Top 250 American Movies: 51-60

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 58 is better than 59 is better than 60. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.

51-60: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS to FAR FROM HEAVEN

60) Far from Heaven (2002), directed by Todd Haynes

Does this actually look like a movie from the 1950s, or have all the critics let their memories of seeing All That Heaven Allows as undergrads fool them?

I’ll grant that there are some elements of Far from Heaven that look relatively ’50s, and there’s no doubt that Ed Lachman was doing some work to get a richness in color that we’ve lost since giving up the Technicolor that Russell Metty used for All That Heaven Allows. The difference is in the title screens, which, again, are meant to be similar, but…

Look at that white serif, all business, maybe even a little guarded and staid, for All That Heaven Allows. That is a Protestant type, with tight kerning, and compared to the fonts and scripts of other 1955 films, it’s more like Lutheran than Congregationalist. “Heaven” is like a fortress with how close the “e” and “a” are to touching, though “Allows” gives us the barest foreshadowing; there’s room to enter on either side of the double “l.” And then there’s Far from Heaven, bluer than the mood of the film, and in almost cartoonish script. Just about the only thing the two have in common is a drop shadow, though if you squint you can see some of the tightness in “Heaven” again, albeit with a great deal of space between the “e” and “a.” In short, Sirk is making a melodrama that is meant to be recognizable; Haynes is making one that is meant to be allegorical. Again, a title screen is hardly the film, but I think the visual comparisons to Sirk have been overstated a touch, almost as if there’d be no way into such a picture for an ’02 audience other than to feel like they were getting some kind of historical recreation. Someone could write a new play in blank verse and it could be a masterpiece even if a normal person would sit in the audience and think it was primarily derivative of Shakespeare. The thing about Far from Heaven is that it was the follow-up to a loose interpretation of glam rock which is just utterly different. Haynes, like Far from Heaven, is always a little trickier to diagnose than a quick look-see will be able to manage.

59) Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), directed by Stanley Kubrick

If you had to choose one image from this movie to show someone who’d never seen it how ridiculous it is, what would you pick?

Jack Creley plays a “Mr. Staines” in this movie, or, as General Buck Turgidson refers to him, “Stainesy.” I’ve only ever seen one other film with Jack Creley, and that’s Videodrome, where he plays Dr. O’Blivion. That still may not be enough of a hint for some of the folks at home. He’s the one who’s not George C. Scott, making what I’d argue is the greatest “this fuckin’ guy” face in the history of cinema.

In a film full to bursting with incredible dialogue, Creley might get the single best one that doesn’t belong to Scott or Peter Sellers. He tells General Turgidson that Strangelove changed his surname when he became an American citizen. “It used to be Merkwurdichliebe,” he whispers in beautifully accented German. At this exact moment, Scott is rattling off a true bastardization of Shakespeare when he proposes “a Kraut by any other name,” and despite everything else in this movie that is just absolutely ludicrous with the inkiest humor, this is the moment I’d pick if I wanted to show someone why this movie’s archness is perhaps its greatest strength. For a movie that takes place in three separate settings and has Sellers playing three men in two of them, there are fewer names in here than you’d think; there are not many Stainesy types in the picture. Dr. Strangelove is an essay which does not trust in the power of cooler heads to prevail in times of trouble. The first reason, which even its flaccid doppelganger Fail Safe understands, is that the brinkmanship of American and Soviet foreign policy is so unstable that it is beyond the power of logic to prevent. But the second reason is much more interesting and much less remarked upon, and that is the basic competence of so many people in this movie. Surely Stainesy and the other milquetoasts around the table in the War Room, sitting in the glow of the Big Board, are competent as flunkies or bureaucrats or administrators. But they are mute in the presence of General Ripper, who solves the niceties of diplomacy with godlike arrogance—of General Turgidson, who for all his theatrics and pantomimes of B-52s whooshing below radar certainly knows what he’s talking about in terms of aerial strategy—of Dr. Strangelove, who knows a mineshaft is safer than a bunker in Berlin—of Major Kong and his flight crew, who overcome every obstacle placed in their way by the two greatest powers the world ever knew and blow the horn signaling Ragnarok, even if the tune they play is more Vera Lynn than Heimdall. I love Armando Iannucci’s work, but I can’t help thinking about how comforting something like In the Loop is compared to Dr. Strangelove. The beginnings of the Iraq War, basically speaking, boil down to idiocy in that film. The beginnings of the end of the world in Dr. Strangelove seem to have been designed by people who knew exactly what they were drawing up. All Stainesy, and by proxy the rest of us can do, is look up and mutter “This fuckin’ guy” one last time.

