Better than BFI’s Top 100: 75-71

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here

 

75) Gregory’s Girl (1981), directed by Bill Forsyth

There’s a kid in a penguin costume running around in this movie, and I thought for sure that we would find out why, but of course we don’t. It couldn’t matter less why he runs around as long as we get a kick out of seeing the little weirdo. Gregory’s Girl is filled with weirdos you can’t help but get a kick out of, which is to say it’s filled with kids, and what I love about the movie is how benign they all are. Gregory is a true doofus, one of those amiable high schoolers you meet with a strange haircut, a sweet disposition, and a negative BMI, and his plans to date Dorothy quickly consume all his senses as he rhapsodizes about her. “Oh, that Dorothy,” he says, “the hair, the teeth, and the smell.” His friends, who are somehow even worse-looking and more clueless than our hobbledehoy hero, are mostly derisive. (He tells the lads the symptoms of being in love; they reply that his symptoms sound more like indigestion. In true form for this story, neither party is wrong.) Dorothy is very much out of his league not just in romance, but on the pitch as well. Gregory tries to woo her by keeping for her, and he is not particularly good at either. Against all odds, Dorothy agrees to a date anyway…it just happens to be prefaced by a long walk with some of his girl friends, who are much cleverer than the boy who needs help from his younger sister to get dressed properly for the date.

Gregory’s Girl is a lovely movie because it supposes, as is frequently the case in Bill Forsyth’s work, that people can be more or less normal and still interesting. If Gregory and his friends are occasionally a little crass, it’s fitting for teenage boys, and all the same this might be the most wholesome movie on this entire list, leaning into kindness to make the movie in lieu of crudeness or awkwardness. (It’s not that teen movies are better when one of those two elements are highlighted, but that they’re easier to pull off; it’s rather the equivalent of needing a calculator to do one’s times tables.) Gregory has his own plans for Dorothy, but he learns organically and with good cheer that the other sex is not so inscrutable as they’ve been advertised to be. If books have their destinies according to their readers, a young man who previously supposed that a woman is to be won learns an entirely different lesson. (Gregory’s friends, who see him walking around in his white jacket with no fewer than three lasses over the course of the evening, out themselves as rather poor readers.) The movie’s last stretch turns out, of course, not to be a date with Dorothy but with Susan, which Dorothy got the hockey assist for setting up in the first place. Girls help each other out, Susan tells Gregory, and it goes unsaid that Gregory has been helped out significantly by those girls as well. Without gimmicks or gags or grit, Gregory’s Girl is, like a child in a penguin costume wandering the halls or the title of the film itself, pleasingly unexpected.

74) Billy Liar (1963), directed by John Schlesinger

Tom Courtenay has played significantly more tragic characters in his life; for pure heartbreak there’s 45 Years, and for Shakespearean contrast there’s Strelnikov. But Billy Liar may well be the saddest movie he has ever appeared in, and Billy Fisher the saddest character. Billy is as much a child as Gregory, but he is just old enough that his childishness, as endearing and harmless as it is in a vacuum, cannot endear to everyone nor can it leave everyone unscathed. His parents are absolutely over him, exhausted by his ostentatious dreams and his inability to rouse himself in the morning. Girls his age can’t seem to get enough of this persona, so much so that Billy, powered with his Chernobyl tongue, has managed to land two fiancees without being able to do either the unkindness of dumping the spare. Just when we would be likely to get annoyed with him, we meet Liz. It’s my favorite Julie Christie role, even if it is a little bit small, because of the sheer amount of warmth she brings to the screen. When Liz is talking to him, smiling at him, showering him with the generosity that most young men need and none of them deserve, we see the change in Billy. As is his penchant, he makes something up, and knowing that he leads with such indiscretions, Liz has him try again. “Count five and tell the truth,” she says to him, and there is no judgment in her voice and no crack in the smile that reaches her eyes; Billy recants without shame. It doesn’t take an imagination as fecund as his to imagine what sort of a life these two could lead together. He matures for her; she adores his innocence. When they make plans to run away together to London not long after this rendezvous, you want to stand up and cheer for them.

