen and right screen catch us by surprise, after a while we also look forward to them; we imaginatively try integrating the two screens. However, for mental focus, we also try keeping the screens separate and distinct. Each is dominated by someone who is quite a character.
We eventually feel we are watching our mind processing this miraculous film.
66. WAVELENGTH. Canadian Michael Snow’s experimental Wavelength is legendary. Across a vast loft, sparsely populated with office things (chair, telephone, file cabinets), our eye travels to part of the far wall between two of the high, enormous windows. The agency of this journey is often described as a forward zoom, but throughout the filming Snow has minutely repositioned the camera, in effect creating the appearance of a single shot, including a jump-cut near the end that puts us into a photograph of ocean waves—this, one of a cluster of pictures that, unlike the other two, had been featureless, blacked-out. Enhancing our perceptual capacities, Wavelength is an eye-opening experience.
Urban street sounds are replaced a bit in by a sine sound that grows ever louder; sometimes, sound is layered. We hear an explosion. Gunshots? Construction? Drilling? Later, a young woman enters—intermittently folks enter and leave the room, evoking a sense of transience that complicates the forward journey—and she phones someone and speaks of a dead man outside. “What should I do?” she asks before leaving and waiting for an ambulance. Is our eye sharing the end-of-life journey that the dead man is making? Snow himself has stated that Wavelength expresses his “religious inklings.”
Snow’s pieced-together “road picture” through interior space marshals delightful visual artillery: shifts between black and white and monochrome (simulated color tinting: pink; orange/beige—colors suggesting “white” flesh), different film stocks and exposures, etc. The jump-cut relates less to Godard’s in A bout de souffle (1959) than to the woman’s opening eye in Marker’s La jetée (1962), a film otherwise consisting of stills. It’s revelatory. The waves filling the screen transform the mundane into epiphany. Much as the simulated zoom has exhausted the room’s length, these waves may signal something spiritual, momentous.
And now . . .
67. IF . . . . Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . . examines the culture in a British boys’ school dedicated to training the cultural elite and tomorrow’s political leaders. It seamlessly blends naturalism and fantasy, realism and surrealism, and its cautionary prophetic tone seems to argue that reality itself is headed for a dive into errant, disastrous fantasy. The school’s oppressive atmosphere triggers a murderous rebellion by a few students that’s as hilarious as it is terrifying. If . . . . launched a trilogy that Anderson continued with O Lucky Man! (1973) and completed with Britannia Hospital (1982; see below).
The film combines traditional and classical elements with wild, surprising ones. One set of elements is correlative to the school’s history, the self-seriousness of its mission, and its religious underpinnings; the other, to the boys’ wildness and their wish to spring from the fetters that the school’s discipline imposes on them.
The senior rebels, headed by Mick (Malcolm McDowell, terrific), disrupts an assembly in church by pelting the school with artillery and opening fire as officials, guests and students rush out. The film shows the reactionary intertwining of Church, military, and traditional schooling, whose aim is to maintain the illusion of the global importance of the waning British Empire.
Anderson uses the school’s dense homoerotic atmosphere to imply one poisonous social outcome. Won’t graduates contribute to their nation’s homophobia in an effort to suppress and deny the homoerotic aspect of their formative school experience? Anderson contrasts this atmosphere with the warm, gentle, mutually supportive sexual relationship that develops between one of the rebels and an underclassman.
The achingly lovely, powerful strains of the “Sanctus Chorale” from the Congolese Mass Missa Luba perfectly express the film’s stylistic and thematic conjoining of liberation and formal restraint.
68. THE DAMNED. The indispensable contribution that industrial capitalism made to the madness gripping Germany in the 1930s: this is the theme of Götterdämmerung (La caduta degli Dei), the first installment of Luchino Visconti’s trilogy targeting German decadence. In light of the corporate fascism that currently defines “globalization,” Visconti’s film now has about it an awful air of historical prophecy as well.
The Damned revolves around the aristocratic Essenbecks, who are bound together by their steel works factory. The family head, Baron Joachim von Essenbeck, holds the National Socialists in contempt. Nevertheless, he allies his company’s future to their fortunes, and this entails providing whatever is necessary to build up the German war machine. Meanwhile, the Nazis are burning the Reichstag (the democratic Weimar Republic’s lower body of governance), blame for which they will succeed in laying at the doorstep of Communists, giving themselves the pretext—to “restore order”—for gaining control of the country.
Aristocrat and Communist, Visconti has created a harrowing, haunting portrait of Nazi evil. He applies to his exacting mise-en-scène a dark, infernal expressionism. His reconstruction of the Night of the Long Knives shows what a gifted artist can do to make an historical event come alive. The whole passage sustains a grim, nearly intolerable intensity.
Visconti elicits two superb performances: eyes darting, muscular shoulders flexing, Ingrid Thulin’s Sophie, widow of one of the baron’s sons; and young Helmut Berger’s Martin, Sophie’s drug-addicted, pedophiliac son, to whose revenge on his mother, for manipulating and (psychologically) abandoning him, Berger brings a springing edge of terrible sorrow. Moreover, Berger finely charts Martin’s transformation from fearful pervert to fearsome Nazi—neither growth nor regression, just a spiraling out; and it is this pathological odyssey, indelibly etched, that helps keep The Damned from collapsing into an array of sumptuous, somewhat too elegant fragments.
69. HIGH SCHOOL. Frederick Wiseman’s contentious documentaries investigating various institutions constitute one of the most important bodies of work by an American filmmaker.
High School was shot in a Philadelphia area public school, Northeast High, whose academic reputation is esteemed. The film orchestrates various school processes and activities. The occasional snippet of classroom instruction reinforces the overarching theme that the primary function of the American high school isn’t education but, instead, socialization and indoctrination. (If anything, today, more than 35 years later, this is even more so the case.) An early encounter between a student and the vice-principal in charge of discipline is exemplary. The boy’s attempts to explain that the detention time a teacher has imposed on him is unwarranted, that the teacher literally misidentified the culprit in a classroom incident, are frustrated by the administrator’s inflexible position that the boy should accept his punishment, regardless of his guilt or innocence, as a way of proving himself a man and showing he can obey orders. Respect for authority is the school’s administrative mantra. The film ends with the reading of a letter, by a teary-eyed teacher or administrator (it hardly matters which), from a former student grateful to be fighting in America’s Southeast Asian war. Indeed, the woman obscenely opines that the feelings expressed in the letter constitute proof that the school is succeeding in doing its job.
