Top 250 American Movies: 91-100

For each movie in the top 100, I’ve written a question to answer. (It would get very, very boring for me to have to write some variation on “boy howdy, you’ll never believe how good this movie is” one hundred more times.) There’s no exact sentence or word count I’m holding myself to here, but this is also isn’t going to function as a rationale for why 98 is better than 99 is better than 100. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.


100) A Hidden Life (2019), directed by Terrence Malick

Is this Terrence Malick’s most approachable movie?

Badlands still exists, but there’s such a mystery at the center of that film (Kit’s profound hold over Holly) that doesn’t exist in A Hidden Life. This movie is, some choices in cinematography aside, practically Oscarbait. A pious German man from a small town decides he cannot take an oath of allegiance to Hitler because that would break his covenant with God, and so he peaceably suffers and perseveres until the Nazis execute him. Anyone who’s ever seen Best Picture winners Schindler’s List and Gandhi can get themselves most of the way to understanding this film, which is scored by the not-very-subtle James Newton Howard and which features boldly straightforward performances from August Diehl and Valerie Pachner. How approachable this picture is makes for some aspect of its greatness, even though that aforementioned cinematography, which occasionally places the moviegoer in a small fish-eyed eddy beneath the bodies of the characters and which sometimes puts us in view of a bucolic vista, must be the greatest contributor. In other movies from Malick, some of which I even rate more highly than this one, the passion of plain men to know God is whispered in koans and intuited through shots of unspoiled semi-Edens. The story of Franz Jägerstätter, taken from history and told without a murmur of doubt or suspicion, ought to be the kind of film which Christians especially should take with both hands as a gift. If your minister wouldn’t reference this picture in a sermon, then you ought to reconsider who you take the word of God from. Maybe Badlands, a true crime story with movie stars, is a little more approachable after all.

99) A Woman Under the Influence (1974), directed by John Cassavetes

What kind of ballet would this movie be?

A Woman Under the Influence recalls Swan Lake most memorably in a sequence where Mabel implores the children at her impromptu party to die like Odette. The kids do. It’s funny and offputting and somehow not one of the five weirdest, most disconcerting things that happen to kids in this picture. The people of this film are blue-collar people in a Los Angeles that feels just a hop and a skip west of Pittsburgh or Cleveland; Cassavetes has deglamorized Los Angeles with as much effect as anyone this side of Charles Burnett. The thought of sending Mabel Longhetti to the ballet is almost a warming one, even though sending her husband Nick to the ballet gives the polite bourgeois in me a really bad stomach ache. The people in this melodrama without paint, this splintered deck without varnish, would maybe be able to see themselves in Tchaikovsky’s Odette and Rothbart, Bizet’s Carmen and Escamillo, Goya’s Saturn and Saturn’s son if they squinted. If they were a ballet, then it would need to be a ballet with flat feet, as The Rite of Spring. Mabel’s virginity has, presumably, been a lost cause for some years now, but watching her return to a party she can’t handle is not so different from watching those primitive Russians hoist a virgin who has danced herself to death for the benefit of pagan and silent gods.

98) The Crowd (1928), directed by King Vidor

How does The Crowd play into its own melodrama while staving off the worst excesses of that epithet?

The answer is in the film’s final shot, though if you wanted to find that answer in the film’s title you could absolutely start there. The Crowd isn’t innocent of certain flourishes which mark it as a little bit desperate, although most of those have to do with John’s childhood, his much too symbolic birthdate, his aggressively characterizing father, etc. But it’s not called John Sims, but The Crowd. So what if the Sims family loses a daughter to an accident in the street? Other families in the city lose children to traffic or deprivation or illness. So what if John never becomes as important as he dreamed he would be? I mean, heck, did you? The Crowd wields a machete where it probably ought to have used a penknife in developing the young John, and what happens in his career, his marriage, his family life is repetitively tragic. Yet it’s never quite numbing, in part because the cyclical nature of those misfortunes means you’re always kind of waiting for something else to happen. When John goes to commit suicide and is interrupted by a son who cannot dream of his father killing himself, there’s a real pathos there. Someone still loves this schmuck no matter how inept he’s been in his adult life, can still see value in him not unlike the braggadocious puffery that his father inflated him with all those years before. And in that last shot, no matter how much comfort we might take from John and Mary finally getting to laugh together again, Vidor reminds us that their mild rises and steep falls are not unlike the hard climbs up for micrergates and the dizzying fall that occurs in rain or wind.

97) The Evil Dead (1981), directed by Sam Raimi

We understand that you think this is the Batman Returns of low-budget horror. You’re going to have to flesh that out a little bit.

