Last year, my year-end review of the movies I watched still had the sheen of professional list-making on itl: I thought about it as, more or less, the fifty best movies I saw that year which I hadn’t seen before, but allowed for some leeway on that front to talk about the movies which I thought would stick with me most. This year, I’m still looking for that top ten percent, but I am less interested in trying to rank classics than I am in what interests me in movie-watching in the first place. It is supposed to have been Pauline Kael who rejected the idea that art shouldn’t necessarily be entertaining by asking, What is it supposed to be, punishment? As usual for me, I neither agree nor disagree with her. For me, the quality of a movie ought to be measured primarily by impact, a quality I accept as a relentlessly subjective measure but nonetheless feels like a fair place to start.
In looking back at what I watched for the first time this year, I wanted to mark the moments (limited to one per movie) with the strongest impacts, the ones that have stayed with me visually or emotionally. These are my most meaningful moments, and emphatically not my best pictures, for some of the best movies I watched this year are not to be found here. In some cases, it’s because it was impossible to isolate one piece from a perfect whole (as in Les enfants du paradis or La ronde), and in others it was because the greatness of the picture is in its completeness and not in its composite parts (like Daughters of the Dust or Edward II). What’s below is shrapnel plucked from a dozen places in my body.
I’ve arranged the movies in in alphabetical order. Spoilers follow, if that sort of thing interests you, as many of these deal with climactic moments in the movies, but also spoilers are a curse.
1) Another Year (2010, dir. Mike Leigh) – Mary begs for a kind word
There’s no thinner tightrope to walk than the one between “I need something from you” and “I’m unlikable for needing it,” and not just in the movies, either. Yet if there is any combination I would trust to be able to manage this particular obstacle, it would certainly involve Mike Leigh and one of his several frequent collaborators. Lesley Manville is a fitting choice. Mary is the one real agent of chaos in Another Year, even though there are other characters in the movie who have their own instabilities to work through; alone among people in this movie, she would see her friends’ son, now thirty, and decide that he might make a reasonable romantic companion. At a little get-together, she gets him alone. She tries to get him to guess how old she is; he makes a little joke that puts her at much too young, and then, the chaos. When Mary speaks or moves or drives that car she can’t quite handle, she makes a telltale noise like the sound of something fragile which has broken inside a package. You can hear the shards clinking against one another when she pushes him; a normal person would be able to read how uncomfortable Joe is—Oliver Maltman is great in this scene—and yet she has needs which outstrip those of a normal person. It’s not enough to get the funny ha-ha, to have his attention in the moment. She has to hear him say that she looks younger than she is, and she pushes. It is an almost unbearably terrible moment, painful to watch, but this is not just about cringe. It’s about weakness, and having the empathy (as the Hepples surely must have!) to understand why someone would leave herself primed for so much embarrassment at the hands of others.
2) Au hasard Balthazar (1966, dir. Robert Bresson) – Surrounded by sheep
I put this movie off for a very long time because I knew how sad it would make me, and I hate it when I’m right. Gerard, who might be the worst person in movie history, inflicts suffering on Marie and Balthazar again and again at every opportunity, it seems. When Balthazar is borrowed for an errand of Gerard’s that turns out to be highly illegal, he takes the bullet. In the morning we see him alone in the woods on this ridge, peeking out, coming into the clearing. The photography at this point of the movie is perhaps as beautiful as it ever gets, scenic and surprisingly lush. The grass is high, coming up to the bellies of the sheepdogs roaming out. The sheep have gathered around Balthazar, enclosing him tightly; the dogs bark them away, and leave him alone as he sits, eyes closed, head nodding. When I thought about it after the fact, I thought the idea was that we’ll die alone, that even after a lifetime of hard labor and suffering Balthazar would not have any companion to hold his little hoof while he died. Now I’m less sure of the interpretation. It seems more important that the sheep were ever with him, that without being told to come near the mortally wounded donkey they still did, still enfolded him in a woolly circle. For someone who had known so little comfort in his life, surely their presence in his last conscious moments gave him some measure of peace.
3) The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947, dir. Irving Reis) – “Mellow greetings, yookie-dookie!”
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer has a premise that would have gotten Sidney Sheldon cancelled in seconds flat if he’d come to a major studio with it in our times. Shirley Temple, the great box-office draw of the ’30s, now in her late teens, falls in love with Cary Grant; Grant, practically by court order, is told to let her work out this crush by pretending that they’re dating. Naturally, Richard Nugent does just about anything he can to hasten the release of Susan Turner’s feelings, and it tops out on the day of a town picnic. Richard has judiciously decided that the best thing to do is get Susan back into her much more age-appropriate boyfriend, Jerry, and in an effort to make Jerry look more mature and himself like a total moron, he conspires with the young fellow. Jerry and Richard swap cars. Richard takes some tips from the young folks; he rolls up his pants to mid-calf, bends his hat rakishly on his head, and throws out some slang for Susan’s very proper family. “Hi!” he begins. “Mellow greetings!” and, almost as an afterthought, “Yookie-dookie!” No movie made me shed more tears this year than The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, and just about all of them were leaked out in this moment. Truly: I had to pause the movie for three or four minutes before I regained my composure enough to watch the rest of this thing.
4) Ballad of a Soldier (1959, dir. Grigori Chukhrai)– Zhura watches Alyosha go
I’m not going to plagiarize myself all that much doing this post, but I’ve already written about this moment and I don’t think I’ve got it in me to talk about it again:
The two of them leave each other eventually. Shura told Alyosha early on that she was en route to see her wounded fiancee, a pilot in hospital. As they detrain for the last time, she admits it was a lie. There’s no one. She’s going to see an aunt, not a man. Alyosha, by now close to his mother, too literal from birth, misses the import of those words: it’s not until he’s on the move that he realizes that this last admission was an admission of love, and with similar superimpositions falling over him as crushed his mother in close-up at the beginning of the picture, the brackish taste of despair finds the back of our throats. Chukhrai alleviates it with poetry, although a lengthy shot of Shura does not entirely ameliorate the pain. She stands in profile to us. The camera is only at about knee-height, is raised up, and it makes her more symoblic, more proud and lovely than ever. Yet we are not so far away that we cannot see the firm set of her mouth, the sadness in her eyes. She looks out in the distance where Alyosha has gone. She walks away from the spot, and then turns around again, in the same stance as before, only further away. It is our last look at her, a woman whose misfortune must be weighed against that of Alyosha’s mother. Alyosha’s mother had him first and last, but Shura was the one who was there in what must have been his finest days, and who was the coronal glow in his face.”