Along the way Wiseman’s camera exposes a plethora of absurdities: an administrator explaining to an irate parent that his daughter’s outstanding achievement in written work for a course can’t overturn the justice of her having received a report card grade of F; a moonily condescending teacher passing off a fatuous Paul Simon lyric as poetry worthy of study; an endorsement by NASA of the school’s simulated aeronautical program.
Wiseman produced, directed, edited.
70. THE WILD BUNCH. The same year as the glib, intellectually vacuous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch portrayed the twilight of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. In 1969 I disparaged the film on the basis of the version that its producer had butchered, but the richly restored “director’s cut” is a coherent achievement—one of the westerns (the others being Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns, 1957, Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (see above), Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, 1995, and Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim, 2000) to approach the greatness of John Ford’s best westerns.
In 1913 Texas, a bunch of bank robbers pull off a job for which, in fact, they have been set up by their nemesis, a railroad baron. The failure of the robbery, in which they are all nearly killed, causes the younger members to question the aging leadership of Pike Bishop once the gang reaches their Mexican hideout. Meanwhile, the baron has among the bounty hunters in his employ Deke Thornton, who used to ride with the gang—a projection of Bishop’s world-weariness and self-disgust. For many reasons, the gang is falling apart and coming to an end; a harbinger of this is one of its youngest members, Angel, a Mexican Indian with revolutionist sympathies because of the brutal oppression of his people.
Peckinpah’s embrace of the humanity of his lead characters combines with complex, dusky images, beautifully color cinematographed by Lucien Ballard, to achieve something like the dimming of reality into elegy. A fit of nervous applications of the zoom lens provides a few hiccups in what is otherwise a trenchant, austere vision less indebted to Ford than to John Huston. William Holden and Robert Ryan, as Bishop and Thornton, are superb, giving lived-in, concentrated, unsentimental performances.
71. THE LONG GOODBYE. During the seventies, Robert Altman made a series of “revisionist” films testing the assumptions of familiar genres. Perhaps the most brilliant of these is The Long Goodbye, from one of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe private detective novels.
Let me give an example of the film’s method. One of the assumptions of the genre is that the detective is a lone wolf, drawing strength of purpose from his version of rugged individualism. But, instead, Elliott Gould’s updated Marlowe is an hilariously pathetic loner, more unhappily lonely than ruggedly alone, and very nearly terrorized by his cat, who claws him and rules the roost before abandoning him after he fails to buy the desired cat food. Other generic assumptions meet a similar prodding and twisting, with the surprise of a lifetime befitting this procedure awaiting those who have read the book: a different murder solution than Chandler devised—and one that fits just as nicely. Here is, perhaps, the most entertaining American movie-movie of the decade.
Richard Nixon, nowhere mentioned, had been reelected U.S. president. He, along with related aspects of American political, social and cultural life, represents the entrenchment of generic assumptions—the accepted clichés, the way things are supposed to be. Altman combatted reactionaryism by refreshing our whole sense of what’s going down.
In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a mobster disfigures his mistress’s face to threaten Marlowe, explaining that if he would do this to someone he loves . . . ! This not only turns the assumption of misogynism, as part of the fabric of the world which detectives and criminals share, on its ear (again, hilariously) but also suggests the irrelevancy of love in a reactionary world—unless, as Nixon would insist when he resigned office, one’s mother was a saint.
72. CONVERSATION PIECE. Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (literally, Family Group in an Interior) finds a retired science professor nearing life’s end when the intrusion into his life of a contentious family of strangers shakes it up. Professor has long since settled into a quiet, studious and very private existence in his art-heavy, Mozart-filled Roman palazzo. Suddenly, Marchesa Bianca Brumonti insists on moving her daughter and son into the upstairs of the mansion, along with her young lover, Konrad Huebel, a mercurial Leftist. Only her right-wing industrialist husband dislikes Konrad, and he eventually delivers his wife an ultimatum: Find some more suitable lover, or divorce. The marchesa chooses the latter, but Konrad is wearying of his wealthy mistress—and, perhaps, of life. His death, which may be a suicide, triggers the end of an arrangement that may have been holding back Professor from his own end.
Conversation Piece moves from old landlord-unruly young tenants absurdist comedy to a profound meditation on various collisions—between classes, intentions and the aspirations bolstering them, young and old, classical and modern. Everything has its place downstairs, secure; but, upstairs, Konrad is none too competently expanding the bathroom, and water is seeping down the downstairs walls, threatening Professor’s high-hung paintings. Against all odds, the boy and the professor become friends; the former’s vulnerability, cloaked in cynicism, touches the latter, and their politics, we eventually discover, aren’t so far apart. A ripple of latent homosexuality may even be drawing the old man to Konrad. More than anything else, Professor becomes Konrad’s surrogate father.
This beautiful piece about the outdated remnants of selfish artistocracy (to which the disintegrating Brumonti family is correlative) is the penultimate film by Luchino Visconti, who draws superlative performances from Burt Lancaster, Claudia Marsani as the marchesa’s daughter, and his last lover, Helmut Berger.
73. THE PASSENGER. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #81.
74. NASHVILLE. I saw a leg sticking out. . . . I need something like this for my documentary! It’s America: all those cars smashing together. —Opal, BBC reporter
As a friend recently reminded me, I used to not like Robert Altman’s most celebrated film. The passage of time, though, has helped me see that I was wrong. Nashville really is a masterpiece.
Altman’s Nashville zigzags among different stories involving performers and “civilians” at a particular time in Nashville. Someone with a loudspeaker attached to his vehicle is a presidential candidate seeking to abolish the Electoral College and “The Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, and a self-involved Brit is on hand making a documentary about America for the BBC. But the wonder of Nashville is its tightly woven fabric of somewhat peculiar American lives. Like Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho (see above), Altman finds the American mainstream full of human aberration.
Perhaps the most remarkable contributor to this composite portrait of American behavior is Tom Frank. Frank, part of a trio, is narcissistic; he makes love while tape recordings of his songs play. Yet, when a performer (not in the trio) is shot down on stage from the audience, he is there, helping however he can—instantly. Keith Carradine, as Tom, gives the film’s finest performance. He also wrote and composed the film’s two best songs. Carradine won an Oscar for “I’m Easy”; but how many realize he also wrote “It Don’t Worry Me,” the anthem by which another character, beautifully played by Barbara Harris, rallies the shaken audience after the (likely successful) assassination attempt? Nashville is Altman’s, but also Carradine’s—a step in his becoming one of his generation’s most interesting American film actors.
Nashville includes Altman’s best shots: closeups of the American flag rippled by a disconcerting breeze.