Batman Returns, one of the greatest superhero movies ever made in this country, finds its greatness outside of Batman/Michael Keaton. This isn’t to say that Keaton isn’t playing the role well, or that Batman doesn’t need to come save the day in the end, but look, who on earth is watching Batman Returns for what the title character is going to do? Better to watch that movie for Christopher Walken or Paul Reubens than Keaton, let alone Michelle Pfeiffer or Danny DeVito. Similarly, it’s not that Bruce Campbell isn’t wonderful in this movie, but that there are so many other people who just have to attract our attention more. Ellen Sandweiss is just incredible in this movie, credibly playing this huffing being from the cellar while also anchoring the film’s first eyepopping sequence, where the trees come out of their stupor to rape her. Or there’s the doll-like, shrill work that Betsy Baker is doing. Bruce Campbell gets his turn, and of course Ash is as needed here as Batman was needed in Batman Returns. It’s just that the most indelible images and moments of the film just have more to do with supporting actors given a chance to let their freak flags fly.

96) Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Does this movie peak with Janet Leigh?

Oh, most definitely. Pick your favorite horror movie and the likelihood that the best kills or scares are actually towards the end of the picture as things are being resolved is pretty low. Nor am I trying to suggest that this movie would have been better if it had just been Anthony Perkins chasing Leigh around like Robert Englund staggering after Heather Langenkamp or something. But the lore of Psycho is in the shower, the blood circling the drain, the stuffed raptors listening to Norman’s quiet conversation. It’s in Mrs. Bates, of all people, who seems to be the one doing all that stabbing and who presumably put the violin quartet on the record player. I’ve said from my first encounter with Psycho that the single scariest sequence in this movie—for my money, the scariest thing I’ve watched in a movie that isn’t from The Exorcist or Mulholland Drive—is the scene where Mrs. Bates appears stage right and mechanically moves to kill Arbogast on the stairs. But that’s a sequence, not a mode of filmmaking. What Hitchcock and Leigh are doing together writes the rules for horror after Nosferatu, and no one’s been able to exceed them yet.

95) The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch

In what universe does Margaret Sullavan qualify as the “nice, regular girl” that Jimmy Stewart is hoping for, and why do I want to live in it?

It’s called the “classic MGM romance” universe, you dinkus, of course you want to live in it. Klara Novak is basically a nice, regular girl by the standards of ’30s Budapest, prettier than her peers, but still reduced to finding romance in a pen pal. She may be a very good saleswoman, but it does not follow that she’s cultured; her Hugo and Dostoevsky are lacking, which is to say that by the standards of the time she’s not much of a reader. She wears awful clothes with a will, perhaps for the same self-flagellating reasons that trendy young women insist on getting bangs. Her pangs and humiliations can send her into bed, and she can be brought out of bed with a single letter fulfilling her wishes. Klara Novak is a nice, regular girl. Margaret Sullavan, born wealthy in southern Virginia, a product of boarding school and Denishawn, by all accounts totally irresistible, was not. (Jimmy Stewart, who seemed to be in line to inherit the family store even in the early years of his acting career and who had no small penchant for Sullavan, is a little easier to imagine as an Alfred Kralik.) The Shop Around the Corner is so beautiful because of the quality of the movies to fool us and make us grateful for it. The carnation reveal at the end of this movie is my vote for the most romantic gesture in any film, and some element of that romance is that it’s Alfred Kralik, not Jimmy Stewart, putting the carnation in his lapel. He’s doing it not for Margaret Sullavan, but for Klara Novak. The Lubitsch touch, sure, but he had such a gift for picking your pocket while you felt it.

94) Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), directed by Barbara Kopple

This movie is almost fifty years old. Has it gotten a little quaint?

Quaint isn’t the right word, and outdated isn’t the right word either. I think most of us moviegoers, when we think about the great movies, are thinking about films which have something which will always feel fresh or new no matter how often we return to it: Citizen Kane, Ossessione, Pather Panchali, Breathless, Touki Bouki. I don’t think it’s possible to go back to Harlan County and feel like there’s something new there. Barbara Kopple, probably the greatest filmic chronicler of American labor has lived and died long enough to see trade unionism disemboweled in this country. The movie that’s most like Harlan County to me, and it’s not just because of the mining connection, is Kamaradschaft, the G.W. Pabst picture where French and German miners unite because of the solidarity they feel as labor regardless of their national differences. Obviously, it would be less than a decade until that whole national difference business turned into a national conquest thing, but it didn’t take long until Morning in America wielded that disemboweling sword, either. Harlan County isn’t quaint or outdated, but it is definitely a statement about a world that was as opposed to a world that is right now, which, incidentally, helps to make it a great documentary. When Kopple puts you with those miners and their families, you are emphatically there.

