Better than AFI’s Top 100: 90-86

The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

90) Paris, Texas (1984), directed by Wim Wenders.

Paris, Texas raises the question, as much as any other movie on my list, I think, of what it means to make an American film. Wenders was German, and the movie was funded by German and French money. Yet I’ve called it American based primarily on the fact that this is a movie shot in America about Americans; it’s a flimsy measure, maybe, but it seems wrong to disqualify a movie like this one which has so much America in it, and it certainly seems wrong not to include a movie this good when by some definition it fits my criteria.

America is awful big. The idea of the West as a place for new beginnings or new opportunities (and new genocide) is the secondary theme of the 19th Century in our country. Wenders, with a soaring shot of the desert with its rich colors and high plateaus, eventually giving us the hawk’s-eye view of a man striding through the landscape, seems quintessentially American. The mysterious face of a man wearing a pinstriped jacket (dusty as all get-out), an unemblazoned red baseball cap, and a tie that is hanging on to being tied by a thread, his somewhat wild eyes, all of it imposed upon an electric blue sky and the faded orange of the land. He stops, swallows the last of the water from a gallon jug, and walks on. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton, with a face as beat up as a crumpled plastic bag) will collapse in a bar and his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), will come from Los Angeles to get him. Something about the desert keeps calling him back into the expanse; more than once he’ll disappear, either on foot or by car, and Walt will have to redirect him back to his family.

Much later, we’ll come to understand the point of that man’s improbable four-year sojourn into the Mojave. It came from the emptiness of a marriage that turned him cruel. In a line which reminds me of the immemorial ache of the English patient – “All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps” – Travis confesses before his redemption. (It’s written by that quintessential recent American playwright, Sam Shepard.) He says, “And for the first time, he wished he were far away. Lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language or streets. And he dreamed about this place without knowing its name.” Even in 1984, it was possible – and I think it still is possible – to fulfill that wish.

89) Amadeus (1984), directed by Milos Forman.

Movies adapted from plays are so often disappointing, even though they seem like they should be significantly cleaner fits for the stage than novels or even short stories. I think part of the reason why is that you lose the energy of a stage show, of an audience totally wrapped into the live actors in front of them; film is just more detached as a fact of the medium. Part of the problem is that I think directors can’t help but think of what they have as a play being filmed, and if people wanted to see that, then it’d be a heck of a lot easier to get Hamilton tickets. Forman, with the close collaboration of the writer, Peter Shaffer, manages to lose that play feeling. The movie was filmed in Prague – when I took a tour of the city ten years ago, our tour guide made a point of noting locations – and as a result it doesn’t look like a play at all; it looks like a movie popped up in 18th Century Europe. The rococo and baroque rooms, the shining costumes and glowing wigs and faces made up pale are not callbacks to the West End but to history classes. Part of the reason the movie has aged fairly well, I think, is because F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce didn’t become major screen stars in the aftermath of Amadeus. They’ll always be the ghosts of Salieri and Mozart to us, sneering and giggling.

As much as anyone who didn’t make theology his profession, Shaffer is the 20th Century figure who makes us wonder most about God. Salieri in particular is absolutely convinced of the existence of God, and that belief makes him mad. If God is real, then why is he so cruel to Salieri, who has made a deal with God and never broken his end of it? God might not be real, of course, but Salieri knows better. He has never had the thought before, and he might not be able to conceive of that possibility. Certainly God has never been absent for him before, has never given him a reason to believe that he isn’t there. His monologue in which he rejects God because God rejected him, overlaid with the visual of him laying a crucifix into the fireplace, is stunning not merely for is shock value but because our understanding of justice places the blame not on Salieri but on God. Abraham manages to pull off this intensely tricky bit of acting with the same skill that he does throughout the rest of the film. Part of the reason Abraham won Best Actor and Hulce didn’t is because Abraham played the more serious role. But Salieri is so difficult to pull off, and on stage has been played by men who are renowned for their immense dignity: Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, David Suchet. Although the film doesn’t quite nail the ending – the best ending to Amadeus was actually written after the movie premiered, since it allows us to see who the Requiem was really for – Abraham as Salieri makes up for it by being incredulously offended all the time. How can other people act like that, he seems to be asking at every hazard, condescending to every wig with his plain brown hair and every painted face with his blemished skin, and why did God choose their patron saint to do so?

88) Killer of Sheep (1978), directed by Charles Burnett.

Picture links back here

It takes a really remarkable film to kill time; there is no sense of hours or days in Killer of Sheep because individual actions are daily ones. How long a woman looks into the lid of a sauce pan to check her face and then go to the mirror to make up is an action outside of time. Going to work and carting sheep innards around is an action outside of time. Sitting in a truck and hearing the ice cream van go by without ever seeing it is an action outside of time. Throwing rocks at a train is outside of time. The only passage of time which we can get to is the movement of sheep from place to place; their presence, or the presence of the hooks which their bodies will be hung up on, helps us to recognize that it’s a new day or a new hour. Very few events push action heavily, and as a result the entire thing simply feels more real. It’s the late ’70s, a fact which is crystal clear in the cars people drive and the way people dress, and Burnett might have memorialized the color, too. This is neorealism not for Rome but for Watts; color would have torpedoed a beautifully put together movie. Burnett has an obvious gift for framing shots, often placing people at sharp angles to buildings or using close-ups to appreciate every raised eyebrow and the fatigue in people’s age lines. A slow dance takes up more than two minutes, simply watching the turning bodies of a couple. With music it is close and romantic. Without music it is heartbreaking, and it turns from one to the other with the flip of a switch as the music disappears and as the man walks away from his wife.