75. F FOR FAKE. F for Fake, also known as Vérités et mensonges (Truths and Lies), is Orson Welles’s exquisite documentary about trickery and fraud—something the world’s most famous amateur magician should know something about. Indeed, the film nearly begins with a cloaked Welles delighting two children with a magic trick at a train depot. It exactly begins with just the sound of his voice beginning this trick against a blank screen, a reminder of how Welles convinced countless Americans during the Depression of a Martian invasion through the simulated news bulletins in his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. All’s Wells that ends Welles.
Welles uses the form of a film about the shooting of a film. Deceptively, we will find out, he assures us at the outset, that his film is entirely true. This is one of his most playful films.
Among the “practitioners” of fakery it documents are Elmyr de Hory, the art forger, Hory’s biographer, Clifford Irving, who also wrote a fraudulent biography of recluse Howard Hughes, and Welles himself, whose sleight of artful hand, besides juggling old and new documentary elements and sly reenactments, creates a structure of Chinese boxes among which Welles cuts back and forth with dizzying, delightful rapidity.
Eventually, the film pulls its Persian rug out from under us, exposing how it has succeeded in fooling us. This isn’t errant manipulation because it clarifies Welles’s thematic intent: a bravura demonstration of our inclination to cede to seemingly authoritative information and to authority itself. F for Fake is, ultimately, an anti-fascist work. This serious purpose, then, accounts for its complex tone, which includes notes of profound melancholy. Too often we have been fooled by dangerous political ideas and leaders.
The film comes from France, Iran and West Germany.
76. NEWS FROM HOME. Belgium’s greatest filmmaker ever is a Jewish woman and (as some of her films make explicit) a lesbian. This is Chantal Äkerman, whose masterpiece, D’Est (1993), I named the ninth best film of all time in my 100 Greatest Films List.
For a spell, Äkerman lived in New York City, where she made, at a hotel inhabited by elderly persons, the haunting documentary Hotel Monterey (1972). She returned to the city to make News from Home, about her relationship with her mother during the time of her first stay away from home. The New York she documents along the way isn’t Woody Allen’s elegant haunt scored to Gershwin (Manhattan, 1979) but a teeming, colorful metropolis correlative to the explosion of possibilities in her (then) young life.
The film counterpoints soft, vibrant city images with her mother’s lonely letters from Brussels, which in effect the images drown out, their “voice”—Äkerman herself reads the letters aloud—trailing to an inaudible whisper to suggest the normal separation from family of a grown offspring and her passage into an irresistible life of her own. Her mother’s gingerly expressed pleas for companionship, to maintain the security of their familiar bond, the film doesn’t caricature as manipulative stratagem, nor are we likely to mistake daughter’s neglect of parent for abandonment. Rather, the film records a life-process whose enveloping warm irony is the fact that Äkerman, now independent, through this film of hers, shares with her mother her own “news from home,” thus making possible between them a new, more appropriate, no less loving relationship. (Äkerman’s mother would appear in her daughter’s next film.)
Two of the hallmarks of Äkerman’s great art are her humanity and minimalism, both in evidence in News from Home. Although stylistically elliptical, the film is emotionally direct—and immensely satisfying.
77. LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE. Last Chants for a Slow Dance, Jon Jost’s “Gary Gilmore film” (metaphorically, not literally), proceeds by set-pieces, switching between color and black and white, sound and silence, static and moving camera, realism and moody dreaminess, script (by Jost and Peter Trias) and improvisation. A haunting evocation of some interior male American landscape, the film follows Tom (Tom Blair, excellent) throughout western Montana in his truck, with lonely stops along the way. Tom, out of work and luckless in his attempts to find work, is chewed out by Darlene, his pregnant wife, for failing to support her and their children. We watch both cede to their roles as defined by U.S. myths: rugged individualism; personal responsibility; effort, hard work = success.
Tom is often not quite what he seems. In his conversation with a young hitchhiker he appears to be a misogynist (aren’t working-class adult males supposed to be that?), but a subsequent conversation with someone in a café suggests otherwise.
A teasing refrain accompanies the postal sheets Tom’s hand flips through: “. . . should be considered armed and dangerous.” These people matter; they are “wanted.” “This is all I have left,” Tom says, referring to his gun. He has stopped on the road, perhaps with the initial intention of helping the motorist whose car has stalled. Playing the Good Samaritan is a possibility, but starting fresh depends on retaining his anonymity. The motorist recognizes him. After confessing he is jobless and broke, Tom robs the man in a middle-distance shot and shoots him dead in long-shot, the camera distance in the latter case perhaps indicating his not having wanted to do this. At the last Tom is back on the road; his first victim may not be his last.
Jost cinematographed, edited, sings(!).
78. NORTHERN LIGHTS. Northern Lights, co-directed by John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, attempts to blur the line between its historical fiction and documentary. Blending actors and nonprofessionals, it brings an achingly beautiful black-and-white immediacy to the American past and creates a stirring ode to the American labor movement.
In the fierce North Dakota winter clime of the 1910s, farmers find themselves discounted by politicians and set upon by foreclosing bankers. The grain they work hard to harvest—in a snowstorm, no less, in one of the film’s most amazing passages—is sold for processing to grain elevators; the banks and railroad that control these pay exceptionally little. Thus the farmers unionize, in the Nonpartisan League. One of the organizers envisions their cooperatively owning their own grain elevators and becoming shareholders in state-chartered banks. Northern Lights, then, depicts the daunting circumstances the farmers face and the countervailing efforts of these new pioneers. It documents the retaliation they endure from the current institutions arrayed against their attempts at social change. It finds in dark, drafty rooms sparse though glowing light—a persistent symbol of hope.
The narrative unfolds as the reminiscence of one of the League’s organizers. It is framed in the present. Sadly, the ringing optimism of the tail-end of this narrative frame would soon be erased by the pathological presidency of Ronald Reagan, and so, in our minds, we must add another coda to Northern Lights, however much doing so breaks our hearts.
There is a spirit to this film that’s irresistible—and, in the extended context of the crippling of unionism in America, which Reagan launched but which considerable mismanagement by unions themselves abetted, this joyful spirit assumes a tragic dimension.
79. BRITANNIA HOSPITAL. Britannia Hospital completes Lindsay Anderson’s satirical trilogy about the state of Britain (If . . . .—see above; O Lucky Man!, 1973). Fiercely funny, darkly prophetic, it is a transmutation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Scenarist David Sherwin notes collisions between classism and democracy and between imperialism and other problems of equity—social welfare problems—at home. Everyman Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell, marvelous) now completes his life’s journey, achieving his tragic destiny as a subversive, surreptitious documentarian. Anderson’s behavioral blend of humanism, anarchism and mordant wit, and his stylistic blend of realistic and fantastic elements, stamp again the final installment.