5) The Best Intentions(1992, dir. Bille August) – Ruiner of games
There’s a funny little moment in Broadcast News, slightly frightening but still funny, in which Jane bursts into Tom’s office and sets him alight with a scorching screed about what a terrible downturn their relationship has taken. What Jane doesn’t know is that Tom’s dad is in the room, a fact that Tom coolly introduces her to. Tom’s dad is amazed. “The way she just acted is not the way an affectionate person acts,” he tells his son. The phrase is worth remembering. Five years later, in The Best Intentions—made in that weird period where Ingmar Bergman thought he was done making movies and started passing stuff on to successors like an emperor in his dotage—there’s a scene that makes me think of that phrase. “Not the way an affectionate person acts.” Anna’s brother has come to visit the Bergmans in their remote post, one that Anna hates and which Henrik maintains because of his belief that he alone can be responsible for the spiritual health of this small community. Ernst has a gramophone for the Bergmans, and he and his sister begin dancing. Anna is springtime when she’s happy, gay, merry, light. It’s a touching sight, but it isn’t for Henrik. Henrik is midwinter in a human being, and when she tries to bring him in to start dancing as well, he erupts. He leaves the house, and comes back almost immediately. I’m sorry, he says. I’m a “ruiner of games.” More importantly, this is not the way an affectionate person acts, and it is another sign that these two should never have married, that they were always proving something to their families instead of thinking about whether or not it would make them happier, or better. It’s too late now. There’s a child, and responsibilities, and a piece of paper, and enough little cruelties to suffice for a lifetime.
6) The Birdcage (1996 dir. Mike Nichols) – Robin Williams on the bench
The conversation that Williams’ Armand has with Nathan Lane’s Albert on that bench, idyllic and mid-century and pretty, is almost immaterial to what moved me so much about this scene. (Mike Nichols’ framing of that first shot is really outstanding, extremely pretty but also cognizant of the space that Williams and Lane are part of. They look very small with the water behind them and the front of the car in that right foreground, but they are very, very close together on that little bench.) What Williams has in spades here is presence, and as strange as this must sound, this scene where Armand officially signs over half the nightclub to Albert in a gesture to show how much he cares about him is probably my favorite scene of Williams’. It’s not at all funny, which is fine for me. Williams’ presence here reminds me, in completeness if not in effect, of that time he went on Sesame Street to show Elmo all the different things you could do with a stick. The other person is there to be just as amazed as you are that someone that magnetic is filling the screen. Whose chest could be hairier than Williams? Who could sit so stiffly while, slyly, reaching his hand under someone else’s arm to squeeze that someone else’s hand? He was so, so good, even when he was being mostly still.
7) Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, dir. Abedellatif Kechiche) – Emma and Adele speak to one another
This isn’t about me so much, but I don’t know when else I’ll be able to get this aside off my chest. It is fascinating to me that Blue is the Warmest Color has been virtually unremarked upon in end-of-decade lists, after a critical and festival welcome perhaps unmatched in the 21st Century, and perhaps more importantly after it sat on Netflix for anyone to see for years. Perhaps we are all punishing Abdellatif Kechiche, who seems pretty scuzzy at best, and we are punishing the most hetero male gaze I’ve ever come across in a queer love story. Maybe it was less memorable than we all assumed it would be. Maybe the international appetite for watching people chew has gone down in the past few years. Only once when I watched this movie did I feel like I understood the hype, and it was in that scene where Emma and Adele finally get to talking at a bar. The rest of this movie tries so, so hard all the time, much to its detriment, but there is something so incredibly natural and inviting about the way that they actually speak to one another. This is what’s meant when they say “We hit it off.” There’s mutual interest on both sides, a real willingness to understand one another and listen to one another. The movie never returns to this lovely moment where everything begins so well; it’s much more interested in the sex, and in the way that these two don’t really fit with one another in the end. But if this movie does have a “meet-cute,” ugh, it’s here, and it looks absolutely fluent.
8) Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940, dir. Norman Taurog) – Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dance off lunch
Given a choice between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, I’d take Kelly, someone whose total grace in doing something totally difficult makes him our nation’s successor to Joe DiMaggio. Watching him work is one of the truly lovely experiences in moviegoing. I’m willing to admit this is just me, or maybe it’s the press about Astaire the workaholic, or maybe it’s the fact that Astaire leans so much harder on tap than Kelly does, but watching Astaire go to work is much more like work. The sheer effort of it is always very much on display. At its best, though, watching his routines leaves me breathless. For two minutes, Astaire gives us just that, in tandem with the absolutely peerless Eleanor Powell. Taurog cuts just once in this little impromptu dance, taking place under cover like the dance in the bandstand in Top Hat. This one is much better, a totally pure burst of energy released in dazzling quanta of togetherness. This is the only movie starring Astaire and Powell, and while “Begin the Beguine” is generally given as the standout from this movie, I think I only breathed as often as Taurog cut during this scene.
9) Carrington, V.C. (1954, dir. Anthony Asquith) – Valerie sinks Copper
What makes this marriage story masquerading as a legal drama so effective is the closeness of its events. Like Val, we don’t have much time to adjust to the news that Copper and Alison had a night together; unlike Val, we don’t have to try to manage our emotions before taking the stand in a trial that could determine the future of our wayward husband’s career. (It is particularly sad for all parties that Copper and Alison are a much better couple than Copper and Val; I don’t know that the term “emotional affair” would have meant anything during the time this movie is set, but that’s pretty clearly what’s going on between the two officers.) Val confronts Alison; Alison tells; Val does not take the high ground, as I imagine many of us would not, perjures herself to spite her husband, and so Copper’s entire case in his own self-defense becomes dust for the tribunal. This is one of those emotional moments which, curiously, is also entirely mathematical, a betrayal for a betrayal, and while the movie invites us primarily to worry about Copper’s situation, I don’t think it wants us to ignore a wrong, either. Val’s vulnerability is one of the key elements of the story, and in trampling Val, Copper himself suffers from some significant trampling.
10) Certified Copy (2010, dir. Abbas Kiarostami) – The honeymoon bed
“If we were a bit more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses, we’d be less alone.” The most shuddering line of dialogue I heard the entire year comes, unsurprisingly, from the mouth of Juliette Binoche. One of the movies in the lineage of Journey to Italy, as perfect a template as has ever existed in the cinema, Certified Copy leads us from strangers to acquaintance to intimacy, from cordiality to anger. Binoche looks wrung out on the bed, is too made up to look truly exhausted, but her body says otherwise. Fifteen years between the first time they were there together and this, perhaps their last time together, she has the context to say precisely what has destroyed their marriage. Boiling down a decade and a half into a sentence that incisive is at once tremendously potent and existentially frightening, and yet watching that scene I mostly felt an awful sympathy for them. This sort of thing must happen to people all the time, falling out of love, or failing one another. But it’s rare that we get to go back to the places we first fell in love or succeeded for one another, and to go back there under the circumstances this couple returns is just murderous.
11) The Cruel Sea (1953, dir. Charles Frend) – PTSD
One of the braver choices I’ve seen in any movie this year was the choice to sink the Compass Rose, a ship that seemed like it ought to have sufficient plot armor to get it from the beginning of the picture to the end. That’s not how it goes, and much later in the movie than you’d expect, up to the point where it seems like everyone will make it through unscathed, the Compass Rose finally takes a fatal torpedo. We know a huge number of men on board; very few of them make it through the night and into the next day, when the survivors are rescued. The Cruel Sea has no pretensions about what the survivors of the Compass Rose would be like once they boarded the Saltash Castle. The picture knows that simply stepping onto the bridge of the little ship will send its commander, Ericson, back to the night that the Compass Rose went down. Frend zooms in on the horn. It is clear day and the Saltash Castle is still docked, but when Ericson sees that speaker, he hears what he heard that night. Screams, confusion, fear, chaos. It all erupts out of the speaker again, and it’s fair to wonder how men in combat could be expected to face that kind of trauma again and again. Ericson, thankfully, is not seen as weak because he cannot quite face his bridge, although Ericson is personally silent about his first experience on the Saltash Castle. The film seems to understand that there are horrors that no person can simply shrug away, and feeling gutted about the loss of all those good men aboard is no shame.
