Top 250 American Movies: 61-70

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 68 is better than 69 is better than 70. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.

61-70: CITY LIGHTS to THE IRISHMAN

70) The Irishman (2019), directed by Martin Scorsese

How much did the popular opinion of a movie weigh into its ranking here?

I’ve answered this at the top, where I said that this list isn’t influenced by what other people think, though of course that’s a rhetorical posture and not really based in evidence. It’s tough not to hear little voices from the Interwebs as you go through and do these rankings. Not to make this all about peeking behind the curtain, but The Irishman moved up about a dozen spots between me finishing 101-150 and unveiling 91-100. I thought about why I had The Irishman where I had it, thought about how I still felt it was the best movie of a very fine year, and I was a little disappointed in me. I never thought I cared very much about Anna Paquin having one line; have you ever heard someone say we need to reevaluate The Thing because the closest thing to a woman in the movie is the voice of a computer that Kurt Russell pours booze on? I never thought I cared about the mild awkwardness of an aged De Niro kicking a dude outside the grocery, or even about the length of the film itself. (The length of this movie is one of its great strengths! The enormous emotional weight of the monkey’s paw dinner for Frank is accomplished in large part because the film has taken as much time as it has to get to that point of no return for all three of the men.) But then I looked at where this was and had to remind myself of what was good about this movie, and more importantly how so many of the things I think are essential to the film—the cold silence of the Paquin character as the moral voice Frank never hears, the unprecedented use of digital de-aging, the runtime—are things that other people on the Internet have dismissed. Also…this is not the 21st Century Scorsese movie in this post, even, that I think most people would find unreasonably high.

69) Toy Story (1995), directed by John Lasseter

If this is the greatest of America’s animated films, is there something we can learn about the medium in general from that conclusion?

This isn’t about Toy Story being the first feature made entirely with computer animation, which is why the first American feature with cel animation does not appear on this list anywhere. It’s not about the beauty of the animation in still frames or even, necessarily, as a unit, or otherwise I could rattle off fifty animated movies right now which would need to rate higher than Toy Story. The answer is that there’s not something about the medium which requires the animation a certain way to effect greatness; if there was, it would simply be a case of imitating the technique of The Adventures of Prince Achmed or Tale of Tales or The Red Turtle and greatness would be assured. What makes Toy Story the greatest of America’s animated films are the same elements that make for great movies in any style anywhere. The scene where Buzz “flies” in Andy’s room is a triumph of cinematography and editing, emphasizing the blind kinetic ballet of Buzz’s dumb luck with close-ups and wide shots alike. The procession from the initial jump to the mid-air somersault ending with bent knees and a smooth landing is exact. We know that Buzz has strung together something of a hot streak, but we don’t know what obstacle he’ll conquer next until it shows up for him to conquer. It’s just fantastic moviemaking, played out in miniature form in Andy’s room until the stakes of another set of unpredictable high speed maneuvers lands Woody and Buzz, in Andy’s arms. A little less softly, sure, but just as safely.

68) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), directed by Steven Spielberg

Will anyone ever bring God back to the blockbuster? [Remembers Mel Gibson exists.] Will anyone ever bring God back to the blockbuster who doesn’t make Samuel Alito look like Gustavo Gutierrez?

Steven Spielberg is sort of the platonic ideal of a Boomer, and if you’re a Boomer like Steven Spielberg, the idea of God in blockbusters is not quaint at all but a given. In the years just before his birth, The Song of Bernadette was a major hit and Leo McCarey made Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Steven Spielberg had his bar mitzvah in 1960; by that time, surely he must have seen The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, to say nothing of Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, The Robe, David and Bathsheba. When he was a teenager, The Sound of Music was released. The year before his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, there was The Exorcist. Spielberg, equally the platonic movie brat, is the product of a time when stories from the Bible and stories perpendicular to it were expected merchandise. It should be no surprise that in this famously derivative film, perhaps as actively imitative and affectionate as anyone could be before film schools started churning out Spielberg wannabes, God matters. “You’re talking about the bogeyman,” Indy chides Marcus before he sets out on his big trip to Egypt, but it’s not just the bogeyman that melts a contingent on Nazi soldiers, spies, and scientists when the Ark of the Covenant is opened up. Spielberg takes the idea of deus ex machina and makes it something bolder, more potent, when it’s deus ex arca.