58) Greed (1924), directed by Erich von Stroheim

Is it right to include a movie where so much of it is missing?

Sure, if the remaining footage and stills edited into the picture are this good. The four-hour Greed that you can dig up is more than a little bit mangled. The legend of the film is somehow even bigger than that cut; in a single screening of eight hours, perhaps the greatest movie yet made, a handful of people witnessed something unprecedented. As it is, we still have something great here, even though it wouldn’t shock me at all if the eight-hour Greed were…forty spots higher? fifty? Von Stroheim’s direction and his contributions to the editing are nothing short of astonishing almost a century later. There’s a debt to Soviet montage in Greed, although it’s worth noting that his film predates the most important films associated with the technique. And by the time Gregg Toland turned 20—before Orson Welles turned 10—von Stroheim was using deep focus with absolutely incredible fluidity. For me, Greed is a bible of moviemaking, culminating in one of the great images ever put onto the silver screen as a man receives the kind of justice that would have earned a crooked smile from Hammurabi.

57) Notorious (1946), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Whatever happened to movie stars, anyway?

If you don’t have kids yet, it’s possible that they may grow up only knowing what a reticulated giraffe is from books. If you’re my age, you only know what movie stars are because of movies like Notorious, a picture so old it should be in the Democrats’ House leadership. Notorious is such an inviting picture, although I say “inviting” with a real lecherous smirk; more than a decade before Vertigo, Hitchcock knew what the movies were all about. They’re not about story, or at least they don’t have to be. (Notorious is, on a story level, about trying to keep Nazis in South America from getting their hands on nuclear material. And Notorious honestly doesn’t even care about that!) Movies are about hot people in impossible situations necking for literally as long as the movie can get away with it, because the people crunchin’ popcorn are big pervs who like snooping on strangers. But we moviegoers aren’t just garden-variety pervs, or otherwise we’d be sitting in our front windows with binoculars making eyes at the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We like to gaze at the stars because they bring voltage to nuzzles that we might only give static electricity to, because they’re sharp as a witty retort and we’re as dull as “So how’s your fantasy football team?” To put two of the eleven most important stars in American cinema (it’s totally official) on top of each other is such a gift, especially because we’re getting a little twist on both of their star images. It’s rare to see Ingrid Bergman this helpless; her distress tends to be pointed outward rather than inward. And it’s rare to see Cary Grant so stoic. It rates among his least funny performances, but it’s also the one that makes me wince with emotion most often.

56) Blue Velvet (1986), directed by David Lynch

Baby wants to what?!

What I’ve always loved most about David Lynch’s films is his insistence on creating characters who are vulnerable, who risk an audience laughing at them because what they have to say sounds trite or naive. Lynch shaves away the pretense or the artfulness of those characters and whittles them into bare, lean moments. In The Elephant Man, that’s the cry of “I am not an animal—I am a human being—I am a man!” How pathetically straightforward that is, laughable on the page but on the screen a moment of heartrending emotional connection. In Blue Velvet, that moment comes after Jeffrey has seen Frank in his natural habitat, after he has been convinced that Frank is not just a one-off of terror and manipulation but something truly sinister. His basically rosy view of the world, not even shaken by his father’s stroke, has been browned by what he sees in Frank. In the car with Sandy, who is in her own way just as precious as Jeffrey, he laments a child’s lament. “Why are there people like Frank?” he bursts out. “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” If Boethius were driving him around instead of Laura Dern, maybe this would go in a different direction, but Blue Velvet lets that moment echo just long enough for this annoyingly childish complaint to become profound, even tearjerking. It’s not such a stupid question! Why are there people like Frank, who doesn’t seem to have much of a vocabulary beyond variants of “fuck,” whose devotion to PBR is pre-hipster vintage, whose sexual fetishes have total control of his behavior? Jeffrey Beaumont a couple months ago might have wondered that. But in this moment, Jeffrey is growing up before our eyes. There’s no reason that there should be trouble like the trouble that plagues Dorothy and her child, that foments crime in his fair city, that destabilizes the upbringing of two young people. There just isn’t; surely there must be more people like Jeffrey and Sandy, or their parents, or even the doofus who Sandy ghosts for Jeffrey, than there are like Frank? Shouldn’t that majority have brought a new era of peace and understanding to the world, like Vershinin foretold in The Three Sisters? But it hasn’t.