93) Heaven’s Gate (1980), directed by Michael Cimino

Can this movie be binge-watched?

Not only can you binge-watch this movie, you should binge-watch it! (I’ve never seen the theatrical cut of this movie; I only know what Criterion has released, and I don’t feel any particular reason to sit through a version of this movie that has less depth and that everyone hated.) I’m sure I pause movies for one thing or another as much as anyone else I know, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there’s only one correct way to watch a movie and that’s in one perfectly uninterrupted sitting. On the other hand, the restored version of Heaven’s Gate is like, five episodes of Yellowstone, and has the fringe benefit of having zero percent Taylor Sheridan. It’s a movie with the bravery to be terribly sad, to show us the death of legendary individuals and the death of a community all at once. Averill is many things to this Johnson County community, but he’s not Shane. Shane is one of the people, and Averill, with his Harvard education and his longtime friendship with Irvine, is definitely not. When Shane disappears from the ranch, the plaintive cry of a child echoes around him. Averill leaves Johnson County for his yacht in Rhode Island, not wanting for the pleasure of female company and basically unscathed from the carnage he left in Wyoming. Heaven’s Gate could cut itself off into four parts, I guess, making the Harvard graduation an episode, making the roller skating the climactic moment of another, and so on and so forth. But this movie earns its bleakness, in part, through its runtime.

92) Margaret (2011), directed by Kenneth Lonergan

There are probably as many “poor little rich girls in New York” movies as there are galaxies in that picture from the James Webb Telescope. Why is this one so bright?

(It’s not lost on me that we have two restored films in a row here, rather than the theatrical cuts. Happy accident!)

The simple answer? Lisa is loathsome, and Margaret doesn’t shy away from letting us know it in a number of different ways. If “loathsome” strikes you as a harsh word for someone like Lisa, who is despite all of her privilege a basically rootless person, a teenager who feels guilty and who has no real tools for handling the emotional tonnage dropped with a thud into her gut, then I can throttle “loathsome” down to “self-absorbed.” This is how the rich young people, girls as well as boys, are typically depicted in the flicks: The Squid and the Whale, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Cruel Intentions. (It’s inconvenient for me that Gossip Girl is a television program for this point, but also…Gossip Girl.) Their problems are the only problems, their moral conundrums the only moral conundrums. Money and status have insulated the Lisas of New York in the same way that earmuffs keep one’s ears warm but also make it harder to hear what’s going on around one. Lisa, who did the wrong thing and has taken the cross in an effort to rectify it, is no altruist here. This is not a do-gooder. When Emily, who has the most right to decide how Monica’s wrongful death should be recompensed, decides to take the money instead of fighting to fire the bus driver, Lisa’s response is apoplectic. Emily is in control but wickedly stern in that moment: who do you think you are that you would get to decide what’s appropriate? she asks, and for this Lisa has no answer. This is the fusion reaction brightening this film, even though I wouldn’t say the reaction warms it.

91) The Fly (1986), directed by David Cronenberg

Jeff Goldblum was the wingman for any number of great movie stars in the preceding ten years. Could any of his co-stars put the “body” in “body horror” like him?

I mean, no. A lot of the answers here are actually kind of funny, and not just because one of them could be Woody Allen; it’s impossible to imagine John Heard, Leonard Nimoy, or Dennis Quaid being Seth Brundle. There are actors I rate so highly, like Donald Sutherland or Kevin Kline or William Hurt, who I don’t think could have done this part either; these are men who bring too much humor to indignity. The best answers I have are two people from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and so on—Peter Weller and John Lithgow—and one from The Right Stuff—Ed Harris. Weller, a later Cronenberg collaborator, is maybe a little stony for a role this touchy-feely, though goodness knows he could do the once-human business well enough. Lithgow and Harris both have the chops for this kind of role. Like Goldblum, you can sort of imagine both guys as leading man handsome if you squint and tilt your head a little, and of course there’s no doubt about their acting ability. Yet Cronenberg has always had the knack for casting exactly the right person in his lead roles, whether it’s James Spader in Crash or Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers or James Woods in Videodrome. Goldblum may just top them all. Blessed/cursed with a similar body type to Abraham Lincoln, he then goes on to take on a new body, a new flesh. It’s a hideous and of course sickening transformation, one that is probably at least as horrifying in the new behaviors that Brundle takes on as much as his features, and Goldblum is as gonzo in Brundlefly mode as he was arrogant in…Brundleman? Brundle 1.0? Geena Davis is giving him a lot of help in the pathos department, and the makeup effects are unrivalled, but only Goldblum via Cronenberg could have made this role so literally and forcefully unique.

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