12) Cry-Baby (1990, dir. John Waters) – Confederate Bandstand
Cry-Baby is, by John Waters standards, almost aggressively vanilla. Star-crossed orphans separated by social class fall for each other and cannot lightly be pulled apart, not even when Cry-Baby is wrongfully sent to jail. (Here’s a sentence: it’s impossible to watch that musical number from Dancer in the Dark where Bjork bounces around the factory and not think of Johnny Depp doing his thing at prison in Cry-Baby.) Wade (“Cry-Baby” is a nom de guerre, an affectation a number of those greasers share) turns out to be a charismatic performer, and our first real sign of the effect he can have on a crowd is at a shindig where he gets up with his fellow drapes and performs a number, “King Cry-Baby.” It is third-rate Elvis, which is a part of the charm; eventually the king’s queen comes up and joins this number, as close to a coronation as a pair like this can have. The whole thing is done in front of an enormous Confederate flag, a choice that absolutely signifies something ugly about this group of Marylanders, but which is also ameliorated a little by the fact that this is John Waters we’re talking about here. He knows that this drape crowd is picking up on the idea of being “rebels” at the expense of having their brains turned on enough to realize the racist history of the battle flag. It’s not Pink Flamingos anymore, but there’s enough bad taste in Cry-Baby to mark it with the seal of disapproval.
13) A Day in the Country (1936, dir. Jean Renoir) – The swing
No son ever gave a more perfect gift to his father than Jean gave Pierre-Auguste here. I came across The Swing for the first time as a teenager, and I was immediately taken with the painting, which is loveliness itself. A young man with his back to us gives a pretty girl some attention, and from the bloom in her cheeks we can imagine why, and from the cast of her eyes we can see that she is a little embarrassed by him. Another man looks at the one with his back to us. Perhaps he is a rival suitor, or maybe he is merely observing a pal on the make; either way he lurks in the shadows, hidden largely by the tree. The story of A Day in the Country begins similarly: two young men, the prowling Rodolphe and his mellower buddy Henri, spy a beautiful young woman on a swing. They sit at a little table and look out a window; we can see in the distance that she is on her swing, standing upright just as the girl in the painting by Renoir père did. The camera sways with her as she sways. The sense of movement is magical, and it is that movement which Jean provides, complemented by the color that Pierre-Auguste could include, which makes this a generationally delightful moment.
14) Death in Venice (1971, dir. Luchino Visconti) – Surveying the room
A movie as much about watching movies as has ever existed, Death in Venice aggressively surveils. The movie is about a deeply unsavory and entirely one-sided love affair, carried about by Aschenbach watching a young boy, Tadzio, as the two of them are blown around Venice. There’s staggering beauty throughout the picture, richness in the sparest moments—Tadzio stands knee-deep in the sea, a camera stands in the right foreground, the sun falls on a slice of a little wave on the left—but also in the densest, most packed frames. It’s one of those that made my eyes widen as I was watching. The patience! The incredible patience it takes to slowly see an entire room, to be able to pick out each individual face, and the loneliness that would allow someone to swivel slowly around the room to do it…it’s breathtaking. Of all the moments I’m including here, this is one of a very few that drew out an emotional reaction purely from the quality of the craftsmanship. Those slow pans are simply audacious filmmaking, the kind of thing that dares the viewer to stop letting the movie happen to him/her and start living inside of it instead.
15) Desert Hearts (1985, dir. Donna Deitch) – At least till the next station
A contradiction. First: a filmmaker should make whatever kind of story she wants. Second: when she makes a movie about a group that has been overwhelmingly been portrayed one way in her nation’s movie history, she knows that her work will be entered into that history, and because she now has some control over that history, she may feel some responsibility to alter it. As I’m becoming more aware of every day, I have a thing about tearful farewells on the train. Desert Hearts is lined up perfectly to have the same kind of ending, in which Vivian gets on the train and goes back to her academic career and leaves Cay back in Reno. Desert Hearts, in fact, sure gets us close to believing that’s just what will happen. But it’s not quite that simple. Cay gets on the train too. There’s forty minutes until the next stop. Maybe they can’t figure out everything about their feelings for each other, or how they’d live, or what they’d do if they actually did stay together. But they can have another forty minutes together. They can push back against time itself, isolated on that moving island shuttling itself around the West. No one has to kill herself. No one is left desolate. No one renounces who she’s discovered she is. This is a measured happy ending for two women in love with each other, and God defend the right.
16) The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, dir. William Dieterle) – The Devil yeets on a peach pie
Daniel Webster, bless him, praise him, manages to get foolish Jabez Stone off even with the most abhorrent jury that antebellum America can imagine. It is a Pyrrhic victory for the senator, who in saving Jabez earns Old Scratch’s enmity, ensuring that he will never be our nation’s president. The trial takes all the air out of what is a otherwise an incredibly engaging movie, in long stretches as entertaining as any other movie from 1941. Part of it is the inevitable prewar bloviating about America, but much, much more is the fact that Walter Huston is pulled out of the spotlight. People say that God speaks to us in our language; surely the Devil must do so as well, and Scratch speaks to Jabez in glittering Hessian gold, in rapid speech, huckstering dreams of early capitalism. The movie, as it must, ends with him. The Stones and Daniel Webster are sitting down to a picnic lunch; Jabez’s mother teases a peach pie. Up comes the little cloche. Cut, an empty tin. Cut, Jane Darwell’s aghast face. Cut, Walter Huston, sitting on a picket fence, doing his level best to cram an entire pie into his mouth in a single bite. All’s not so bad for the Stones—turns out Ma made another pie the size of a child’s swimming pool—but Scratch, as he does, has gotten his. He puts the pie down, rubs his hands together meditatively to get the stickum off, reaches into his jacket for his little book, opens it up, jumps off the fence, and begins a slow walk toward the camera, where he comes out of focus for half a second before hitting a mark where we can only see his face and shoulders. He rubs his chin, strokes the stubble, licks some crumbs out of his teeth, screws up his brow, looks from one side above your eye level to the other. And then he lays eyes on you, squinting and then opening up with calculus behind them. His pointy left eyebrow lifts. A smile cracks open like an egg dropping its yolk. And then, he points a finger at you. You’re a mark as easy as Jabez Stone, even if you’ve just seen this little allegory play out, and what we have is the true meaning of horror comedy, laughing at the way he chomps on a peach pie he’s lifted and then realizing that Mr. Scratch would love to sink his teeth into you next.