Britannia Hospital is beset with the problems besetting Britain’s health system and, indeed, British society in general in the mid-1970s. Workers are on strike; for example, the kitchen cooks won’t cook, and the oranges being served for breakfast can’t appease the luxuriant appetites of the hospital’s upper-class residents. Also, the hospital is under seige because of one of the hospital’s visiting patients, whom demonstrators want removed: a cruel, oppressive and rather infantile African dictator reminiscent of Uganda’s Idi Amin. Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein, rechristened Professor Millar, has frozen assorted human body parts and is planning on electrifying into existence their composite. Oh, dear: the head, defrigerated, has wilted; a replacement today must be found. Exceptional guests, including the Queen Mum, are expected on the occasion of the hospital’s 500th anniversary, and Millar has a surprise demonstration in store.
A number of labor leaders pursue personal power in the film, a corruption and distortion of their representative mandate. Anderson was one Leftist who thus understood why his nation took the corrective course of electing Margaret Thatcher in 1979—this maniacal Rightist and upholder of all the privilege that disgusted him.
80. ZELIG. Woody Allen’s track record has never been consistent. An eyesore, and onanistic, Annie Hall (1977) represents the scenarist-director at his worst—or appeared to, until his winning Oscars for it plunged Allen into the dank family melodrama of Interiors (1978). A lovely Manhattan (1979) was followed by two inferior works. Zelig, which was next, came therefore as a revelation. In gorgeous black and white, it is both his Sherlock Jr. and his Citizen Kane—a humanistic piece of such wit and dazzling invention that it accumulates into a metaphor for creative possibilities.
Its protagonist, Zelig (Allen), is egoless. Starting in the 1920s, he appears to take on the aspect of whomever or whatever group he happens to be with, and because none of these authentically define him he happens, or seems, to be everywhere: at a ticker-tape parade of heroes, at a Scott Fitzgerald party, at a Nuremberg Hitler rally, and so forth. Reflecting the uncertain sense of self at America’s core, this “chameleon man” becomes a freak celebrity and a subject for medical study. In truth, nothing can be learned from him, because he can scarcely be said to exist. Were it not for Mia Farrow’s inability to portray her sympathetic character as a mature woman (hence, the role is uncomfortably split between Farrow and another actress), this would be a perfect film.
Contesting obsessive American myths (individualism, independence, work ethic rewards), Zelig is, come to think of it, also Allen’s Greed. And it’s riotously funny—of the high satirical order of Mark Twain’s literary masterpieces.
81. PARIS, TEXAS. Lost in the desert, a man wanders without history; but this comes to him in the form of his brother, who asks: “What the hell happened to you, anyhow? You look like forty miles of rough road.”
Written by Sam Shepard and brought into reality by L.M. Kit Carson, Paris, Texas is another of Wim Wenders’s “road pictures”; and, while it falls short of the brilliance of his In the Course of Time (Kings of the Road, 1976), also from West Germany, it has something of the same appreciation for gaps in people’s lives, the spaces that separate people, a sense of drifting, the heartache of disconnected lives. Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller find in the American landscape an infinite expanse of loneliness—and the possibility to irrigate its aridity with wellsprings of love, self-sacrifice and reaching out. At last, here is a film that mends one’s heart after breaking it.
The protagonist is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, at his best), a man who brutalized his wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski, phenomenal), abandoning their three-year-old son, Hunter, who has been raised by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell, giving as beautiful a performance as an ordinary man as he elsewhere gives playing freaks), and Walt’s French-born wife, Anne. Travis assumes custody of Hunter, in the end returning the boy to his mother, who currently works in a peep-show parlor, before returning himself to the desert alone—as John Ford’s The Searchers (see above) puts it, forever riding between the winds. American cinema’s only comparably moving reunion of mother and son would come two years hence, in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
The strains of Ry Cooder’s score suggest the fragile nature of human lives that the film poignantly essays.
82. TIES THAT BIND. Su Friedrich’s black-and-white documentary Ties That Bind is two films in one: her much admiring biography of her mother, a longtime political activist, to whom she is bound in familial love; her own autobiography, centering instead on her difficulties, even now in adulthood, vis-à-vis so formidable a role model, to whom her own sense of identity is inextricably bound.
Friedrich’s mother, Lore Bucher, was born in 1920 in Ulm, Germany, where she lived until 1950 before moving to the U.S. with her American husband, Paul Friedrich. Bucher had been vocally anti-Nazi, refusing in school, even, to raise her hand and say “Heil Hitler!” Neither she nor other family members would give up Jewish friends, causing her father’s horticultural business to suffer, and culminating in their family’s being “written up” in Der Sturmer, the Nazi paper. Throughout, Bucher’s voice is the one we hear; Friedrich’s questions to her mother appear as intertitles.
Ties That Bind thus becomes Friedrich’s antidote to both rigged family melodramas (like Robert Redford’s 1980 Ordinary People), where a parent is conveniently and gratuitously cast as the villain, and trash television talk shows where whining grown-ups confront a parent to “resolve issues” between them. Her film is a coming-to-terms with a larger-than-life parent, but Friedrich accomplishes the task lovingly, admiringly, humanely.
Nevertheless, whenever (like Little Red Riding Hood vis-à-vis Grandmother-Wolf) Friedrich isolates in closeup this or that part of her mother (such as a foot), as though the whole of her mother were too much to take in at once, we glean how daunting a marker to measure up to Friedrich finds this woman—how in her presence Friedrich still feels like a small child.
At times in this tremendously moving film, Bucher’s blazing decency and no-holds-barred courage make us feel a little as her daughter does.
83. MALA NOCHE. Mala Noche is a pseudodocumentary study of the border between tiers of minimal subsistence in a U.S. urban environment—here, Portland, Oregon. Gus Van Sant evokes the hard-luck milieu of a neighborhood of transients. Existentially, his is a world of days and nights rather than events.
Walt, a convenience store clerk, pursues Juan, a teenaged Mexican boy sharing a skid row hotel room with a compañero. Walt explains, “I only want to caress him—hold him.” He is settling for the curbed freedom of something less than one’s heart’s desire. In the last gasp of youth, he hopes to stretch his monotonous place in life into a realm of interest and of the heart.
