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!
35) Singin’ in the Rain (1952), directed by Stanley Donen.
In basketball, you’ll hear about players who can accelerate to top speed in a couple of steps and then in just one more can change their pace totally. Gene Kelly is a dancer who seems to be able to change speed without effort, and beyond his big smile and his soft voice, it’s the fact that physics seems to leave him alone that makes him so charming. If science isn’t quite real for him, then it follows we ought to be at least a little impressed. If we’re honest, by the way, he probably isn’t even the best dancer in this entire movie; one is inclined to give the medal to Donald O’Connor or Cyd Charisse. Both of them are more explosive, more engaging dancers; Charisse in particular is like watching some great mythical creature burst out of the water and into the air and then back again without a splash. But neither one of them could have sung in the rain with that same expressive Chianti smoothness; it takes all kinds to make a musical like this, as good a dance movie as any in American history. (The singing I could take or leave, really; no one hired these folks because they could sing.)
Singin’ in the Rain, despite the high ranking, always leaves me in two minds; perhaps that’s because the picture itself is very much in two minds. I adore The Dueling Cavalier and the playful satire of silent Hollywood transitioning rudely into the sound era. Poor Jean Hagen has a role which does not earn her much sympathy or much desire to hear that voice, fake as it is, ever again, but Lina Lamont is hysterical because she is the nightmare version of Greta Garbo. Garbo could do Anna Christie and sultry her way through “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.” Imagining Hagen doing that in the Lamont voice is enough to make Roland Barthes cry. Simultaneously, the part of the film that appeals to me the most is the long stretch of dance in the last act of the film, where Gene Kelly drops poor Debbie Fisher and picks up Charisse instead. It’s not the quality of the dancing that hits me so hard as the abstractness of the fantasy. Kelly turns around in a crowded nightclub where he’s the toast of the evening, sees Charisse in her bobbed hair, and then imagines the two of them together – he in black, she in white with a train that must be the length of a football field – in a sensual dance. She wraps him up, he wraps her up, and gauzy mauves are the tint of the moment. Revealing that Kathy was Lina’s voice all along feels anticlimactic after that gorgeous and unusual sequence which leans much closer to The Red Shoes than any of the other Hollywood dance features from the time.
34) Network (1976), directed by Sidney Lumet.
Network is, for all the chatter about how prescient it was, an outdated movie. In one monologue out of the several hundred in this film, Howard Beale tells a thrilled audience that “This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world.” I don’t know that anyone would place television at number one anymore, certainly not anyone under the age of seventy. Is Network more relevant than its contemporary and fellow loser for Best Picture of ’76, All the President’s Men? Heck yes. All the President’s Men has a rah-rah quality to it that Network knows will fall away soon enough. People have to sell newspapers and they have to sell ads on television and the process for doing so is close enough. Network aims for the outrageous – despite the “mad as hell” speech and the ridiculous ending, Network will always mean The Mao Tse-tung Hour to me – and it hits it time and again with ringing force. In that same speech about the power of the tube, Howard Beale says “the only truth you know is what you get over this tube.” And he’s not merely speaking to his deluded counterculture audience here. We know it applies to Diana Christiansen, who has made the glory of television the center of her life. We know it applies to Frank Hackett, who sees television as the ultimate way to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. We know it sure as heckfire applies to Max Schumacher, whose midlife crisis takes the form of being unable to view his affair outside the lens of a bizarre sitcom about a crusty former exec and a modern one moving at lightspeed. (I guess it’s a sitcom. The implication is that it’s a drama, but Max would think that.) And God Himself, Arthur Jensen, knows that the right man to spread his techno-corporatist evangel is Howard Beale. Why him? “Because you’re on television, dummy.”
Network offers an interesting case study into what would happen if every movie decided that it was going to have the most something. For example, this is Faye Dunaway at her most rat-a-tat manic. This is William Holden at his most impotent. This is Robert Duvall at his most shouty. This is Peter Finch at his most operatic. And so on, and so forth. What makes Network feel so enormous is that it is, at heart, a workplace comedy. Broadcast News, the other workplace comedy focusing on a television station in this top 100, works pretty firmly within the bounds of realism. There’s nothing odd about the brilliant reporter falling in love with the perfect producer falling in love with the vapid anchorman, and Broadcast News is so successful because it stares the ’80s right in the face. Network is successful because its characters would have fit in at the Globe, and they are built to be massive personalities in the same kind of setting that Broadcast News is placed in. We get the behind-the-scenes view of cameras and editing rooms and offices and conference tables and business lunches just the same in both movies. In Broadcast News, the strangest thing that happens when the curtain is pulled back is that Albert Brooks turns into a human Hoover Dam. In Network, that wouldn’t get him a 1.5 overnight rating.
33) Goodfellas (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese.