17) Eyes Without a Face (1960, dir. Georges Franju) – Taking a dove out of the house
All a camera tracks is space, and tracking the space is as simple as choosing a fixed point and letting the action come towards it and then, from that same point, letting it fall away. Those are the last two shots of Eyes Without a Face, and the spot is perhaps fifteen feet away from the door of Genessier’s laboratory, where the doves and dogs were trapped just as much as Christiane. Christiane, still wearing the mask, walks out from under the stone archway. It’s buried in the earth, almost, like the entrance to a cave. Moss, thin trees. She walks slowly to the fixed point of the camera, the dove perched carefully on her right wrist. This is an act of supreme bravery for her, having been locked inside for so long, trapped by the adults who preyed on other young women in order to give her the new face. The dove on her hand is, as ever, a symbol of peace, although it is strange to see it there after so violent a movie, and yet how calmly it remains with her. (How strange that this horror movie should be interested in personal serenity in its last moments, too, and how wonderful that Eyes Without a Face shoots for a strange mixed emotion between serene and eerie.) She passes the camera, and then, the cut. The camera is in the same place as ever, or at least we pretend it is, and with her back to us Christiane walks out further into the night, guarded yet by her dove, arms angled out and open to the world that will almost certainly reject her. Incredibly simple, incredibly moving.
18) First Man (2018, dir. Damien Chazelle) – Neil Armstrong cares for his sick daughter
I very nearly chose one of the moments from the Moon landing, when Armstrong got low on fuel before landing, or when we see the enormous expanse of space holding above a strange gray moonscape; that’s arguably the best shot of the film, approaching the holiness of John Ford’s Monument Valley. But those are much too easy, and they aren’t the reasons I think this is pretty clearly the best film of Chazelle’s nascent career. First Man is about Neil Armstrong the survivor as much as it is about anything else; his family may be concerned that it will ultimately be his turn to buy the farm before Apollo 11, but Armstrong, since the beginning of this movie, has been the one who has to live on. He survives Elliot See and Ed White. And he survives, most crushing of all, his daughter, Karen. See and White both went up in very literal flames, deaths that a test pilot and astronaut know are part of the risk every time they drive to work. Karen isn’t even three yet when she succumbs to pneumonia; it goes without saying that such an early death is nothing that a little girl signs up for. Ryan Gosling, who, lest we forget, coasted on dreamboat for a very long time, still has all of that tenderness available to him. Armstrong is so gentle and so understanding, and his face is all calmness to cover up the stricken feelings that must be coursing through his endocrine system. Grief floods the entire movie, and the gates are opened up in a series of quiet shots early in the picture.
19) The Good Dinosaur (2015, dir. Peter Sohn) – Arlo gives up his human
Pixar’s brand, for people around my age, is “good movies that will make me cry.” I have yet to cry at a Pixar movie, but The Good Dinosaur brought me pretty close. This is one of Pixar’s more challenging movies. So many of them—all four Toy Story movies, Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille, Cars, etc.—are about choosing to accept strangers and how willing we are to make “them” into “us.” More and more Pixar has become interested in the idea that what’s familiar to us is strange to others, that we too are strangers to most of the world outside of our little cohort. Yet I don’t think they’ve ever pulled off a story with this sort of resonance. For Arlo, Spot is the stranger, and although he doesn’t have the wherewithal to whack the little fella, his wise, beloved father does. The Good Dinosaur is a movie about how the people closest to us can be badly, deeply wrong; Henry is wrong about Spot, and about humans in general, and in some terrible way he earns the watery grave he gets, for if he had been more patient in learning about Spot’s kind, he might have lived. In the wake of his death Arlo and Spot are forced together, come to love one another. Because “humanity” is not the right word here, one is forced to talk about the recognition of souls and seeing a divine spark in each other’s eyes. The movie earns that; then Arlo gives Spot to some humans. It is a devastating moment, and the little dinosaur who was a child for so much of the movie is an adult here for certain. As much as he cares about Spot, and as much as Spot wants to stay with him, something inside Arlo says that Spot would do better with his own kind. I don’t think the movie necessarily takes a side here, either. There’s a slightly regressive message in here about keeping to your own people, sure, but I think Arlo also knows that the family he’s trying to return to isn’t likely to take kindly to Spot. He may also know, in smaller words than these, that keeping Spot successfully would only alienate him, or perhaps it would make it more difficult for him to grow into the kind of person he could be with the sort who know how to nurture him. In any case, this scene just kills me.
20) The Great Silence (1968, dir. Sergio Corbucci) – Loco wins
Everyone who says that thing about “subverting genre expectations” has to calm down; the same is true for people who are amped up about a movie being more than one genre. (Holy crap, guys, two genres?! Most ambitious crossover event, etc.) Part of the problem is that when a movie really does subvert genre expectations, when it really puts the bottom rail on top, it’s hard to express how meaningful that is. The Great Silence is a movie I watched a little reluctantly—I admit freely to resenting the way people who don’t touch American westerns will glom onto a spaghetti Western—but at the end of the picture I was gobsmacked. Aside from how exceptionally well-made it is, and how extraordinary Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski are, that conclusion is buhleak. When Silence is burned and wounded, the right hand he uses to wield his pistol now helpless, I wondered how he would defeat Loco. I should have known better, obviously. The movie is not a hopeful one throughout, and yet we are indoctrinated into believing that our heroes in westerns will triumph. I thought that Silence would manage, somehow, to use his clumsy and recently hurt left hand to fire his gun. (When he lost the use of both hands I began to doubt, but began running through increasingly ridiculous scenarios by which he might survive.) But it does not happen. Loco takes advantage of his weakness, puts a bullet between his eyes, and then shoots down Silence’s lover. The villagers who relied on Silence (who straddles legal and extralegal with aplomb until his hands are taken from him) to keep them safe against bounty hunters like Loco are executed in turn. Sobering is the mild word for it; it points the finger at the fantasy of the American West in a way that few westerns from either side of the Atlantic have the gall to gesture at, and in so doing it points at the reality of the American empire. Silence is not so different from people like Che, and Loco, one step away from the government and able to act with brutality all the greater because of it, is not so different than groups trained by the CIA.
21) Greed (1924, dir. Erich von Stroheim) – releasing the little bird
In all the hoopla over the length of The Irishman (puts on New York Times hat and goes to a diner in Ohio to hear the perspectives of plain folks), I’ve been thinking about the advantages that a movie has once it crosses that 180-minute mark; maybe even most of my favorite movie endings come from pictures which exceed the three-hour mark. Maybe a little of it is relief, granted—I’m not great at sitting still—but a much greater part of it is the built-in density of a movie that length. Emotions laminate on top of each other the longer the movie runs. Little receptors for meaning grow stronger and soak up more and more. Lawrence, obscured behind a dirty, translucent windshield, seeing the camels outstripped by the car he’s riding in; Noodles smiling at the fantastic future his opium dream has opened him to; Johan and Marianne in the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world; Henrik and Anna together again, but still out of arm’s reach on a park bench. And so on. Add Greed, in its truncated form still longer than some of those aforementioned pictures, to that list. Mac knows he’s going to die by now. He knows that he has committed two of the worst murders any man can imagine: he has killed his wife, and he has killed his best friend. He has killed them over money, as bad a reason for killing as there ever was. But Von Stroheim knows that the man with superhero strength is the same one who has always been kindly disposed to little birds; the film sees something of Mac in those birds, and throughout the film his greatest gentleness, a seeming impossibility in a body so huge and hands so meaty, is shown to them. He has carried this poor bird into Death Valley with him. It is the last living thing besides himself, and rather than let it die with him, he lets it go. It has a chance. In Von Stroheim’s own hands this is about as close as we’ll see to a person giving leave to their soul to abandon its body, and coming at the end of an epic picture like this one it is as sublime as it sounds.