55) Raging Bull (1980), directed by Martin Scorsese

Is there a case to be made that this should be considered one of Scorsese’s religious films alongside Silence, Kundun, and Last Temptation of Christ?

Just in terms of volume, there’s a good case to be made that Scorsese is the preeminent religious director of American cinema. If you want to see Scorsese’s career primarily through the lens of what he’s doing with depictions of spirituality and numinous experience, then I can probably dig up a t-shirt for you out of the back so people know we’re on the same team. Taking that as the lens, then Raging Bull, probably the most harrowing and unpleasant movie that Scorsese ever made, is his Koyaanisqatsi. Jake LaMotta is, to take Godfrey Reggio’s term, a man whose life is out of balance. For Scorsese, LaMotta is a man without God, without hope of salvation, without grace. Those scenes where he is visually satisfied regardless of looming victory or defeat in the ring are uncanny, because it’s clear that LaMotta’s only peace comes from being given the opportunity to beat the tar out of someone. “You never got me down, Ray!” sticks for a reason. He hasn’t been given a savage beating—something I love about Johnny Barnes as Sugar Ray Robinson is that there’s competition in him in lieu of savagery, where you can see an active searching mind in his eyes rather than a maw of soullessness—but a nearly complete one. And LaMotta kind of loves it; he has found a way to take pride in this terrifically thorough defeat by telling his opponent that he didn’t hit the canvas. Jake LaMotta acts like there is no heaven and like hell is a place he’s paying rent to stay at. The origins of the film are famous, as Robert De Niro had been pitching a Jake LaMotta movie to Scorsese and the director just couldn’t find a way to be interested. After finding his career on the ropes after the commercial failure of New York, New York, nearly dying from a wicked cocaine habit, a would-be priest on his third wife, Scorsese could find the personal connections between himself and LaMotta. Success had come; success had gone; had God been in either stage?

54) The Right Stuff (1983), directed by Philip Kaufman

Is this movie more thematically Fordian or Hawksian?

Or, with less reliance on jargon, is The Right Stuff more about the myth of America or is it more about male bonding in service of a greater goal? The answer is, obviously, that it’s both in a way that has never been equaled by a non-Ford or non-Hawks movie. Mind you, The Right Stuff gets there by just brazenly cheating. The story of Chuck Yeager, which is much of the beginning of the movie and then becomes the frame in a frame narrative, satisfies the Fordian impulse. And the story of the Mercury astronauts, from their fabrication to their exaltation to their actual missions, is just pure Hawks. In Yeager, the ur-test pilot, the one who might have a record beaten by some valid rival, but who will always go up again and set a new record in speed or altitude and prove himself, as ever, the one mighty and strong. He’s never done this for money, and he never gained much recognition; the film gives us a scene where a reporter tries to phone his paper about the breaking of the sound barrier and is kept from doing so by a military officer. He does it to “see where that demon lives.” The lineage of the American frontiersman is John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Chuck Yeager as interpreted by Sam Shepherd. One man transcends the bounds of nature, going where other men cannot or will not follow, and proves himself worthy of legend. And then there’s so much of the rest of the movie, which has one of the most shockingly humorous transitions I’ve ever seen. “It’s called Sputnik!” one man yells. “We know! Siddown!” comes the response, and not long after we’re treated to the second-funniest cinematic treatment of Wernher von Braun ever committed. The triumph of the Mercury 7, in the eyes of the film, is less that Alan Shepard and John Glenn and even Gordo Cooper went to space and more that the Shepardites and the Glennists could unite in common purpose. Divided by their approaches to sexual freedom and how much irony they can live with—Shepard a fair amount, Glenn absolutely none—they find a common enemy where more Americans should find their common enemy. Once they’ve decided that it’s their bosses that they need to fight, orbiting the Earth in a capsule and returning safely home is a cinch.

53) The Tree of Life (2011), directed by Terrence Malick

Is this the American art film?