By misadventure Walt ends up with Juan’s friend, Roberto. Walt and “Johnny” have boyish get-togethers, which, “for some reason,” Walt notes, always include Roberto. Walt thus knows his one arduous coupling with Juan-by-proxy, which sent him to the bathroom for vaseline,—his mala noche, his “bad night”—is as close to heaven as he is likely to get.
When Roberto is shot dead for no reason by the police, Juan turns on Walt—this, the final revelation that theirs was always a threesome. His and Walt’s impasse, it turns out, was simultaneously negotiated from both sides.
Van Sant’s film is enamored of night. Darkness is profound, and spurts of light exist to show the dark and draw us into it. Van Sant’s characters feel their way in and around the dark, the home their lives inhabit. It is America—the “bad night” those born to it have long since adjusted to, believing (mostly on the basis of testimonies from immigrants like Juan) that, however “bad” America is, things elsewhere are worse. The American Dream has turned into a nightmare about the rest of the world.
84. THE DEAD. Some literary works are untranslatable into cinema, and The Dead, from James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, is probably one of them. However, Irish-American John Huston long had nurtured the dream of turning the most beautiful short story in the English language into a film. He was in his eighties and working from an oxygen tent when he did this, from son Tony’s script, and the result is overwhelmingly moving. The Dead was Huston’s last completed film.
With its bristling life, irresistible humor, sharp observation, and glow of melancholy, The Dead is Huston’s most deeply felt and beautifully composed film. One problem, though, did intercede. Joyce’s story unfolds through an omniscient narrator, some of whose gravest reflections are, now, unsuitably given over to Gabriel, the protagonist. Otherwise, though, the film is bliss. With guests dancing lightly around their persistent awareness of “the last end,” the film gives us afresh Joyce’s buoyant, captivating comedy of life written in his twenties to acknowledge “all the living and the dead.” Approaching his own end, his legendary sourness gone, Huston transforms this young man’s piece into a serene contemplation of a universal mystery whose depth of secrets only now he is on the verge of discovering. This hauntingly lit and gloriously acted film—Donal McCann, Anjelica Huston (Huston’s daughter) and Donal Donnelly are the Gabriel, Gretta and Freddy of our dreams—bears the sense of a gracious last testament freely given.
Huston’s is one of the most substantial careers in American cinema, and some films of his that once seemed failures or overly commercial, such as Key Largo (1948) and The Misfits (1961), are of greater interest today.
85. THE LAST EMPEROR (1987, Italy, France, Great Britain). “Don’t you ever like films that win best picture Oscars?”
The Last Emperor, the first part of a trilogy that gets progressively more lost (The Sheltering Sky, 1990; Little Buddha, 1993), is one of the two or three best “best pictures,” and maybe the best. For the record, though, if Academy voters had grasped its politics, they never would have given Bernardo Bertolucci’s film its Oscar, nor given it eight additional prizes besides, including those for direction and cinematography (Vittorio Storaro).
This is a mesmerizing, if dubious, biography of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, whose humbling and rehabilitation by the Communists is heart-piercingly symbolized by the release of a cricket from long captivity. The Last Emperor is the richly detailed drama of the liberation of a soul from the decadent lifestyle and the arrogance that misled him to believe that the common lot of humanity was beneath him. Communism enables Pu to learn, by difficult degrees, to be human.
It is (especially in the hour-longer version now available on DVD) one of the most passionate and splendiferous movies ever made. It is a work, also, of cool irony, for Pu’s enforced obscurity and humility mirror his confinement behind imperial walls during a terribly lonely though exalted, endlessly pampered childhood. Pu’s existence remains solitary. From start to finish, his is the life of one of history’s unluckiest pawns.
The film is formally indebted to Roberto Rossellini’s The Rise of Louis XIV (1966), whose objective humanism Bertolucci moves toward a more sensual romanticism. However, the film’s most gripping scenes, perhaps, are those describing Pu’s imprisonment and re-education. These are spare and austere.
As the grown Pu, John Lone is superb.
86. PLAIN TALK & COMMON SENSE (UNCOMMON SENSES). Jon Jost’s holistic films interrelate a series of humane, social and political concerns. Plain Talk, a British documentary Jost wrote, directed, cinematographed and edited, addresses U.S. myths and realities. It reminds us that we reside on confiscated land.
The film’s opening is lyrical, as a shot of sturdy wild grasses changes to one of a pulsating river superimposed over which a hand tries grasping the U.S., which Jost’s voiceover poignantly explains always eludes him. American tourists are shown at a topographical point where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet, accompanied by an inscription in stone: “Four states meet here in freedom under God.” Playfully, compulsively, families take photographs, unwittingly reducing the experience of place to things: snapshots—commercialized “memories.” People are thus deftly divided from their humanity by a commercial(izing) culture. They are also being divided from Nature, for, Jost’s voice reminds us, states’ boundaries, artificial, were drawn by politicians.
The film itself becomes a kind of tourist in its attempt to take hold of America. A segment presents overlapping voiceovers reading from a plethora of American documents and utterances, accompanied by gorgeous abstract designs that compare the U.S. to a vast cosmic mystery. Jost then analyzes America, initially in terms of European perceptions of it and, later, in terms of demographic facts and figures. (Examples: 1% of the population owns 33% of the nation’s wealth; 31% of eligible voters elected Ronald Reagan president in 1984.) A chamber of commerce-type promotional film about Colorado Springs yields to a frightening consideration of the Strategic Air Command and its role in overseeing prospects for World War III.
In this “essay from the margins,” Jost addresses U.S. nuclear obsessiveness, the military-industrial complex, marketplace tyranny, and the pernicious nature of the nation-state. It’s edifying stuff.
87. THE THIN BLUE LINE. For a while, one of the unfortunate legacies of The Thin Blue Line is that its use of reconstructed events, corresponding to witness testimony, was adopted by television news shows. Now that that practice has subsided, if not entirely vanished, Errol Morris’s beautiful documentary can be appreciated afresh.
On one level driven by narrow agenda, the film sets out to show that a man then serving a life term for killing a Dallas police officer was most likely innocent. Indeed, the attention Morris’s film drew to this likely miscarriage of justice helped get the man released. This is no small thing for a film to accomplish, but, of course, this speaks not at all to the merits of the work. This does: an eerily engrossing mosaic of interviews, reportage and dramatic reconstructions, with fugue-like repetitions and a both burrowing and meditative temperament, and all of it enriched by steely, somber color and by Philip Glass’s hypnotic music, The Thin Blue Line achieves the aspect of a tone poem on human ambiguities. All this, moreover, combined with the Dallas locale, elusively insinuates the mystery surrounding President Kennedy’s death. The result haunts.
