Top 250 American Movies: 71-80

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 78 is better than 79 is better than 80. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.


80) Fort Apache (1948), directed by John Ford

Who was Ford’s true muse, Henry Fonda or John Wayne?

John Ford’s treatment of his leading men reminds me of that line from Casablanca where Renault calls Rick “extravagant” in his willingness to dump his hot dates. “Someday they may be scarce,” Renault sniffs at him. Before Fond or Wayne, there was George O’Brien, the star of Ford’s first really great picture, The Iron Horse, and the star of multiple other vehicles besides. But O’Brien and Ford had a falling out that was, to be sure, much more about problems with Ford than O’Brien, and O’Brien’s career never recovered. When Ford made Fort Apache, Fonda was the actor who brought out the poet in him. Glenn Frankel doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Mister Roberts and The Searchers are so close together, and neither do I. John Ford wanted Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts, given that Fonda was so nearly associated with the role from the stage, and that Fonda and Ford got along so well. If either one of them had thought about it, they wouldn’t have done it. Ford should have known that Fonda, the perfectionist, would feel like he knew what the perfect Mister Roberts looked like more than anyone. Fonda should have known that Ford, the control freak, would not have heeded disputation. Thus the punch, the end of their friendship, and a final shift in Ford’s career that headlined John Wayne, whom Ford could always bully. Although Fonda and Wayne were in three other films together, the other three are those giant ensemble types from the ’60s and the two of them do not interact. This is the only one where the two of them are lined up with, or more accurately against, one another, and the protagonist of it is Fonda’s Thursday as opposed to Wayne’s York. The artistic thrust of Fort Apache, about printing the legend and the falseness of American history due to its more frequent interpretation as American myth, comes from Thursday, not from York. The Griffith in Ford returned to Wayne; the Murnau in Ford returned to Fonda, and as I’ve written before, the Murnau in Ford is the stronger, more beautiful influence. It’s not until Ford could make a movie where Wayne played a role as difficult and loathsome as Owen Thursday that Ford could channel Murnau with him, too, and that one happens to be the film right after Mister Roberts in Ford’s chronology.

79) Pulp Fiction (1994), directed by Quentin Tarantino

Is this movie too much between a rock and a Godard place?

As an old man who has basically lost all patience for all but three of Tarantino’s movies—Inglourious Basterds is #190 on this list, and I guess you can wait and see about Jackie Brown!—my answer to this question is a qualified yes. There’s never been a movie this good, perhaps not just in America but anywhere, which is basically two kids in a trenchcoat trying to be their shady but cool uncle in a trenchcoat. The feeling, the gestures, the irreverence, the sparkle of this movie have the taste of Jean-Luc Godard but not the mouthfeel. For strangeness Pulp Fiction has the gimp, but it doesn’t have anything like Jean-Paul Belmondo in blueface in Pierrot le fou; for rhythm Pulp Fiction has the dance number, but it doesn’t have anything like the hypnotic line dance in Bande à part. What Tarantino has managed to find in Godard and to transplant is perhaps the hardest thing to transplant well, and that’s the sense of unpredictability in Breathless. Pulp Fiction is brilliantly unpredictable, no matter how well you know Mamie Van Doren, film noir, Urge Overkill’s Neil Diamond covers, or of course Jean-Luc Godard. That it can combine that unpredictability with so much posturing and obviousness is kind of a wonder. Occasionally I think about what the realest moment in this movie is, the one that feels most like real people, and weirdly enough I think about the scene where Butch returns to his apartment for the watch and kills Vincent there. There’s something very human about not wanting to take your big fancy gun to the toilet with you, even if it’s probably a stupid idea to leave said gun on the counter given that you’re staking out the place.

78) Desert Hearts (1985), directed by Donna Deitsch

What puts the “desert” in Desert Hearts?

I mean, Reno, yes, but the characters of this film—guarded Vivian, idiosyncratic Cay, sensitive Frances—are women with hearts parched and yearning for some kind of replenishment. In that sense, they have desert hearts, and from that point of view it only makes sense that a rare thunderstorm is the way for Vivian and Cay to have their first sexual connection with one another. As the rain soaks their clothes, so does their passion for one another (in Vivian’s case latent, in Cay’s case bright-eyed) permeate, get into the pores and under the skin. For Vivian, the encounter with Cay in the rain is like sudden powerful precipitation in the desert: it erodes, and all at once. It’s not until another rain, in Cay’s visit to Vivian’s hotel room, that some of the soil manages to hold for the older woman. One of the strokes of genius in this film is that the rain comes for Frances as well, who unlike Vivian and Cay is unquestionably straight but like Vivian and Cay has a sexual history which can only be called illicit. Frances was Cay’s father’s mistress, and despite all of Cay’s efforts to express her patience and good feeling towards this mother figure without portfolio, there’s still such harshness in Frances’s judgment of her renter and her somewhat-daughter in the morning after the storm.