The Hollywood system that acts as a kind of filmic default for filmmakers the world over has no small number of triumphs, clearly, but it also means that one has to look outside the mainstream for examples of arthouse movies in American history in a way that one doesn’t have to for like, Sweden. I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth a little bit here, given that RKO distributed Citizen Kane and Paramount distributed Vertigo, and literally MGM distributed 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clearly there’s a history, especially in the case of 2001, where arthouse movies actually reached a wide audience and made bank doing it. Any one of those has a good case to be made as the American art film. My honest answer is that Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon is probably the right answer, though it’s too short for me to have included it on this list. And to be even more honest, if I’m to say that The Tree of Life is the American art film, then I’d have to open myself up to a belief in authorial intentionality that I’ve cast aside the way some people toss off CCD. Yet I can’t shake this idea that intentionality and context matter some in thinking about this question, and if context matters, surely The Tree of Life has to rate very highly. It’s just the fifth feature by a director whose first movie had come out nearly forty years earlier, absolutely unapologetic in connecting dinosaurs to a vaguely autobiographical sketch of growing up in midcentury Texas, and as mindful of celestial grandeur in the photography as 2001. Like The Kid with a Bike, released in the same year, The Tree of Life enters the arthouse canon as a film about one of the sneakily essential motifs of the art film: childhood. If its peers are The 400 Blows, Ivan’s Childhood, and The Spirit of the Beehive, then at least The Tree of Life must be essential arthouse.

52) They Live by Night (1948), directed by Nicholas Ray

Where does chemistry come from in a movie?

Like Grant and Bergman in Notorious, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell sparkle like Christmas lights in They Live by Night. Where Grant and Bergman are like those houses with the inflatable things on the lawn and lights in dozen winking colors, Granger and O’Donnell are like a house neatly lined in simple white lights. The lights are up for a season, barely more than weeks at best, and then they come down. Yet in their brevity and simple—even stripped—prettiness, they are especially beautiful. Romantic films so often come down to the chemistry between the leads, which any swooning middle schooler inhaling The Notebook for the first time can tell you. (Full disclosure, I really like The Notebook, this is not a diss track.) The really great romantic films, obviously, have exceptional chemistry even if, especially if it’s unpredictable. Amy Irving’s curly-haired pretension against Peter Riegert’s straitlaced and traditional good sense. Henry Fonda’s nebbish virginity against Barbara Stanwyck’s throaty know-how. Meg Ryan’s prissy blonde Dudley Do-right against Billy Crystal’s sardonic, oft-bearded, short joke cracker. All of those rate as wonderful shows of chemistry in the movies, and what underlines all of them is humility in the performers. One party must be able to stretch their legs while the other stretches their arms and yawns; they must be willing not to intrude on each other’s space even as they reach out to the audience. The gold standard here, uncontroversially, is what Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard share in Brief Encounter. They Live by Night is about as close as any American film has ever come to Brief Encounter, not because they’re so similar in approach or story but because O’Donnell and Granger come closer to Johnson and Howard than any other pair I’ve ever come across. They’re an odd couple. Farley Granger, just a fantasy of clean-cut manliness, and Cathy O’Donnell, a little bit mousy even when she’s dolled up. (This has some Brief Encounter in it too…Howard, handsome in the kindest way, while Johnson looks a little like a meanspirited caricature of British womanhood.) One plays a convict on the run and the other plays a girl destined to run her father’s garage even though no girl at the time could run anyone’s garage. And the genius of putting the two together is that there is such humility in how one actor treats another. Neither one wants to dominate the frame or the dialogue; if one of them is meant to stand alone, then director Ray does the work for them with a close-up. They Live by Night benefits from two performances so balanced that it’s very nearly one.

51) Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by the Coen Brothers

Is this the saddest film in the Coens’ oeuvre?

Perhaps appropriately for a directorial duo, few auteurs have ever made alloyed films so well as the Coens. Cruel humor exists side by side with something like real redemption in Fargo or O Brother, just as deep empathy exists side by side with searing cruelty in No Country for Old Men or Miller’s Crossing. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have the range of those films, really, and it doesn’t need that range to be great. The alloy here is crushing depression mixed with equally crushing disappointment, and the movie would be faded grays and beige hues even if it weren’t shot and lit to feature those grays and hues. Inside Llewyn Davis does not believe in doing the right thing, but it doesn’t believe in doing the wrong thing either. When Llewyn tries to do the right thing, he returns the wrong cat to someone’s apartment; when Llewyn tries to do the wrong thing, he gets the crap kicked out of him in an alley. When Llewyn tries to be a solo artist, he performs a totally stunning “The Death of Queen Jane,” though when Llewyn tries to be a solo artist, he gets eclipsed by Bob Dylan without Bob Dylan even trying to eclipse him. In one of his poems, Thomas Hardy wrote, “Why unblooms the best hope ever sown?” Inside Llewyn Davis is about an unblooming, which is not quite the same as withering but which has to be at least synonymous to it. Inside Llewyn Davis gets after a feeling of loss and inadequacy that cannot even gain the brackish taste of bitterness. It’s just fate, and fate decided somewhere alone the line that Llewyn Davis would unbloom.

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