And one thing more: Like Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (see above), Morris’s film inconveniently rattles us, in this instance, with racist testimony helping to exonerate the imprisoned man.
88. THE JUNIPER TREE. The Juniper Tree is less macabre and far less violent than the Grimm Bros. fairy tale upon which it is based. A film from Iceland (Einitréð is its Icelandic title), but one in English, its creator was an American filmmaker and teacher, Nietzchka Keene, who somewhere is a bird now, having died of cancer in 2004. Transaction between the worlds of birds and humans is at the heart of both the story and the film. Keane wrote, directed, edited.
Keene has wrought a haunting, solemn, black-and-white medieval ballad. Her film, which is ghostly, quiet, shivering, claims some affinity with two films by Ingmar Bergman: The Seventh Seal (1956) and The Virgin Spring (1959). It is equally naturalistic and dreamlike.
Björk plays Margit, one of two sisters who flee their village after their mother is burned as a witch; Margit herself “has visions,” and Katla, the bold one, presses her younger sister to acknowledge these visions. Meanwhile, the two move in with a young farmer, with whom Katla has fallen in love, whose wife has just died and whose young son proclaims Katla a witch upon advice, he insists, from his departed mother, whose place in his home, he feels, Katla is attempting to usurp. The boy, Jónas, insists that his mother’s spirit is still protecting him, allowing Katla to goad him into jumping off a cliff to prove his contention that his mother will change him into a bird so that no harm comes to him. Mother doesn’t come through, and the fall kills the boy.
Very strange, very beautiful, this minimalist piece locates an imaginative space where spiritual and (subsistent) material worlds touch. An image of a huge, fierce bird—a human who has passed into spirit—dominating a humble juniper tree amazes.
89. DRUGSTORE COWBOY. Filmed in Portland, Oregon, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, from James Fogle’s novel, is without agenda—an unsentimental account of a young man’s dogged attempt to lift himself out of a makeshift lifestyle composed of drugs and theft. The film ends ambiguously, with Bob (Matt Dillon, trenchant) perhaps about to die as he is rushed to hospital in an ambulence. If he survives, despite his dedicated reforming, he may be en route to becoming the wasted, homeless, “fat as butter” Bob of Van Sant’s lyrical, devastating My Own Private Idaho (1991).
Despite a foray into commercial filmmaking he has since repudiated, Van Sant has emerged as perhaps the premier American filmmaker at taking on American myth—for instance, the fiction of self-determination, in which, collectively, many Americans deludedly believe; for, at best, all Bob can do in Drugstore Cowboy (as he ultimately discloses in his unselfpitying voiceover) is try his best and see what comes. His life is so far out of his hands that it nearly seems to be somebody else’s life, which, as it happens, he is constantly, curiously observing.
If, unlike My Own Private Idaho, where Falstaff-Fagin-Bob bitterly dies, Cowboy ends open-endedly, with tentative hope, there is a key passage that hints at the oblique sequel to come. In the woods we see leaves in whose green color neither blue nor yellow predominates; the woodsiest, most insulated green imaginable, it images growth bereft of a sunlit spark of life: an epiphany of Bob’s fate, which, for all his countervailing efforts, an insurmountable environment will execute against him. The fact that he is in the woods burying the corpse of a compatriot who drug-overdosed completes the symbolism.
Drugstore Cowboy is a haunting achievement.
90. SINK OR SWIM. Paul Friedrich, anthropologist, poet, linguist, university professor, regarded daughter Su as a substitute for his adored sister, for whose childhood death he has (unnecessarily) blamed himself. We may infer from his cold withdrawal from this daughter’s life, especially after he leaves and divorces Su’s mother, disappointed expectations. In becoming herself, Su increasingly departed from the identity that her father had imposed on her.
The title of Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim, a companion-piece to her film about her relationship with her mother, The Ties That Bind (1985), refers to the serendipitous mystery of conception addressed by the film’s first three chapters, “Zyglote,” “Y-chromosome” and “X-chromosome.” (The first letter of chapter titles reverses the alphabet, Z to A; the film ends with a recitation of the “ABC”-song accompanying a doubled, hence destabilized, image of Su as a child.) Also, “sink or swim” summarizes the attitude informing both how Paul taught his daughter to swim and his parenting generally. Friedrich’s black-and-white film includes snippets of home movies, scientific films, TV shows, newly shot reconstructive material, etc. The haunting silence of the opening movement is pierced by the voiceover of a young girl representing Friedrich as a child.
Paul, competitive, taught Su chess. He never played again with her following the first time she won.
The clanking of typewriter keys trails off into silence as we watch (in stark photographic negative) “Su” type a letter explaining the family hardship post-abandonment: “P.S. I wish I could mail you this letter.”
Father and daughter travel together to Mexico, but Paul sends Su back home, alone, as punishment. Su: her tears were not those “of an orphaned child but those of a frustrated teenage girl who had to pay for a crime she didn’t commit.”
Delicate, profoundly moving coming-of-age documentary.
91. PROOF. In Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Australian comedy Proof, Martin has been blind since birth. Celia (Geneviève Picot, delicious), his housekeeper, in love with him, is mischievously obsessive because of Martin’s rebuffs to her overtures. Now Celia is jealous of Andy (Russell Crowe, charming), Martin’s new friend. What to do? To expose his unworthiness, she makes Andy her lover.
All three seek “proof” of something. Raised by his mother, Martin, mistrusting his mother’s descriptions, began using a camera in childhood to record a verifiable reality. A blind photographer still, Martin now amasses symbolic “proof” that his mother was a liar who so didn’t love him she even feigned her final illness and death in order to rid herself of him. His and Celia’s relationship operates on reciprocal torment. By contrast, the basis of his friendship with Andy is trust, although there’s scant evidence this drifter and dreamer merits such approbation; and the lonely intensity of their sudden friendship, especially after they’re perilously mistaken for a homosexual couple, confounds Andy’s simple feelings, urging quick confirmation—proof—he is what he is: heterosexual. Thus the boy is ripe for succumbing to Celia’s scheme to seduce him. To expose Andy as untrustworthy surely isn’t Celia’s only motive for seducing him, however. Her continual battle with Martin has been losing and bruising. Celia needs confirmation—proof—she is what she is: a sparklingly attractive woman.