Events like that feed the resentment that everyone seems to share in the movie. Parents seem to resent their children for misbehaving; the wife is jealous of her daughter’s closeness with her father. Kids resent other kids for just about anything. Adults resent each other for their sexual repression, for their money problems. Two men resent the car that isn’t running right. And resentment – never quite bitterness, because bitterness would require the slow burn that this movie doesn’t indulge in – keeps people’s motors going. Even the dogs are resentful of the kids who ride into their territory on a bike. The only creatures in this movie which don’t seem resentful are the sheep, who go where they’re pushed and wind up dead. Stan, whose eyes we see through, seems nearly as far from resentment as the sheep; he is alienated from the people around him. People ask him to help them out with a “job,” and not long after the white woman running a convenience store offers him one. His wife wants to go to bed with him; someone invites him to get into a game of dice for stakes. He shakes everyone off with varying levels of politeness, never rude but sometimes short in his silence. He seems to be through with dissatisfaction; nothingness suffices instead.

87) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), directed by Martin Scorsese.

The premise of The Last Temptation of Christ, originally a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, is simpler and more hypothetical than Shaffer’s work in Amadeus. What if Jesus were to decide not to be crucified? Helmed by Scorsese, who thought seriously about becoming a Catholic priest, and written by Paul Schrader, who had an incredibly strict Calvinist upbringing before getting a minor in theology from Calvin College, Last Temptation is one of those rare religious movies made by people with a connection to the source material. In terms of the folks making movies or running television shows, non-religious people are often as clueless about religious people as white people are about people of color. It’s ironic that Last Temptation is probably more famous now for the protests by religious people rather than the content of the film, which is remarkable in its own right. Scorsese and Schrader, thank goodness, understand the stakes of what it would mean if Jesus were to be convinced to walk off the Cross, and they bring us into that possibility and, to some extent, can evince the terror which would ensue.

The cast is seriously ’80s. Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, David Bowie, and Harry Dean Stanton are all here, are for the most part playing people significantly less white than themselves, and have plenty to say. Dafoe is a lot better than I’d expected, filled alternately with a worried vulnerability in the early going while he makes crosses and with a quiet force later on which builds his authority. Keitel gives, for my money, the worst performance I’ve ever seen in a movie this good, and even so I think his presence may have dropped this movie ten to fifteen spots. Yet the film, with its desert setting and its clean look, doesn’t look dated at all. Like Silence or Kundun, the other obviously religious pictures in Scorsese’s body of work, he seems to be energized by the ability to shoot where the population density is significantly lower than it is in New York or Las Vegas. Some of the individual shots in this film are simply indelible; some scenes, like the one where Jesus is tempted in the desert, are perhaps even unique. In the circle that Jesus draws for himself which he refuses to leave, he is visited a snake, a lion, and finally a towering burst of flame. In singular oppositions – simplistic as they are, even! – Scorsese finds overwhelming focus.

86) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), directed by John Ford.

Liberty Valance is one of the last films that Ford ever made, and probably the last unimpeachable classic of the bunch, one which seems to look back on his massive oeuvre with a somewhat embittered eye. Ford is represented thirteen times in the Top 450 where my poll is derived from, which tops every other director. Much of that has to do with Ford’s sheer productivity, but there are plenty of directors with a bunch of credits who don’t come anywhere near Ford on the long list. What Wenders recognized in the beginning of (and throughout) Paris, Texas, Ford seemed to have in his directorial blood for decades. The bigness of Liberty Valance is less in the setting than in the time period; it’s clearly made on a back lot as opposed to location. But Ford’s plot in Liberty Valance is something of a challenge to how people say the west was won (ironically enough, given his next project). For one thing, the plot is less about clearing the land of Native Americans and more about the politics of how a country comes to be; much of the focus has to do with conflicting ideologies about governance in a territory with some aspirations to statehood. And for another, Liberty Valance is the American challenger to the Great Man theory like War and Peace is its Russian counterpart.

Ford was almost seventy when Liberty Valance debuted, and his stars had gotten old too. Old John Wayne is mostly superior to young John Wayne, but boy does he look grizzled in this film. Jimmy Stewart, who is about fifty and looks it in Vertigo, is even older here with those bags under his eyes. Most of the film takes place when the two men were supposedly much younger, but these are two of the biggest stars of the preceding twenty-five years; you can’t just hide their age. In some ways I think it’s off-putting. Watching the two of them compete for the affections of Vera Miles, who was in her early thirties, is a little odd. But in others I think it gives a sense of the tiredness and the infirmity of the legends of how the West was settled. Just as the title of “the man who shot Liberty Valance” is a threadbare story that would require very little to pull apart, the age of our main actors gives us a way to see through what sounds like a textbook story of heroism. They simply aren’t what they say they are. As it’s said famously toward the end of the movie, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” A lifetime of filmmaking for Ford (and Wayne and Stewart) is cut down to that epitaph; even a story willing to contradict the record, as this one is, is a printed legend.

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