22) A Hidden Life (2019, dir. Terrence Malick) – Hitler comes to Radegund
Not really. But his voice is there, speechifying over the the mountains and fields at dusk. His ideas are there, too, a fact we know already at this point in the movie. Even this heavenly little splotch of Austria is changed by the voice without a face, the words that have infected the mayor of the town and increasingly all of its citizens outside the Jagerstatter household. Sin has slithered into Eden. Very little I’ve seen has disquieted me more in the moment, for this is as strong a contrast between visual and aural imagery, and as apt a statement of how evil lifts itself into a place where it should have no right to be, and instead of being banished thrives instead.
23) Hoop Dreams (1994, dir. Steve James) – Arthur’s playoff run
When he started making Hoop Dreams, I don’t think James imagined that he would have two subjects quite so dissimilar. WIlliam Gates and Arthur Agee are both at St. Joe’s early on in the movie, but it’s not long before the coaching staff identifies William as a potential star and Arthur as a good but not great prospect; William they keep, Arthur they jettison, and all of a sudden Steve James has twice the work. The movie is of course so much better for it, able to really stretch its legs out and prove how totally unnavigable the systems of success are even for people whose talent is as valued as William’s and Arthur’s abilities. It also gives us what is for me the most resounding sequence of the movie. Back in public school—John Marshall looks like it’s on a different planet than St. Joe’s—Arthur shines in a way that William never did. Haunted by injuries, never quite able to push his team to the level of a state title as its featured player, William does not get what Arthur gets. Arthur gets a playoff run, and it is a playoff run that gives him, finally, moments to shine. The defining image of the documentary for me is Arthur rising up for a scoop layup, soaring through the big men defending the rim. You can look at how slight Arthur is and know that he’ll never be what the NBA is looking for; he doesn’t have William’s impossibly broad shoulders and strong build. But he is getting the kind of glory that William has never had on this kind of stage, the glory that neither he nor William will ever taste again, and that scoop layup is a thing of athletic beauty and is gone as soon as it happens.
24) I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, dir. Mervyn LeRoy) – “I steal!”
Another entry where I said what moved me most in the original review
We think back to one of the better moments of this third act: a smarmy lawyer from this Southern state says that the chain gang is obviously a public good: look at James, who has become a prominent, decent Chicagoan after being a criminal. The smarmy lawyer is not here in this moment. And we think back too to the equally smarmy virtue signaling that Scarface is forced to wear because of the Hays Code. Think about how frequently the law is upheld, and how the gangsters flout the law and do terrible things which the regular citizenry must condemn. The gangsters (led, obviously, by Paul Muni) are tremendously effective criminals and monsters disrupting the peace of the community. The law destroys Muni’s Tony Camonte in the end, reducing him to a gibbering mess who pleads for his life before he’s shot down. The law’s power to destroy is amply on display in Fugitive as well. James, who left a decent but boring job in his hometown in order to seek his fortune, is now just another bum; he gets mixed up with the wrong sort of bum; he is, unwillingly, made an accessory to burglary; he’s sentenced to the chain gang. The law has beaten him the same way he has busted up rocks with a sledgehammer. And his final, famous statement is the proof that the law has beaten him. In its restless pursuit of him, in the way it seeks to obliterate his pride and his individualism and his ambition, it has finally succeeded. How do you live? Helen asks, by now desperate with pity for the fiance she ran out of time to marry. “I steal!” he says. Before Orwell came up with his Ingsoc contradictions, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang got there with genuine emotional force.”
25) The Ice Storm (1997, dir. Ang Lee) – The key party
Adults make bad choices in The Ice Storm before we get to this point, to be sure, but no scene in this movie makes it clearer that the adults are as clueless and incapable of managing themselves as the kids are. What makes those decisions feel particularly destructive is the way that everyone takes time to think about it. Say what you will about the kids in this movie, but they are by and large reacting, bundled up in their wants, doing without much thought for consequences. The key party is just the opposite. Everyone has so many chances to not participate. There’s the collection of keys at the door, a collection which the Hoods very nearly choose not to contribute to. There’s the awkward way that all these high-powered adults stand on opposite sides of the table bearing those keys, nervous, sort of pawing at the ground or staring rapt at the little bowl. What are they thinking? Some of the men are presumably hoping that they end up with better-looking or more amiable wives, I suppose, but how many of them are like Kevin Kline’s Ben, probably hoping for one person and wondering at the same time what on earth they’re doing in this situation. The actual pairing of people never really interested me all that much, but the anticipation of these careless people reaching for a thrill without actually preparing to engage in it—they are so empty that they have to try to fill themselves with the newest stupid thing coming around—fascinates me. Maybe it’s not any more or less unusual than buying something expensive or having an affair without the secrecy, but at least those are things people recognize as cries for help. This group plea is much quieter for all the adults involved.
26) Ivan’s Childhood (1962, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) – Ivan runs the beach
The containment in so much of Ivan’s Childhood is exceptional. Like another director making his first feature, Orson Welles, Tarkovsky has a keen understanding of where the limits of the frame are not just for the viewer but for his performers, and knows that he can make the screen or as claustrophobic as he likes. Claustrophobia is on his mind for so much of this movie, creating ceilings with the canopies of trees, making the walls fill so much of the screen, filling the bottom with marshland or earth. Not in the last few minutes, though. In the last few minutes the sky and the sea return. Light returns, and we remember light reacts with water to make blinding flashes. Little children smile, and as Ivan runs after his sister on the beach, and ultimately outstrips her, the bounding joy is slowly released. We’ve been through too much with Ivan to let go of our own disquietude entirely, know too much of what happened to him. Yet Ivan gets to experience some kind of happiness in his past before he reaches that one wizened tree, dead on the beach, the camera’s perspective the same as the character’s, and we ride up to death with him.
27) Kamaradschaft (1931, dir. G.W. Pabst) – “A miner is a miner”
Both sides of the border are a little wary. The French don’t seem to want German help, and the Germans aren’t necessarily interested in risking themselves in a place they know they aren’t wanted. Besides, the memory of the war is too strong; World War I is still entirely in the minds of the people on both sides, and mistrust reigns. Except for one German, who is immediately compelled to do what it takes to get the Frenchmen out of the mines, pushing his bosses to release the rescue equipment, barreling through the border patrol, demanding to be let past the gates where the French wives and children and merchants have gathered to keen. What do we care about generals? Wittkopp says when his countrymen object. A miner is a miner. Look at the scene pessimistically, and why not, I guess, because we know what happened. Pabst himself tried to flee Germany but was forced to stay and make movies under Goebbels. The pessimistic view says this is the spirit of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The optimistic one is the spirit of the Wobblies, the presumed brotherhood of man, the solidarity of labor. There is no argument against “a miner is a miner” anymore than there is an argument against the Golden Rule, the perfect balance of self-interest and compassion for others.