Moorhouse’s film is spirited, fresh and very funny. It is also poignant, the result of Moorhouse’s having structured her material to intrude gorgeously lit shafts of the past, involving mother and son, on a largely comical present. These flickers of childhood pain key us into a somber undertow, which deepens Proof’s humanity.
92. DON QUIJOTE. A “medieval dreamer in a sixteenth-century post-medieval world,” Don Quijote confronts present with past. His head full of books and in the clouds, trying to right the world’s wrongs, this noble knight is grounded, if at all, by the humanity of his devoted squire, Sancho Panza. “I must follow my path despite all the world,” he says. Orson Welles might have said the same about himself.
Welles began shooting his film of Cervantes’ seventeenth-century novel in the mid-1950s. He died in 1985. In 1992 a version appeared in Spain, completed by horror filmmaker Jess Franco, who had assisted Welles on Chimes at Midnight (1966).
One of Welles’s most massively moving, gorgeous works, the stark black-and-white Quijote begins in the style of a Soviet silent; low-hung, upwardly tilted cameras frame bony Quijote on horseback against eternal sky, here, of legend, myth, literature. Ironically, this repeated camera ploy has the effect of destabilizing the image of Quijote, wobbling it, as though only his horse could manage to keep a nearing-fifty Quijote upright. Quijote has endured, we are later told, obscurity, repression, tyranny—a reminder that Francisco Franco (until his death in 1975) ruled Spain.
The first time Quijote, on horseback, confronts his Dulcinea, the creature of his imagination upon whom he wishes to lavish his chivalry, she is a present-day woman riding a motorcycle! Thereafter, periodically the past and the present intermix, as do the Cervantes film and Welles’s own stay in Spain while shooting it—a postmodernist delight, but again underscoring how out-of-place Quijote always was in time. Quijote concludes that humanity’s choice to be enslaved by machines, not progress, is modernity’s problem.
Missing is extraordinary footage wherein, watching his first movie in a theater, a battle epic, Quijote charges the screen, cutting it to shreds.
93. THE BED YOU SLEEP IN. Set in Oregon timber country, Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In studies a family within the context of regional economic downturn in the mid-1990s. The opening image, of a lumber mill’s smokestack belching out smoke into the air, conveys both productivity and pollution. Logging cranes in operation, resembling gigantic metal insects, suggest both useful labor and something amiss.
Ray owns and operates the mill. In addition to a timber shortage wrought, in part, by stringent environmental laws, the mill must contend with the housing slump wrought by an overall ailing economy.
Ray and Jean’s marriage is happy and affectionate. However, Jean is Ray’s second wife, and their affair began while he was still married to his first wife. A lingering knowledge of Ray’s capacity to lie convincingly is thus further compounded by Jean’s own guilt for having contributed to this long-ago lie. Overcompensating, Jean has loved Tracy, Ray’s child from his first marriage, as her own. Nevertheless, her repressed guilt has erupted periodically whenever she and Ray quarrel, as accusations against him.
Disaster awaits the two, triggered by freshman Tracy, whose women’s support group at college has convinced her her father sexually abused her as a child. Memories are popping up in her head—not “memories” exactly, but “images,” she writes Jean, explaining she doesn’t know when, if ever, she will be able to return home.
Driven to believe Tracy to assuage her own guilt, Jean demands Ray tell her “the truth,” which is impossible for him to establish, and which Jean is incapable of accepting because of its indeterminableness. The marriage unravels; each family member, between a rock and a hard place emotionally, commits suicide.
This film brilliantly charts the intersection of family and socioeconomic stress—a long problematic American history that’s taking its toll.
94. BLACK KITES. Written and directed by performance artist Jo Andres, the spouse of Steve Buscemi, who co-produced and (beautifully) acts in it, Black Kites draws on 1992 journals, as well as drawings and collages, by Alma Hajric, a Bosnian artist holed up with her spouse and child in a basement during the seige of Sarajevo. Alma is divided into two distinct incarnations: Alma, wife and mother, played by Mimi Goese, whose family interactions appear against a rich black backdrop, to suggest that these reenactments have been reclaimed from the dark recesses of memory; and Alma the artist, whom we hear narrating the film (Mira Furlan provides the voiceover), and whose “text,” the journals contemporaneous with the ordeal, suggests the agency of this reclamation.
The film is dreamlike, a fusion of simple human activities and ambitiously complex technique. The result suggests the pared-down Anne Frank existence—a minimalist life—that Alma and her family eked out of the chaos, cruelty and insanity of the war raging around them. Father, mother, son—the Buscemis’ adorable 3½-year-old son, Lucian, plays the boy—appear luminous against the black backdrop. Andres marshals also an array of experimental techniques, partly to convey the mental and spiritual resourcefulness at the core of Alma and her husband’s resilience. (Andres herself describes her aesthetic style as “perceptual mischief.”) This is risky procedure, to say the least, especially in light of the oppressively busy result Peter Greenaway, for instance, manages by the profusion of visual techniques he applies to his Tempest film, Prospero’s Books (1991). But Andres prevails; her Black Kites is free of all blot of technical fancy or visual overload. Indeed, the piece achieves a sense of intimacy and gracious solitude, becoming a near-meditative experience. Startlingly humane, Black Kites seems spare, burrowing, endlessly mysterious.
95. LOST HIGHWAY. David Lynch’s Lost Highway proceeds from the Western mind’s split into competing selves by dint of Darwinism and Freudian psychology, systems that objectified us for ourselves. The result has been nearly constant self-awareness, which can quickly turn to paranoia, which as quickly creates the need to justify the paranoia, even if this means bending reality to it. Our self-objectification led, politically, to the twentieth-century birth and growth of totalitarianism. In retrospect, Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) seems a gloss on Reaganism and related outcrops of reactionary thought and feeling.
Lost Highway’s opening movement is bone-crunching—spare, concentrated, almost intolerably intense. Minimal lighting, deep colors, the suspenseful use of negative space, inexorably slow camera movements, an ominous soundtrack: these and other elements collapse naturalism and surrealism in order to evoke, as if from within his tormented mind, a club musician’s suspiciousness regarding his wife. Videotaped evidence has him murdering her savagely—or is it an image of himself murdering an image of her? The man is tried, convicted, locked up. One morning, inexplicably, someone else is occupying his solitary cell. The law must release whoever has “replaced” him, on the grounds that this someone else must be occupying another life.