67) The Thing (1982), directed by John Carpenter

How does Carpenter, in terms of his ensemble, begin with the end of the film in mind?

The men at the Antarctic base in this film are a crude, shaggy, and presumably pretty smelly group. It’s not the kind of job you sign up for if you’re a social butterfly or a glue guy, and everyone there seems like a loner by proclivity. They remind me of men at sea in the olden days. The majority have scuzzy beards, or the premonitions of beards; only a few have neat facial hair. They’ve got hair that hasn’t been cut, and it makes the balding men of the group looking even balder. They wear old shirts and pants. Kurt Russell has that silly hat that makes him look like he’s auditioning to be an extra in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They annoy each other, they don’t seem to get along all that well. MacReady and Childs are at each other’s throats for most of the movie, and it sure doesn’t feel like it just started that way. Garry might be the station commander but no one treats him that way. Does anyone like Windows or Palmer, and if anyone wanted to like Blair, would he let them? The ambience on Clark is off from the beginning, as he’s clearly someone who likes dogs more than people, and given the people around him it’s tough to blame him for that opinion. So when the men are pitched against one another, in a position where the only person he knows who isn’t a shapeshifting alien who’s out to kill them is himself, scared to death at every moment…it’s not like they were such a great team together. All of these character moments file in unassumingly, humorously in the first reel. By the time MacReady is testing blood, seeing the men tied up together is actively uncomfortable; this would have been a huge chore even if they weren’t all petrified. And at the end, where only “two” remain (hahaha, see what I did there), it sure feels like disunity played as much of a part as sabotage in destroying the base.

66) The Grapes of Wrath (1940), directed by John Ford

Is this really a groundbreaking moment in mainstream American movies, or is it just that they couldn’t put Rita Hayworth in it?

That’s groundbreaking on its own, isn’t it? I’m mostly joking, but there’s no room for Hayworth in this picture, no room for someone who we could call glamorous. There’s Henry Fonda, of course, though in 1940 he was not Henry Fonda just yet. In his own way, he was merely a luminary of the John Ford Stock Company, previously seen in Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk. Many of the men and women we think of as the character actors who are the salt of the JFSC show up in this picture surrounding him: Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Charley Grapewin, Ward Bond, especially John Carradine, and most of all Jane Darwell. There aren’t necessarily a bunch of dreamboats in this picture, either. Eddie Quillan and Dorris Bowdon were cute, and of course Fonda was pretty hot, but it’s a movie that is by and large devoid of serious eye candy. (Certainly no one shows up wearing something or made up someway that would attract hoots and whistles.) And The Grapes of Wrath is not shy about poverty, either, not shy about the desolation that comes from living as a migrant worker who, if s/he’s lucky, will not starve to death. The Depression was primarily an urban phenomenon in movies, either ignored by the elites of high society (or journalists, I guess) in Manhattan or escaped by wending one’s way to Manhattan. The Depression is about Joan Crawford in Possessed seeing a train full of rich, comfortable people and getting out of Erie. The Depression is about Carole Lombard spiriting William Powell into a blase world of mindless wealth. The Depression is about Prohibition, and the gangsters like James Cagney who benefit richly and fall spectacularly when Prohibition ends. It’s not about dirt-poor farmers whose dirt is poorer than ever, at least not until we watch Darwell put those earrings up to her ears or watch Muley squat over his barren land or watch the Joads pile everything into a truck which will arrive at the orange groves without several of its passengers.

65) Jurassic Park (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg

This is the highest-rated Spielberg on your list?