28) A Man Escaped (1956, dir. Robert Bresson) – Fontaine kills
Are there other movies where the murder of another human being is treated as a murder and not a plot point? Perhaps it’s only A Man Escaped, in which Bresson articulates Andre Devigny’s choice. Fontaine, Devigny’s stand-in, and Jost are very near to their goal of escaping from Montluc. Devigny has put many weeks of work alternately mind-numbing and heart-stopping into this escape attempt. His life is on the line. Jost’s life is on the line, too, even though he is a very new addition to Fontaine’s plans. There is no way that they can go back to the “safety” of their cell; giving themselves up would be equally fatal and even less desirable. Yet the thought of killing the guard with his bare hands must be anathema to Fontaine as well, as it is to every right-minded person. The modernization and mechanization of war across history has made the act of killing less and less personal. It used to be you had to look at your opponent, close enough you would need to be able to pick his corpse out of a lineup later on, before you personally exerted the energy of smashing his skull or cutting his throat or whatever. In Fontaine’s day one can fly up 30,000 feet in a bomber and drop an enormous payload that can kill tens of thousands. But he is returned to a Stone Age battle; there is no bomber for him, nor gun, nor knife, nor club. He must kill the guard with literally his bare hands, and he must do it quickly and silently. The camera waits for Fontaine. We wait for Fontaine. In the most literal sense the guard waits for Fontaine. This is probably my favorite scene of the year, the greatest synchronization between a director’s mind, the camera, and my mind. There is nothing else for us to think about besides the tremendous savagery that Fontaine is about to be guilty of, and of the fact that he must believe, and we must believe, that he has a right to his own life.
29) Matewan (1987, dir. John Sayles) – Choosing sides
We’ve covered the pessimistic and optimistic readings of a “A miner is a miner.” The realistic version of it is pretty close to what Kenehan says in this early scene about a very different group of miners facing a much more pernicious enemy than a cave-in. There only two sides in the world, Kenehan says, although these West Virginia miners can certainly see a great deal more. They’re interested in racial differences, national differences, and other things that would rend the union before it grew beyond a sapling. “You know there ain’t but two sides in the world,” Kenehan says, “them that work and them that don’t.” A lot of Matewan takes place at church, and there’s a great deal of it that’s allegorical or concerned for the health of fellow men, but no one comes close to saying anything quite as holy as what Kenehan tells a scattered and scared group of men in the dead of night.
30) The Member of the Wedding (1952, dir. Fred Zinnemann) – Tossed out of the car
This is the movie that made me think I wanted to make this sort of list rather than a traditional “best of.” In a lot of ways this is a really bizarre movie; Julie Harris, by then in her mid-twenties, plays a girl of twelve, and it only works in black-and-white and with a great suspension of our disbelief. It’s a suspension which ultimately does happen, not because we’re turning our brains off but because the movie is technical enough to make that play. Zinnemann does his best to keep a little distance from Harris most of the time; Harris is as unsexed and prepubescent as one can make someone in her mid-late twenties; the black-and-white really is necessary, as it would be necessary ten years later to keep The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance from looking sort of ridiculous. This is also an enormously great performance from Harris, overflowing with humiliation that Frankie can never quite stanch even with the constant attention of Berenice, the housekeeper. (The Member of the Wedding, incidentally, does a good job at giving Berenice multiple avenues to be a person, sure that she exists even when Frankie isn’t begging for validation. Say what you will about the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, because I’ve said it too, but Berenice and Calpurnia are similar. Obviously they act as mothers for children without them, but in To Kill a Mockingbird in particular, the novel is not shy about showcasing the children’s ignorance about Calpurnia. Scout says that she and Jem had never considered Cal’s life outside what she did at their house, and we are invited to see that as inculcated white egocentrism.) That performance climaxes after the wedding. No one except Frankie believes that her brother will bring her on his honeymoon; everyone tells her it’s a bad idea. Yet Frankie sticks to it, believing that she will be vindicated in belonging after so many rejections from so many corners. Everyone else is right, obviously. Her sister-in-law is kinder to Frankie than the rest of them—her father is appalled, while her brother sticks to “spoiling our wedding”—and in the end Frankie is backed into the corner of the seat, like a trapped animal, sweaty and unkempt and screeching. Her father eventually drags her out of the car and all but throws her to the pavement; the car drives off; the image that stays with me from this movie is that of Frankie, on hands and knees, bent like a crushed spider, as helpless and lonesome as Garbo in Grand Hotel. If it had to be someone in her twenties to tie herself up that way, then so much the better.
31) Monterey Pop (1968, dir. D.A. Pennebaker) – Looking back at the audience
I’m probably not the intended audience for Monterey Pop, and the way you can tell is because I’m not listing Otis Redding or Jimi Hendrix’s performances as my takeaway from this movie. (My favorite performance is, despite the presence of my beloved Mamas and the Papas, Ravi Shankar.) What stands out to me are the people who showed up. I don’t know that it matters to me very much when they’re talking. I can’t remember what any of them said to the camera. The faces are what stand out to me, faces of people in their twenties or thirties who must be old, old, old by now, the faces of people who are unbearably hopeful. How much hope they all seem to have! I don’t think any movie left me quite as torn up as this one this year, and it’s because of those audiences of people were much more real to me than any audience in any concert movie I’ve ever come across. Credit is due to Pennebaker, naturally, for interspersing shots of the Mamas and the Papas singing a surprisingly rough version of “California Dreamin'” with the fawning looks of young people, or the masterful picking of Ravi Shankar back to the pensive faces of his audience. There was great genius in him. There can’t be a term for this, but he had this remarkable ability to find moments that would be meaningful in a current events kind of way in his own time, but which, with the benefit of hindsight, are much more electrifying. (The Germans have something about 75% of the way there in “Sehnsucht,” but the other 25% would have to be whatever the German word is for “and while we’re feeling wistful, let’s go back in time and warn them.”) In The War Room, a movie I wrote about earlier this year and which I seriously thought about including on this list, James Carville gives a little speech about the importance of the New Hampshire primary for Bill Clinton, and how if they reject a progressive now they’ll reject a progressive forever. It’s ludicrous given what we know about Bill Clinton and the intervening quarter-century of American politics, but the fact that we know it’s ludicrous and Carville pretends it’s not made my stomach a little queasy. In Monterey Pop, these people are all swaying even and gaping and smiling, and they have no idea that in the year the documentary was released, the next year alone, every last comfort that someone could take in America as itself would be beaten out like feathers exploding from a pillow.
32) Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, dir. Jim Jarmusch) – Just over it
One of my absolute favorite moments from this year, and perhaps the most gifable: Tom Hiddleston, wearing a huge wig, eyes mostly closed, standing up with a guitar in his hands, and every inch of his face just says he is over it. He is too tired, and worn, and bummed out. It is, as the kids say, a whole mood. (This movie is delicious, and Jim Jarmusch has been outstanding throughout the entire decade.)
33) Parasite (2019, dir. Bong Joon-ho) – Coming home
This scene is the reason why doing a list like this one feels a little odd. Movies are only collections of moments in the sense that a pearl necklace is a collection of pearls: literally true, but it misses the point of why we’d care about it. The flooded subbasement makes sense in the context of a night which begins gloriously and ends horrifyingly at the Parks, the way that the Kims spread out over the house they’ve colonized, eating and drinking and being merry and all that jazz, how the surprisingly plural Moons prove themselves the first parasites, and then the way that everyone must dodge the Parks (returned home from an aborted camping trip that they took for the youngest Park’s birthday) once they’ve reclaimed the house that they always believe is theirs. It is pure triumph to watch the Kims get drunk, pure anxiety to see what secrets are hidden deeper in the house, and pure agony to watch them scatter through the house and take refuge wherever they can find it. This is what it looks like to see a two-front war in action, but the movie supposes a different question. What if one’s actual home is not one of the fronts? And worse still, what if the homefront were a battle that could not be won? It’s pouring when three of the four Kims get out of the Park home, and as they trek back to their subbasement barefoot, it becomes very clear that something they could never have prepared against has gone awry. When it rained too hard for the Parks, they came home. When it rained too hard for the Kims, they waded through water up to their chests in order to recover what belongings they could scavenge from the sewage. Song Kang-ho makes what might be the best face of this year by any actor as he looks around the subbasement in the flood. It is a night that has required tremendous and horrible practicality, and the look he wears as he wonders at how much has been done to maintain this meager standard, and how quickly it can be washed away, might never go away
34) Personal Shopper (2016, dir. Olivier Assayas) – Dropping a glass
Personal Shopper is one of the movies I watched this year which I know I’m going to have to rewatch next year just for my own peace of mind, one of those dense texts that I’ve lingered on and I still can’t work through to my own satisfaction. I’ll hold off with what may have been my scariest moment of the year. Maureen is sitting in a pleasant little garden. Her boss is dead, murdered in really grisly fashion; the police have a suspect in custody. Her late brother seems to have been less trying to contact her than toy with her recently, and Maureen looks exhausted. She rubs her face with her hands, clutches her mug close to her. Then we see…someone. Her back is to him. He’s in the kitchen when he was not just a second ago, without the benefit of transition. He drops a glass. There is a ghost earlier in the movie, but this ghost is what I found as unnerving as any other thing I saw in a movie this year. The dead are never just one thing in Personal Shopper. Sometimes they are art installations of mutilation, or they are rippling silver phantasms, or they are normal looking people dropping glassware, but they are never able to be pinned down.
35) Phoenix (2014, dir. Christian Petzold) – Johnny doesn’t know Nelly
On a recent Ringer podcast, Adam Nayman said that his director of the decade is probably Christian Petzold, and although I haven’t seen Transit yet (sorry! sorry! it’s on my Amazon queue!), I’m inclined to agree. I’m a weirdo who thinks Barbara is probably a better picture than Phoenix, although Phoenix has the greater gutpunch of the two. Nelly, recently released from the hospital after miraculously a bullet to the face, is desperate to pick up where her life left off before the Holocaust took her. Against the suggestions and then pleas of her friend and benefactor, she seeks him out. She cannot say anything before he grabs her and pulls her back to the bare little apartment where he’s been getting by. You look, he says to her, very much like my dead wife, and with your help I can claim the inheritance they won’t give me. He’s right. She does look a lot like his dead wife, although not exactly like her thanks to the plastic surgery, and this twin barrage silences the response that we pray she’ll make in her own defense. First: the speed with which Johnny thinks about the money he could get out of his well-off dead wife. Second: she is not who she wanted to be. The thoughts of Phoenix are more sordid and less creepy than the ones of Eyes Without a Face, but they boil down to a basic truth. Once something is gone, it’s gone for good. Phoenix is about Nelly’s desperate hope to be found herself again, her unwillingness or inability to accept the new her, and how identity, so mutable in all the books, is in practice far less malleable than we should like to believe.
36) Silent Light (2007, dir. Carlos Reygadas) – The sun rises
Ordet via Malick sounds like it should be the best movie of all time, although, inevitably, some things are lost in the transfer, and I find instead that this movie is merely great rather than stellar. No matter. The beginning of the picture is some of the best of what the cinema can do: Reygadas realizes that a movie has power over time itself, and as the camera swirls around the heavens and comes to earth in time for the sunrise, somehow deliberate and speedy at the same time, I was awestruck at the audacity of this beginning and taken with the complete loveliness of the images. Watch a sunrise, sure, but only after you stare at the other stars which are a little farther away, and wonder at how dawn must look on other planets, and consider how if something happens over and over again it may reasonably seem to be deathless.
37) The Souvenir (2019, dir. Joanna Hogg) – Arguing over the bed
Julie and Anthony are still in the cute stage of their relationship, but, listen up kids, just because you’re still in the cute stage doesn’t mean some stuff which is seriously not cute isn’t going down. Anthony chooses a battlefield which um, isn’t symbolic, nope, not at all. You take up more of the bed than you ought, he tells Julie. Julie, lying on the bed, titters and giggles throughout most of this conversation, trying to hold her ground, but inevitably losing it bit by bit to her much more persistent boyfriend. Anthony is being funny, but it’s not because he isn’t being serious. He really is trying to mark where the halfway point of the bed is, and he really wants it clear that he feels he’s getting pushed off the bed; he wants to have as much as he wants, and her too. If this were not a movie in which Anthony is Julie’s heroin-addled tapeworm, it might even have stayed cute instead of reading as sinister.
38) Starman (1984, dir. John Carpenter) – The deer comes back to life
Speaking of deathless. Here’s my last bit of self-plagiarism:
The best scene in Starman is one in which a divine act is couched within a very simple setting. Having been touched by the sight of a dead deer on a man’s hood outside a truck stop, the alien takes an opportunity to go see it while Jenny is scheming about how to leave him. (He has just learned what Dutch apple pie is, has proclaimed it good, and has also upended the traditional structure of dinner before dessert in the doing. It’s a case of comic masking, not in any ironic sense but because it makes the marvel of his miracle all the more touching.) Carpenter keeps the camera well back from Bridges, placing it roughly where Allen is standing and watching him. He raises his right hand; one of those little metal balls is in there, we know, for it glows red. He keeps one hand on the deer. It begins to twitch. Cutting between Allen’s increasingly amazed face and the increasingly mobile deer, we see, first off, that the alien has power over death. But we also sense the tremendous gentleness in him as well; the deer sits at his feet for a few moments while he pets it like a cat, and a sweetness so total that it aches glows through the screen.
39) The Straight Story (1999, dir. David Lynch) – Lyle sees the tractor
The weirdest thing David Lynch has ever done (in a movie, anyway, because this is the guy who nominated Vladimir Putin for the Ice Bucket Challenge) was make me mist up because he cut to a tractor. In a movie which is as straightforward as the name implies, Lynch finds something rare and valuable: he finds a new way to say, “I love you.”