The Godfather made mafia movies sexy; Goodfellas made them cool. It’s the difference between the face Don Corleone hears when he learns that Michael killed Sollozzo and the now omnipresent, “As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” And there’s simply no analog in The Godfather for that tracking shot which takes us through every nook and cranny of the Copacabana en route to the best seats in the house, brought out special for the happy couple; heck, in The Godfather restaurants and bars and fruit stands are great places to get killed. The Godfather turns brown into an art form; Goodfellas goes big with red and doesn’t have to work quite so hard. (This is not to demean Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography or anything, but there’s a reason Cries and Whispers doesn’t use brown wallpaper.) The Godfather brings in Nino Rota; Scorsese, the ultimate arbiter of rock music in movies, uses “Layla” to perfection. The only person who could have made it in The Godfather from Goodfellas is Paul Cicero, and look what happened to him.
Goodfellas is masterful at depicting paranoia not merely when the protagonist is coked up and watching a helicopter fly overhead, but simply as a fact of being a wiseguy. Even being a wiseguy is not a prerequisite; being his wife is good enough. One of the movie’s overlooked scenes is narrated by Karen, who is a little shocked about the other mob wives. They look awful, she says. They wear too much makeup, their skin is terrible, they hit their kids and say such nasty things about their husbands. It’s not so long before Karen is on the warpath about Henry’s mistress, dragging her kids to the girlfriend’s apartment complex and raining down abuse from the ground-level floor. The Lufthansa heist, which should be the crowning achievement of any wiseguy, is tainted for two reasons. Samuel L. Jackson should have hid the vehicle instead of celebrating, sure, but the reason everyone involved winds up dead is because Jimmy Conway starts to get eyes in the back of his head. Paulie Cicero we’ve covered. The only one who seems ready to enjoy himself, to act with impunity, is Tommy. He’ll bring Henry back to his mother-in-law’s at dawn and then joke with him about what terrible habits Henry has. He’ll shoot a kid to death for mouthing off, or beat a made man to death for making fun of him. And, well, look what happened to him. Being paranoid, in Goodfellas, at least means you’ll die in prison instead of being shot to death.
32) The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah.
You know how in those Red Lobster commercials, people are always dunking their crab or lobster or whatever into the melted butter so hard that the butter just explodes out of the little bowl? That’s what The Wild Bunch is like, except that instead of butter being sprayed with no consideration for innocent bystanders, it’s blood. Life is cheap on the border between the USA and Mexico in this film, and it does not stop with townspeople, desperadoes, or soldiers. In an early scene, we see children gathered around something interesting. They’re laughing. One of them is prodding with a stick. There are scorpions in a little enclosure surrounded by ants, which are crawling over them and in the end envelop the bigger animals entirely. At the end of the movie, despite the help of a machine gun, the titular but unnamed “wild bunch” will meet their ends swarmed by a regiment of Mexican troops. One would rather be a scorpion than an ant, I suppose, but things never seem to go so well for the more interesting, more individually dangerous creature. In any event, both cases are powerful and a little disturbing to watch; Peckinpah makes the absurdist violence of his Southwest unusual because he seems to take it seriously. In a firefight in one of the film’s opening sequences, normal folks are as lief to take a bullet to the neck as either the bunch or the posse; after the battle around a bank the bunch robs, people blame the posse for the dead civilians even more than they blame the bunch. Peckinpah does not pretend that violence only affects the violent.
Recently, there’s been a trend to make movies with aging stars and maintain interest by pointing back to how old they are in their roles: The Bucket List, Red, Going in Style, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The Wild Bunch includes several actors who had passed their peaks in William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Ben Johnson, for example. And while people frequently talk about taking “one last job” or mention that they aren’t as young as they used to be, The Wild Bunch refrains from trying to use age on its own as humor. The Wild Bunch is funny when Warren Oates watches everyone else in the bunch pass a bottle of liquor and then give it to him when it’s empty, or when Holden salutes the mercenaries sent to track him down before the bridge they’re on explodes. Age is part of the equation, perhaps even the greatest proportion of it, in The Wild Bunch, but it makes the film more tragic rather than more slapstick. These are middle-aged men playing a young man’s game, and part of the reason that it’s a young man’s game is because most of those young men never reach middle age. These are men at the very apex of their profession, and even they can’t run from the swarm of ants forever.
31) The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin.
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I don’t care if this makes me an enormous baby: I have seen The Exorcist once. If I think about it while it’s dark in a room, I get a chill down my spine. It scared the heck out of me when I saw it before, and just seeing pictures of it freaks me out all over again. There’s a reason that this is a picture of Max von Sydow looking fearful as opposed to Regan doing something that gives me the willies. If I’m a loser for being this way, then I’ll take it because I’m not alone; when the movie premiered in 1973, theaters put kitty litter on the floor to deal with the audiences. Let’s not talk about this anymore.