The sadness, though. His future looks down in that night only to find his present family life is a ball and chain that decency will not let him escape, and everything we can imagine him living for in London evaporates. (Christie’s face from the train, resigned but not surprised, pensive but not bemused, is wonderful.) In the hospital, as the clock ticks on til midnight, he sits with his mother, whose mother has just died, and as fidgety as he is the alternative would have been far crueler. Courtenay, who is very much at ease as this idle joker, really shines in this scene opposite Mona Washbourne; Schlesinger, whose camera has been plenty glad to pack the frame with the false figures of Billy’s imagination and the very real audience to his public foibles, sits in a more traditional position here. Pointing it at the two of them in a mostly empty waiting room, we get the hint of what Billy’s inevitable Yorkshire life will be. The film’s final sequence puts Billy back with his Ambrosians, and as much as he can dream up, surely it is a much happier dream to marry Liz as the ’60s begin to swing.

73) A Passage to India (1984), directed by David Lean

First: A Passage to India would rank higher on this list, and perhaps substantially higher, if they’d found one of the seven hundred million Indians or one of the 670,000 Britons of Indian descent to play Godbole instead of Alec Guinness. In the early 1980s, it is incomprehensible that the filmmakers made that casting choice and that Guinness went along with it; the (clearly wrong!) ignorance that enabled a similar choice two decades earlier in Lawrence of Arabia ought not to have been repeated. Furthermore, it really does make A Passage to India a worse movie. Not only is it distracting, but it cuts at the verisimilitude of the injustice of the British Raj. If Victor Banerjee goes on trial and Roshan Seth defends him, why should Alec Guinness be waiting somewhere else to intone vague wisdom?

Anyway, what remains of A Passage to India is one of Lean’s best films, which is otherwise thoughtful if incorrect about the sins of the Raj and of the courtly people who furthered those wrongs. It’s not because white people lost their minds in the exotic heat or in the intoxicating echoing shadows of mysterious caves that Amritsar and Dharasana happened, and I suppose we can blame E.M. Forster a smidge for introducing those properties to the story in the first place. But credit is due to Forster, too, for those polite scathing portraits of polite sodding sahibs, and in A Passage to India the performances of Nigel Havers, Judy Davis, and James Fox bring those portraits to the forefront. As friendly as Ronny is, he is all too willing to become a cog in the machine that crushes people like Aziz; as sympathetic and open-minded as Adela believes herself to be, she still accuses Aziz of rape for reasons so addled that they are almost difficult to unravel; and as fair-minded as Fielding is, he is useless to Aziz when he needs him most. At the risk of citing myself:

The movie is summed up when Fielding sings “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” to himself as he gets dressed. Either it’s a brilliant comment on sympathetic white Englishmen who are still wrapped up in the supposed mystique of the East, or it’s one of those “Gilbert and Sullivan are the most English thing in the world” characterizations. My head thinks the latter; my heart says he didn’t sing “My Name is John Wellington Wells.”

Indians will fight to save Indians, A Passage to India finds, and if there is to be justice for them it will come because they took it for themselves. When Aziz goes to Kashmir after his ordeal in a more cosmopolitan, Anglicized city, it’s a triumph echoed by Lean’s triumphal photography of the Himalayas and the shimmering waterways.

There is no performance like a thunderbolt in A Passage to India to compare to Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter or Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but this is an ensemble which surely stands as tall as any other that Lean put together in his half-century career. Banerjee plays Aziz’s earnestness and frostiness with equal aplomb, and the movie goes as far as he can take it as its emotional center. To Fox’s credit, he flawlessly navigates that awkward position that advocate and ally which Fielding has to chart, making his character decent and generous while also evincing impotence. The omnipresent Saeed Jaffrey is there to counsel Banerjee, and Seth, with withering sarcasm, guts Davis on the witness stand. Probably the most celebrated performance, and not without reason, belongs to Peggy Ashcroft in one of her final roles. She plays the elderly and wise Mrs. Moore without ever making her one of those grandmotherly ciphers or dowdy matrons which too frequently populate the screen; Mrs. Moore abandons India when Adela abandons her senses, and Ashcroft is so good when she’s around that we miss her terribly when she’s gone.