40) El Sur (1983, dir. Victor Erice) – A last conversation with her father
I try to limit how often I use this adjective, because there is so much work put into the production of a movie no matter what it is, but Erice’s finished products feel effortless. El Sur is so much about a girl trying to discover her father while she’s a little girl. Her adoration of him is complete, and the sadness he harbors feels like the ultimate mystery for her to unravel. Then she grows up a little; she discovers more about him than she wants to. Omero Antonutti looks exactly the same throughout this movie, but when Estrella is a girl, Antonutti’s face shines like a hero, and he has a hard brow that makes him look stern and great. As a teenager she can see her father. His slouching is new? At least noticeable. His face no longer looks like a bronze bust, but seems almost pixieish, like it might blow away even indoors. She eats dessert, and it certainly feels like she’s having dessert so her father, folded into a corner, can have another drink. Was he always this pathetic? Is the heroic romantic still somewhere in there? Perhaps it was always false, Erice shows us, and little children find ways to paste some other image, something more recognizable and digestible, onto what they do not fully understand. The scene is so unexpected, but we saw Agustin through Estrella’s eyes; what the scene is is not effortless, but graceful.
41) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper) – Leatherface dances
I’ve watched over 500 movies this year. I’m not sure any of them have an ending as good as this movie. Those last seven seconds, as Leatherface wheels around, pirouetting heavily, flailing the roaring chainsaw: watching it I thought it lasted a minute. The sun is coming up. The screams are still resonating, tied up with the laughter that sounds uncomfortably similar. And then that chainsaw again, yipping and screeching and buzzing. It’s pure orange out there, painful in the intensity of it, how it flares off the lens and sears the retinas. Leatherface is angry, surely. Disappointed not to sink the chainsaw into her, as he must surely be disappointed that Grandpa couldn’t get rid of her in the wee hours. That must be part of the reason he’s waving the chainsaw around with abandon. But surely there’s something else, maybe wrapped up in that pirouette: maybe it’s a little triumph. There were other victims. He got the satisfaction of their blood, even if he couldn’t get the satisfaction of Sally’s. Maybe it’s a dance that means, “Four outta five ain’t bad.” It’s only seven seconds, but it’s seven seconds in hell. I could watch 500 more movies and never see the like of it.
42) Tomorrow, the World! (1944, dir. Leslie Fenton) – Emil charms Aunt Jessie
In a 1941 edition of Harper’s, Dorothy Thompson wrote, hypothetically and not, about “who goes Nazi?” Some people would never, she writes, for one reason or another. Something about their education or their background or their temperament prevents them. And for much the same reason, some people will jump to the occasion, will sign up almost immediately for much the same reasons. The seeds are there for Jessie (Agnes Moorehead, flinty as ever) to be charmed by her little Nazi nephew, Emil, even though she does not much trust him to start. She is addicted to propriety, certain that anyone who ends up in jail belongs there for some reason, and is unable to find the difference between “jail” and a “concentration camp.” If someone is German, there must be something wrong with them as there is something wrong with the entire race; she cannot find the similarity between this thought and, of course, Nazi policy about race. Jessie would turn, all right, as long as her grievances are appealed to in the right way, and there are so many grievances intimated in Moorehead’s performance that one almost doesn’t know where to start. There are multiple Aunt Jessies in all of our lives. I thought about the ones in mine, and I thought about the pure climax that it requires to shake Jessie out of her wicked thoughts, and I thought about how much harder it would be to shake my Aunt Jessies out of theirs.
43) Vernon, Florida (1981, dir. Errol Morris) – Possum!
I really thought about including the part from General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait where he’s on a boat talking about hippopotamuses, but I think I only have room for one moment from a documentary this year in which someone I have nothing in common with talks about animals, and I’m choosing the guy who pulls a possum out of a box in Vernon, Florida. I also didn’t rewind immediately to hear Idi Amin’s commentary on the hippos. I watched this old man pull a possum out of a giant box, hold his back legs up while the possum tried to crawl away with his front legs, and then return him to said box; the action is that simple, but at the same time there’s something that just blew me away with how nuts that sequence is. It’s not every day you watch the world’s goofiest wheelbarrow race. The old-timer is recognized in town, after all, as a man who knows what to do with a possum.
44) When the Levees Broke (2006, dir. Spike Lee) – The randomness of the Katrina diaspora
It’s not that a director can’t be a great maker of narrative features and documentary films, but that so few seem to have the inclination to do so. Spike Lee is so inclined. If Do the Right Thing had never been made, When the Levees Broke would probably be his masterpiece, and deservedly so. The second-longest movie I watched this year, When the Levees Broke is also one of the most potent, an exhausting emotional experience that walks a tightrope. The pride and dignity of Katrina’s survivors is never questioned, and frequently celebrated. On the other hand, their suffering is Biblical, and Lee never does them disservice of exaggerating it. Katrina was an obliteration, and people and homes were obliterated by it, and in a documentary which is as scary as movies come, one of the scariest details is one that I think most of us fail to think about. The population of New Orleans, one of the nation’s great historically black cities, was in large part shipped out after Katrina, and shipped out at random. Lee finds people with those stories, black people moved away from New Orleans to other states without say in where they wound up. For every person who found a new home in Utah, there are far more shipped out somewhere else, without the benefit of such kind neighbors, without the benefit of a government that cared about what happened to them. A government that cared would have stitched the wound after stanching it; these people sent to Texas or Colorado or Florida would have been able to be part of the healing, but in being sent out on planes became new wounds themselves.
45) The Wonderful World of Tupperware (1965, dir. George Yarbrough) – Anita Bryant takes the stage
This is the dark version of the Monterey Pop entry up there. Anita Bryant, perhaps twenty-five in this clip, sings an original song about Tupperware. This sounds like YouTube Poop, but it is entirely real, and there is so much foreshadowing here that it made my head spin a little. The second half of this short industrial film is primarily about the sales end, the rewards that come to people who sell at a high level and the conferences and the performances that these people get to be part of. They are not exclusively housewives, but a number of them are, and Tupperware is, perhaps above any other brand name, synonymous with a particular brand of old-fashioned homemaking. One of those performers being carted is Bryant, who was sort of semi-famous then but rejuvenated her fame in the next decade. Bryant would go on to become a spokeswoman for something much more insidious than Tupperware: anti-gay regulation (tacitly in defense of a “traditional family,” of course) in Florida that became a successful model for that particular type of legalized discrimination. Every generation looks back at the ones before and believes that they are living in what Miller’s Danforth called “a precise time…the shining sun is up.” The passage of time is a set of revelations on its own terms, a transition from “We’re having a party – a Tupperware party” to “I do believe [homosexuality] should be illegal.” Presumably she was in 1965 what she was in 1977, and behind that big smile and underneath that big hair, there was an animus within her. There’s something amusing and surreal about the performance, which I imagine was there in 1965, too. Only later on does it feel like a particularly savage propaganda.