77) The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming

Does the title character in this film really matter? What do we make of Frank Morgan in this picture?

He doesn’t sing or dance, he doesn’t wear pounds of makeup under an instantly recognizable costume, and he’s a regular disappointment. Heck, even after doing the right thing by Dorothy’s companions by giving them gifts to represent the qualities they’ve already exemplified, he still manages to muck up the whole “let’s get Dorothy home” thing when his balloon takes off before Toto gets his seat back and tray table in upright and locked positions. There are the various denizens of Oz who Frank Morgan plays, like a slightly bumfuzzled harbinger of what’s to come. And of course, Morgan eats up time as Professor Marvel, too, in what are probably the most forgettable scenes in the entire picture. (It’s not those scenes’ fault for being forgettable, necessarily, just that they don’t compare for excitement or fame or awe to like, well, the rest of the movie.) But in this most fantastic and beloved of American movies, Morgan is essential, every bit as essential as Margaret Hamilton, who makes her ten minutes or so of time on screen legendary. The Wizard and Dorothy are not so very different from one another. Both of them were transported to Oz by the longest of odds, and both achieved something like instant fame on arrival for doing nothing at all. The difference in them is that only one of them could imagine that place over the rainbow. Dorothy, the soul of hope, who perseveres through unimaginable obstacles for a girl born in 19th Century Kansas, has dreams of returning home no matter how feted she is by the little people in singing groups. The Wizard has no dreams, only machinations, and in him The Wizard of Oz uncovers disappointment, apathy, and of course humbuggery. Dorothy’s unwavering persistence is beautiful, where the Wizard’s conservatism of imagination, his instinct for grabbing what he can and hoarding it like a mustached Midwestern Fafnir, is a grubby reminder of the home that Dorothy insists on returning to.

76) Speedy (1928), directed by Ted Wilde

What makes the final act of this film special and not just hi-jinks with more money thrown at them than usual?

The final silent feature that Harold Lloyd made is, as far as I can tell, the best of his work. So much of the subtext of the Eddie Attaboy he’d played throughout the late ’10s and early ’20s was about so many Eddies across the country trying to dip their toes into the rapids of city life or business or what you may without getting swept away headlong. In Speedy, subtext is yeeted into the stratosphere. Coney Island outings! Taxis of the late ’20s zipping around! Literally Babe Ruth! (The Bambino is, to no one’s surprise, about a gazillion times better playing himself in a silly role than he is playing himself as a Historically Relevant Personage opposite Gary Cooper.) Yet Speedy, which ends with Harold Lloyd risking life and limb in order to drive a dilapidated horse-drawn streetcar all the way through its route before time runs out, finds subtext in its pricey chase sequence. There’s a story of old New York struggling to persevere in the face of aggressively modern times, of people who may have known how to get by in the time of Tammany Hall, but who are no match for the bosses of the 1920s. Enter Speedy, a man unapologetically of his own time who still cares for his prospective wife’s grandfather, still wants to see him done right by, and who enlists a bunch of Civil War veterans and various, diverse businessmen to beat the snot out of some contemporary toughs. It’s a totally madcap finale, but it’s got a brain to it even when you’re celebrating Speedy’s ludicrous triumph with that streetcar.

75) The Princess Bride (1987), directed by Rob Reiner

What makes the sets and production design in this film indelible?

I think The Princess Bride is a kind of fantasy answer to sci-fi benchmark Forbidden Planet, another film that absolutely never intends to take place somewhere real and thus only does the bare minimum to convince the audience of that place’s reality. In fact, the less realistic the place is, the more wondrous and exciting it becomes for us. In Forbidden Planet, the resident of Morbius and Altaira is not quite right for humans, and of course looks like no home in America did in the mid-’50s. This world, once belonging to the Krell, now hosts two humans and a robot in a place that has recognizable elements—a bar, a laboratory, etc.—but which could not, would never exist in any place the audience would be able to go. Something similar is happening in the fantasy world of The Princess Bride, where the dwellings, haunts, and even costumes of Florin look like something…Renaissance? early modern? but where nothing is in the least historical. The castle where Humperdinck resides is rinky-dink on the inside, presenting signifiers of long halls and chambers and a portcullis and stuff, but it never really seems like a place where people could actually live. Then there are places like the Fire Swamp, which, to be perfectly honest, looks less like a real place than the woods of The Evil Dead, and that’s not even taking the RUSes into account. Or, my favorite, the Cliffs of Insanity, which go from being sort of cliff-like to looking exactly like someone doused a soundstage with sand and burgled one of those indoor rock-climbing places for the ledges where Westley does his flips. On the whole, it’s beautiful. The Princess Bride is a storybook for kids, after all, and I think it’s lovely that the set is dressed in ways that match how a child would imagine the settings.

74) Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes

What does Carol have that makes Therese fall for her over the counter of a department store?

Hands. She has hands, fingernails with salmon nail polish, gracefully picking up her cigarette and a lighter that she’s not allowed to smoke, writing her address in Therese’s little book, pulling a small picture of her daughter from her purse. It is those hands which Therese’s attention, more than anything else about this beautiful woman who is dressed exquisitely. Therese wants her from the moment she sees her across the store, looking at the train set that she’ll get Carol to buy. There’s the disappointment of having her long-distance admiration interrupted, and then the little miracle of seeing Carol up close at the desk, filling Therese’s confined little space. Haynes gives us just enough point-of-view shots to let us see what Therese sees, and more importantly what she covets. What makes Carol so appealing, though, is that she solicits Therese in her own way. Twice she asks Therese what four-year-old her would have wanted, first in the way of dolls and then in a broader sense. She does not give Therese grief, as one would expect a somewhat flustered and socially superior woman would, over being told not to smoke. It’s a huge relief, a deep intake of fresh air, when she puts the responsibility on herself rather than giving this poor (smitten) shopgirl the business about it. Carol will get much more sexual later on, and I suppose the Brief Encounter pull is the most romantic thing about it, but in this scene we learn so much so quickly about what makes Therese fall for Carol short of “she’s Cate Blanchett in midcentury costumes.”

73) A Serious Man (2009), directed by the Coen Brothers

Did he tell you about “the goy’s teeth?”

I wish I were a little further ahead of the curve on this movie, which (according to my research) comes in as the fifth-best of their movies in your average Coen Brothers ranking. For me, this is the funniest haha movie in their oeuvre, outstripping O Brother, Where Art Thou? or The Big Lebowski by some margin. Nothing in this movie exemplifies just how marvelously funny it is like the goy’s teeth business…unless it’s SY ABLEMAN?!, a specific interjection which is somehow translatable to what you say when you stub a toe in the dark. I suppose Sy Ableman could have been in any number of Coen movies, but the goy’s teeth, a kind of follow-up to the story of the dybbuk in the first reel, could only exist in A Serious Man. It’s funny for at least the following reasons:

  • There are three rabbis at Larry’s synagogue, and he’s been trying to get the ear of the senior rabbi, who is supposed to be exceptionally wise. Larry has already seen the youngest rabbi, and now is on the middle one, Nachtner. Given that Larry feels completely impotent, it is funny that he is now two strikes into this at-bat.
  • Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as a whole in this film is superlative, to say the least. During this entire scene he looks like a man at his wits’ end, although we know he’s still got a little while left to go before he gets anywhere close to that.
  • George Wyner is just terrific opposite him, getting the spotlight in the scene even though the actual story of the goy’s teeth is told almost entirely without Wyner’s face on screen. There’s such earnestness in this story.
  • The fact that this seemingly meaningful story is not, in fact, imbued with some kind of lesson for Larry to take away from it is so goofy. There are not enough snipe hunts in movie monologues.
  • Larry’s reaction is also so great. Nachtner’s lesson for the dentist is that “Helping people…couldn’t hurt.” The dentist, sitting in that chair, seems mollified. Larry, in that same chair, is not. “No…no!” he cries. “But who put it there? Was it for him, Sussman? Or for whoever found it?” He begins stammering. When Nachtner, sipping his tea, says you can’t know everything, Larry replies, “It sounds like you don’t know anything! Why even tell me the story?”
  • This is a great scene. But what makes A Serious Man truly special is a scene later on where Larry is telling his attorney, Don, that he’s spoken to Nachtner and found the experience wanting. “What,” Don says like he’s lived a thousand very cyclical years, “did he tell you about ‘the goy’s teeth?'” Sensational.

72) The New World (2005), directed by Terrence Malick

If this is a Malick movie, shouldn’t God be a character somewhere?