Working intuitively from his morbid yet salutary imagination, Lynch proceeds (with lowered ferocity) to interpret selfconsciousness through a crisscrossing pattern of lives where any soul can be instantly replaced by a “double”—sometimes a different mask, sometimes a different life. Brilliantly acted by Patricia Arquette in homage to Barbara Stanwyck’s phenomenal performance in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Lost Highway remains elusive where it isn’t unfathomable. The film suggests some anxious, violent, weirdly funny cousin of Jacques Rivette’s self-referencing “created realities.” It also suggests Poe and Pirandello.
Watching Lost Highway, I thought I had died and gone to hell.
96. THE TANGO LESSON. Londoner Sally Potter’s exuberant The Tango Lesson draws on three of her passions: humanity, film, dance. Sally the character goes about making a film that becomes, in effect, The Tango Lesson. The film breathes. It’s aglow with life and spirit.
Central to the film is the Argentinian tango—a sensuous, intricate dance where the woman must be like water to a minutely nuanced breeze; sensitively alert, she must respond to the man’s lead in less than a heartbeat.
But this dance raises an issue that Potter feels compelled to address. Is there a way to reconcile the dance’s beauty with its subordination of the female to the male?
The dance is new to Sally, whom Potter herself (wonderfully) plays. Sally isn’t simply, passively, trying to learn a dance. She is also trying to teach it a thing or two about her and about gender equality. The “ tango lesson,” then, is a matter of who should not always be leading whom. By thus striking her own perspective against the rock of a traditional male prerogative, Sally also helps to objectify, for herself, a dilemma of opposite impulses—at once, her desire to “do” the tango, which is, after all, a dance where the male does decisively lead, and her desire somehow to change this in order to make the dance her own. Is there a way of tossing out the bathwater and not the baby?
Not according to her dance instructor, who becomes her professional dance partner. The dance’s masculine bias suits him fine; in one way or another, he “tangoes” onstage and off. Sally’s love for him coincides with her love of the tango.
The Tango Lesson is as playful as its underpinnings are solid and serious. Unerringly, Potter holds in balance its gravity and lightness.
97. BELFAST, MAINE. For four fascinating hours, Frederick Wiseman surveys the mid-sized bayside town of Belfast, Maine—its (gorgeous) natural environment, its people, its institutions. People are shown at work, such as in a sardine factory, where each step is shown in the process that ends with the tinning of the fish; there are also social workers, ER receptionists, police officers, and so forth. People are also shown in social activities and more highly personal exchanges. Here is a massive sociological work.
It is also a summary work, recalling other Wiseman films. For instance, Belfast, Maine returns to the American high school. As in High School (see above), the results are bleak. Here, the English teacher is neither fatuous nor incompetent; he teaches Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with intelligence and passion, but he must persevere, which he admirably does, through a sea of student otioseness and indifference that drowns all hope for America’s future. In many details, the film is an apocalyptic work. On the other hand, patience and kindness are also shown, such as in the care of the elderly, implying a community spirit that defies the fact the town has many more good years behind it than ahead. With thematic rigor and a sense of completion, the film ends in church.
Wiseman’s films observe, absent voiceover guidance. One watches as scenes accumulate into a rich, full vision of existence. Wiseman’s method enables viewers to feel they are half-creating Belfast, Maine; they aren’t just looking at the town’s inhabitants but imagining their unspoken thoughts and feelings, perhaps challenged by the degree of strangeness in the people on view, perhaps beckoned by the complicity they themselves feel in the shared American experience—or both.
If Wiseman’s New Englanders are going down for the count, so are the rest of us.
98. MULHOLLAND DR. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #96.
99. ELEPHANT. Populated by actual Portland, Oregon, highschoolers, Elephant shows a day at a typical American high school. Today, however, the school falls seige to a Columbine-type rampage by two disaffected, gun-toting pupils. Gus Van Sant has written, directed and edited his most powerful, most haunting film.
At the outset, when John returns to school late from lunch with his drunken father, we have no idea whether he will be one of the student killers or victims, or what. Any of the boys at the school, and even some girls, might have turned into the unhappy killers Alex and Eric have turned into. We glimpse the pair’s harassment and humiliation by fellow students in class, as the teacher either misses what’s going on or turns a blind eye, and we wonder: When will anybody, especially a largely defenseless adolescent, snap? John also has his hands full—with his father, whom he must father. Van Sant’s patient, associative, cumulative work has begun to weave its rich, breathing fabric.
There is a precise sense of loss as kids are coldly shot down, one after the other. Van Sant doesn’t detail the teenagers’ lives but shows us enough so we want to know more. When each death cancels this possibility, we are left with an awful sense of the incompletion of the victim’s life.
Long, bewitching tracking shots follow students in and out of the school and down its long hallways. Inspired by Béla Tarr’s Hungarian masterpiece, Sátántangó (1994), an unbroken tracking shot in Elephant may bend chronology around, seamlessly coming across the same action, this time shown from a different perspective. This convoluted method correlates to the fomenting violence that will shatter the innocence of a seemingly safe, placid, glass-encased world.
One thing more: Van Sant’s signature time-lapsed skies have never been more heartachingly poetic.
100. PASSAGES. Jon Jost’s legal rights regarding his young daughter were severed by Portuguese courts upon petition of the mother, who had kidnapped Clara from the couple’s Rome apartment. Clara was by her father’s side throughout much of the shoot of Passages’s material; now the digital video embodies Jost’s spiritual reconnection with Clara, to ease his side of their physical separation, and the monument to his love for her that someday she herself might visit.
Passages is a thing of Monetic/Turneresque beauty, of gorgeous imagery, processed in-camera, in perpetual transformation—a measured, almost entirely silent kaleidoscopic work.
To begin with, a seemingly infinite number of vertical strands fluctuate, creating a dance of dark, shimmering light in a field, or sea, of grays. The introduction of color impedes the image’s luxuriant flow, helping it to resemble a forest—the kind in which children lose their way in fairy tales. We are in the thick of it; the slightly suffocating quality now makes each inflection of light precious, an opening that’s letting in sunlit air.
The image’s clarification suggests the perception, or sharpening of perception, that accompanies the coming into being of someone from the oceanic “feel” of prenatal existence. The static camera now springs into life; layered in superimpositions, the forest sprints past. Now we are watching something apart from us. A rapid static-like thumping on the soundtrack can be interpreted as a heartbeat.
The image continues its transformations, passing between stasis and motion, silence and (some) sound, mysterious indeterminateness and clear-cut live action (Clara at play), color and black and white. The camera’s rapid movement creates the illusion that trees themselves have taken flight, conflating the grounded and the airborne; definition, abstraction; perception, feeling; time, timelessness. There are lurking dangers ahead. From these Jost would protect Clara, if only he could.