After a couple years of going back and forth between Raiders and Jurassic Park, I started to lean towards the latter and have stuck with it ever since. The most reliable directors of populist cinema after Star Wars—Spielberg, John Carpenter, John McTiernan, Tim Burton, Wes Craven, Brad Bird, even Christopher Nolan to some extent—have understood that the erection of towering stakes is a losing stratagem. The stakes for a particular community or group must be felt deeply: the teens of Haddonfield, the folks at Nakatomi Plaza, the workaday citizens of Gotham. We must want the problem solved in their favor, and it must be great enough to concern us, but at the same time, the suffering must be isolated to a small enough zone that we can keep it inside our minds. (This is something the MCU movies have been struggling with a long time, even before the Phase 4 malaise; what started out as superheroes fighting local or regional threats has turned into superheroes defending not just the universe, but the multiverse. Kevin, some of us aren’t even concerned if our socks match before we leave the house.) Jurassic Park has the stakes at exactly the right height for us to be entertained as well as enthralled as well as a little concerned. It’s a little island! What are the dinosaurs gonna do even if they eat every person at Jurassic Park, come together and build a fleet of caravels and outriggers to go to the mainland? But of course we don’t want to see the dinosaurs eat Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum or Laura Dern or the kids, I guess, and so we want to see them escape with their lives while still enjoying the kicks we get of seeing these wonderful animals rove and roar and chew with their mouths open. We get the sense of danger and discovery alike in Jurassic Park, which is just an orgy of tremendously made entertainment.

64) Crossing Delancey (1988), directed by Joan Micklin Silver

How did we go from romantic comedies with Amy Irving and Peter Riegert to romcoms with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey?

It’s so depressing, isn’t it? In her book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, Jeanine Basinger notes that there’s something symbolic in the shortening of “romantic comedy” to “romcom,” a statement that there’s something missing, comparatively speaking, in the newer films. They are simply less romantic and less funny, and it’s right there in the name. I’m not sure that Crossing Delancey is necessarily a neat fit as a romantic comedy, mostly because I don’t think of it as an especially comedic movie. It’s funny—Reizl Bozyk makes sure of that almost singlehandedly, and people as diverse as Riegert, Sylvia Miles, and Rosemary Harris do yeoman’s work—but it’s not calibrated with jokes the way that Sabrina or Barefoot in the Park or, above all, When Harry Met Sally are calibrated with jokes. It’s simply funny here and there, perhaps witty or clever more than funny, and there’s just enough of that to make this a romantic comedy rather than a romantic drama. (When was the last time you watched a romcom, even a really good one, and thought to yourself, “My word, the wit in this is just corking?”) But the romance in this is, for lack of a better word, swoonworthy. The payoff of what Izzy and Sam are building will presumably be in marriage as opposed to some real coital fireworks which might last a few months, and at the risk of being called a cultural conservative or something, I find that deeply romantic. It’s a film where Sam does not sweettalk Izzy into anything, and it’s a film where Izzy does not have to grovel in order to get him to forgive her. The romance in this film is born of terrible vulnerability, an openness with one another which is expressed in unforgettable ways. Izzy comes back to her grandmother’s apartment much too late and can’t hide her relief when Sam is still there. Sam says things to her about noticing her years ago, thinking she was beautiful, and then seizing on an opportunity to humor the marriage broker to finagle an introduction. What is a nascent love if it’s not like the planting of new trees?

63) The Aviator (2004), directed by Martin Scorsese

Is it possible that in all your years of fawning over this movie, you’ve somehow ignored arguably its most important contributor?