Not to sound like [insert your least-favorite senator here], but America is God. Or, to be less quippy and more accurate, America is the proof that God exists. Despite their protestations to the contrary, the Europeans wouldn’t know God if they dropped themselves off in beautiful country which could only have been endowed by a Creator; Malick makes a famously muggy estuary look like Paradise. The New World isn’t innocent of some of the fallacies of popular history, as the Powhatans are maybe a little too one with nature for accurate historical representation, but for the most part the film presents them as people who do not buck nature. The Englishmen in their splattered gray-brown fort, muddy with upheaval, a ghetto of their own making and design, have forgotten God. If the response of a people to this kind of grandeur is to diminish into a more comfortable hovel, then those people are perverted with their own febrile hubris. The story of John Smith and Pocahontas—I mean, talk about your fallacies of popular history—is the story about the one Englishman who is willing to know something of God, and the one Indian who is willing to leave God behind for someone totally deficient. This is undoubtedly one of the most tragic films ever made in this country.

71) The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah

Excepting Jaime Sanchez, who we aren’t supposed to believe was one of the OGs of the bunch, the average age of the actors who we might say are playing key members of that group is 51.5 years old…in other words, the same age as Ewan McGregor and Jon Hamm. How in the Sam Hill does this movie work?

At the risk of oversimplification, or sounding like one of those entertainment writers at an outlet who can’t imagine higher praise for a western than “revisionist,” The Wild Bunch works because these men would have been incredibly familiar for people going to the movies in the late ’60s. More than that, the men in the bunch are familiar because they belong to a different era. Let’s take 1953, which was a pretty good year for most of the cast members. William Holden won Best Actor for Stalag 17. Robert Ryan and Ben Johnson were playing heavies in two of the great westerns, The Naked Spur and Shane. Edmond O’Brien was super busy, but the highlights are both in noirs by Ida Lupino. And Ernest Borgnine was breaking out in that year’s Best Picture winner, From Here to Eternity, as a guy who hates Frank Sinatra and Monty Clift. (Warren Oates, who was forty-one and still looked like he’d gone through a hundred spins in the industrial dryers that hotels have, didn’t debut in films until well after ’53.) By 1955, that group had won three Oscars between them. In 1955, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the Korean War was over, and the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series. In 1969, Richard Nixon was president, the Vietnam War had already scuttled Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, and the Dodgers had been playing in Los Angeles for ten years. The world that Holden had come up to stardom in, that Borgnine had carved out a niche in, that Ryan had surveyed with a veteran’s eyes, was obliterated. In 1969, familiarity with these guys who were mostly in their early fifties (and, yes, had smoked and drank heavily throughout their lifetimes) made them seem older than they were. The Wild Bunch takes place in 1913, a few years before the majority of the leads were born, and these men who seem to have been in their prime in the 1880s or 1890s are suddenly out of place and unsuited for the savagery of the 20th Century. Time moved faster; the stars of warm pictures like Sabrina and Marty and Wagon Master were wrinkled and squinting in the cold of The Wild Bunch.

2 thoughts on “Top 250 American Movies: 71-80

  1. […] A few months ago, I called The Wizard of Oz the 77th best American movie of all time. I had Desert Hearts 78th. There are some movies that I think belong in the National Film Registry for historical meaning, representational meaning, artistic meaning, or any combination of the three. Desert Hearts hits all three of those about as well as any of the other ninety-nine movies I’ve got on this list. Here we have one of the fifteen best American movies of the 1980s, one of those remarkable stories which reveals itself subtly even if its intended audience must have known pretty plainly what they were getting into. It’s not just that we know that becoming divorcee Vivian will ultimately fall for Cay once she gives in. It’s that it happens at exactly the right moments, at precisely the right intervals. Vivian gives in to Cay in the middle of a desert rainstorm, wearing her country western best after a party. Dressed differently, in a new place, Vivian finds herself in the feel of Cay’s lips. It’s not just that Cay’s guardian, Frances, is disapproving in the extreme of Cay’s homosexuality and irate that Vivian “encourages” it. It’s that Frances’ objections are grounded in the contemporaneous sexual morality, and those are standards that she cannot attain. She was the mistress of Cay’s father, and thus she lacks even the moral high ground of the time when she tries to scathe her not-quite-daughter. It’s not just that Desert Hearts ends ambiguously, for it’s difficult to imagine a realistic scenario in which Vivian and Cay can remain together without both of them sacrificing every square inch of the rest of themselves. It’s that it ends happily anyway. The craft in this screenplay makes me prayerful. […]

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