72) Shaun of the Dead (2004), directed by Edgar Wright

The phrase “there’s something for everyone” in a movie ought to give us pause, for too often that implies an anonymous husk of a picture. Not so in Shaun of the Dead. There is something for everyone in this movie, which one can watched multiple times in a week without losing any of the joy of it. I know. I’ve done it. Each of those somethings comes with a little twist on it, courtesy of Wright and Simon Pegg, which makes the movie feel as fresh as those zombies are not. Zombies as social critique? Sure thing, but this time they end up being a great way to price out the working-class. A schlub turns a quirky situation into the way to win over a lovely lady’s heart? Rarely does the male lead in a romantic comedy have to prove himself again and again and another time then, please, the way that Shaun has to, and offhand I can’t think of another romcom that needs him to take a spoon stabbing to the side of his head as a relatively minor test to do so. There are bro hangouts and skidding cars and remarkable action sequences and a couple of genuinely freaky moments in there. This is also a movie where the response to “Don’t Stop Me Now” playing in a bar in the final hours of a realistically brief zombie apocalypse is “Kill the Queen!” Running gags abound; choose your favorite, but I’m fond of the dispute over whether or not dogs can look up.

In depicting the way that people who have known each other too long need to shake each other up, Shaun of the Dead is a true masterpiece. Ed drags down Shaun because he’s living like a high school dropout; David is in love with Liz but is keeping Dianne around for a safety net. Zombies aren’t exactly a healthy way to get to the root of those problems, but they force the unwilling participants to come to grips with what they’re feeling. How long would Shaun have dragged Ed around if not for the undead, or how long would he have gone on hating his mom’s husband, Philip? I am still amazed at the emotional whiplash Philip’s death induces. First there’s a magnificent deadpan one-liner from one of the medium’s kings, Bill Nighy, on his status after being bitten by a zombie (“I’m perfectly all right, Barbara, I ran it under a cold tap”). Not long after, Philip apologizes to Shaun for never having quite succeeded as a father figure:

You were twelve when I met you—already grown up so much. I just wanted you to be strong and not give up because you lost your dad…I always loved you, Shaun. And I always thought you had it in you to do well. You just need motivation. Somebody to look up to. And I thought it could be me.

It’s not a terribly original thought, but it is such an unexpectedly sincere move in a movie this unabashedly silly that it’s poignant. But because this is an unabashedly silly movie, Philip isn’t quite done just yet. His last moments as a human being were spent in the back seat of his car, suffering through music he hated while making a confession to his stepson: his first moments as a zombie are spent turning that racket off.

71) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), directed by David Lean

More very good Lean, more quiet racism, more Englishness out of sorts, more ensemble brilliance. This has been too popular too long, I think, and for that reason I think it actually suffers in the popular imagination because it’s been boiled down to its individual parts. You’d think that this was a forty-five minute movie the way people talk about it, darting from “Colonel Bogey’s March” to William Holden being tan and depressed to Alec Guinness being steely-eyed to Sessue Hayakawa saying “Be happy in your work” before leaping to that horrified face and even more horrified murmur as Guinness realizes, at long last, just what he has done. But Bridge on the River Kwai, for all the occasionally simplistic characterization and too frequently flaccid dialogue, is a really fine movie which has far more going on than a list of highlights caught on basic cable some Sunday afternoon. Virtually every good movie about war (and plenty of bad ones) hem and haw over whether or not our heroes are doing the right thing. Bridge on the River Kwai plays out that inner battle again and again with characters who never meet one another, creating a map of interactions which come down to much the same conclusion: It is dashed hard to know what the right thing is. Shears berates Warden, a desk jockey prior to this mission to blow up the bridge, for his fanatical devotion to actual combat. More than anyone else in the movie, Shears appreciates the dignity of survival even if it makes a man do dishonorable things again and again; he knows that honor and survival cannot coexist in Burma, 1943. It makes what he chooses to do, and what that choice triggers in Nicholson, all the more wondrous.

Even though they come from different sides of the war, a conversation between Saito and Nicholson—one of the great scenes of Lean’s career, which is to say one of the great scenes in British cinema—evinces the similarities between the two. Both men are far away from home and have been for most of their lives. Both have subsumed themselves to orders, regulations, martial expectations. It turns out that Nicholson has been waiting for a chance to do something that will really matter. Twenty-eight years into his time in the military and “nearer the end than the beginning,” we sense the aching for accomplishment in him which has beaten his conscience into submission. Hamilton of Hamilton defines a legacy as “planting seeds in a garden you’ll never get to see.” When Nicholson looks out on the water, leaning on the bridge he has spearheaded with previously unconscionable quality, we know what those seeds are for a man whose long and industrious career is decaying into vainglory before our eyes. His bridge has built with good material and strong enough, we are told, to last to the halfway point of the next millennium. What a garden he has tended to, and what a razing it will take to alter the memory of him as a base collaborationist.

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