I could go on for years [Citation: I’ve been doing this for years] about what a tremendous display of craft this movie is, and about how some familiarity in a creative team can bring about truly great work. Martin Scorsese had been working with Thelma Schoonmaker, Robert Richardson, Howard Shore for years. He directed Leonardo DiCaprio in what is probably the final great star performance by an honest-to-God movie star in the monoculture era. I haven’t ignored one of this film’s finest elements, but I have not raised up a person who has been part of more Scorsese movies than Richardson, Shore, or DiCaprio: Dante Ferretti. Ferretti has done the production design on nine Scorsese films, dating back to The Age of Innocence, and there’s a good case to be made that his work on The Aviator is the best of his collaborations with Scorsese. His recreation of the Cocoanut Grove is absolutely sensational, a marker of the time period that few other recreations of the 1920s-1940s have managed to live up to. The Aviator is a lot of things, but in so many ways it’s the most affectionate of love letters to Hollywood during the studio years, and especially through Ferretti’s work. It’s not a love letter to the studios, mind, which is never clearer than when Howard Hughes tries to convince Louis B. Mayer to loan him some cameras. But it’s a love letter to the time when Katharine Hepburn was remaking herself, when Errol Flynn was cavorting as lecherously around the Grove as he was on the high seas, when Ava Gardner was the height of sex appeal. )That last one maybe hasn’t changed all that much.) It’s a love letter to someone who had a personal vision for the movies he wanted to make, and who was intent on seeing those films made to his exacting personal standards. There are more than a few films about Howard Hughes, either by name or otherwise, and they are not necessarily kind to a difficult man: Caught, Melvin and Howard, even The Rocketeer. The Aviator is hardly blind to the palatial madness of Hughes, captured as well by Ferretti as almost anyone else, but the empathy here is off the charts.

62) The Thin Blue Line (1988), directed by Errol Morris

Why is this a great movie and not merely an exceptional forerunner of the true crime boom?

It’s not framed as a mystery. There are details which come out as the film progresses, but that’s fine, because a filmmaker can’t make a movie that just plops all the people and events down all at once and asks the audience to muddle through them. There are individuals who show up later in The Thin Blue Line, witnesses (“witnesses”) to the killing of Robert Wood, and Morris layers them in as he had layered in Randall Dale Adams, David Harris, lawyers, cops, and so on. Yet Morris does not treat the case as if we’re supposed to be shocked at the end that Adams didn’t kill anyone. It’s clear very early that Adams didn’t kill anyone, that David Harris was the murderer, and that Adams had the crime pinned on him by a justice system that was desperate for someone they could electrocute for the death of a police officer. If this were a Netflix true crime docuseries, which has developed into such an artistic cesspool, or perhaps a trendy podcast, then The Thin Blue Line would leave us hanging because it would not be able to imagine not shocking us. Morris is not here to surprise us or leave our jaws hanging open. The Thin Blue Line is a wickedly edifying film, and that it happens to be utterly fascinating is proof of great direction and editing as opposed to hamfisted attempts to make us cover our mouths with our hands.

61) City Lights (1931), directed by Charlie Chaplin

How does Chaplin, a year after even Garbo talked, stay relevant?

City Lights took forever to make, for one thing; when filming started in 1928, I think Chaplin probably could have fooled himself, as other movie moguls like Irving Thalberg were fooled, into believing that talkies were faddish and transitory. By 1931, when the movie was released, it was abundantly clear to everyone who had ever seen a movie that sound pictures were going to become not just permanent but the rule going forward. I think there are two answers to the question of how Chaplin—who had, incidentally, been through one of the great scandalous divorces of the era a few years earlier—stayed meaningful. The first is that there’s some level of humor in the fact that he’s making a film about a character who first showed up before World War I. I love the reveal of the Tramp in this movie because it’s so unapologetically stagy. There’s a new monument being unveiled in town and there’s a great big sheet over this statue, and as the sheet comes up…there’s the Tramp, snoozing. It’s a great place to sleep! He’s in this stone woman’s lap, there’s basically a big blanket over him, the light is kept out…it’s a deliciously funny moment, one that invites not just broad smiles but appreciative applause from the audience. The second is that Chaplin was still as good as ever at being the Tramp, and there is no character more beloved in film history than he. City Lights gives him all the opportunity, opposite Virginia Cherrill, to wring pathos out of us in the same manner he got us misty opposite Jackie Coogan in The Kid. It also puts Chaplin in a positive square dnace of a boxing match and puts him through a minefield of pratfalls with a permanently soused, accident-prone millionaire. Same as it ever was, at least on the screen.

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