Top 250 American Movies: 41-50

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 48 is better than 49 is better than 50. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.


50) The Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola

If this is the most influential American movie since Citizen Kane, in what way has that influence been most misapprehended?

What changes Michael Corleone? “That’s my family, Kay, not me,” he tells his fiancee at his sister’s wedding. When she’s his second wife some years later, Kay wants to know if Michael had his brother-in-law murdered, only to get screamed at as he pounds the desk and then quietly says that she may ask him “this one time” about his affairs. And then at the end of the film, she is famously shut out of the room where Michael makes his decisions, proving that he’s truly lost. But the question still stands: how is Michael turned? The short answer is that the attempted assassination of his father, who he disapproves of but still loves, radicalizes him. Perhaps it’s in discovering that his family’s dangerous business is scarier than he knew, since his father is apparently touchable now. Or maybe it’s discovering that the cops can be bought so completely by his family’s enemies. I suppose it could also be that he loves his father with a great and subducted passion which has now shifted and become like a great earthquake. What I don’t like about the short answer, incidentally, is that there’s still some of the old Michael left before Apollonia is murdered, proving that Michael is not safe even when he’s abroad. It’s not until he comes back and sees Kay, shrouded in his black hat and black overcoat, that you see the soul ripped from the man. I find all of this a little wanting, personally; Michael’s turn to a dark side that his damned father never wanted him to turn to is something the plot of the movie wants more than Michael the character is drawn towards. The Godfather is a film which maintains some psychological complexity, but watching it I don’t find the depth that one finds in, say, any of the nine movies I’ve got rated above it in this post. The film can get away with this simplicity at the heart of Michael’s motivation because of its visual craft, the performances from a stellar cast, Nino Rota’s eerie score. Yet the films that The Godfather has influenced are, almost unanimously, not its equal in any category of note, and thus the flaws of this film are magnified many times in its prospective copycats.

49) No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by the Coen Brothers

Does God play dice, or does God prefer coin flips?

That Einstein quote I’m riffing on is so pithy that you just know it’s being taken out of context, and that’s definitely the case. Einstein was critiquing what he thought was the overuse in probability in quantum mechanics; the bit about God not playing dice is a sick burn for other physicists as opposed to some comment about intelligent design. It contextualizes No Country in an interesting way, though, given its antagonist’s inclination to let “probability” carry the day in the form of his coin flips. God does not play dice, and while I wouldn’t call this one of the Coens’ more religious efforts, I think it’s worth reiterating that this unsettlingly dire film is a picture about people making discrete choices. There are certainly people who are affected in some fashion by chance or bad luck, and most of them are people who Chigurh kills. But the real players in this tale are people who are not in the least buffeted by fate. Chigurh does not really leave it up to a coin who lives and who dies; he chooses. Moss makes a mistake of curiosity, a mistake of sin and a mistake of morality, and all three are equally important in bringing not just him but his wife to early graves. There are no coin flips, only consequences.

48) The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton

This really wants to be a silent movie, doesn’t it?

Not since the early days of talkies had there been an American film so expressly German as this one, and Laughton takes those expressionist impulses referring back to Robert Wiene and turns them into fabulously ghoulish images and sets. Night of the Hunter may look like a silent film, and its visual influences are emphatically the stuff of Paul Wegener or F.W. Murnau, but this movie was absolutely made for us to hear. Two of the three major grown-ups in this picture have famous voices; Robert Mitchum’s purring basso dominates the film, and Shelley Winters’ wavering complaint, a voice with all the gravitas of a squirrel suffering from an anxiety attack, is ubiquitous before she’s offed. The LOVE-HATE monologue gets an awful lot of attention, and needs Mitchum’s broiling delivery to bring it to its greatest potential, but I also think a lot about the born-again Winters literally shrieking in front of a crowd about her conversion to a holier life. Above all stands the use of traditional hymns. In the present, it seems like major streamers from Netflix to Hulu to Peacock have joined the trend of television programs dealing with FLDS. The reason that’s happened, I think, is because it’s not kosher just yet to get people to point at evangelical Protestants and say “Ew, gross, can you imagine!” Laughton understood something about the sinister underpinnings of Christianity that falls in that space between “ritualistic” and “charismatic,” and he uses songs in the vein of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” to get there. I didn’t know that “Bringing in the Sheaves” could put a chill in my spine until I heard Mitchum sing it.

47) Manhunter (1986), directed by Michael Mann

Is there such a thing as a Chekhovian murder mystery?

Not usually! And I think if I were to get pedantic—and why not, we’re now in the top fifty movies ever made in America—this isn’t really a murder mystery. It’s not treated like one. Everyone knows “the Tooth Fairy” is committing the murders that Will Graham has been brought out of retirement to piece together, and then Michael Mann just gives us Francis Dollarhyde for free. But Manhunter brings together two elements of the detective film to absolute perfection. The first is the procedural element, which is unremittingly crisp. Graham’s eurekas and advances tie into a slew of meetings and tests at FBI labs, making him the queen of a hive mind of criminologists and scientists. Something I love about Manhunter is its balance between the intricacy of the mystery and its rejection of pure spectacle for its own sake. (Take a film like Se7en, which lacks both, and the emotionally draining power of Manhunter is illuminated.) Tracking Dollarhyde requires Graham’s terrifying empathetic brilliance, and in return Dollarhyde is grandiose while only scratching at the outer edges of what actual serial killers have going on. Compared to the complete symphonic recordings of John Wayne Gacy, “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” seems relatively tame. The second element is in Graham’s mind. Think of your favorite noir figure, and so often he is a loner. He cannot go home to a wife or children because it would break the spell of alky loneliness. Graham is a family man, who cannot wait to get back to his wife and kid, even though the more he works a case the further away from them he gets. While he gets closer to catching Dollarhyde, saving a woman’s life, preventing the deaths of even more people, his relationship with his son, who justly fears him, is strained and strained. The murders, the mindgames with someone who still spelled his name “Lecktor” are not the focus of the movie. The real question is if Will Graham will ever get to go home again.

46) Brokeback Mountain (2005), directed by Ang Lee

Is this a love story, or is this something more?

Someday when the stars are more aligned and the leopards and kids are feeling weak-kneed, I’ll write that thing about movies in the tradition of Journey to Italy. Brokeback Mountain is a J2I movie, although the basic premise of the J2Ian established couple gets away from home, typically for vacation, and has to get real while they’re away is cracked to the base in this film. Unlike Journey to Italy, or Sunrise, or Before Midnight, the partners do not live together. Vacation, “fishing trips” for their not entirely clueless wives, is the only opportunity that Ennis and Jack get together. Ennis has the wife and the girls in Wyoming, ultimately a trailer once his wife leaves him, a series of jobs that he gives up for Jack and ultimately cannot give up any longer because of child support and other bills. Jack has the wife and a son in Texas, a potential stake in his wife’s family’s business that his father-in-law never really seems all that interesting in inviting Jack into fully. Ennis cannot give up his family, tattered as it is; Jack, for all his protestations to Ennis that they start a ranch together and pass, never really gives up on the comfort his wife can provide. If this is a love story between the two of them, then it’s a love story in a mosaic rather than oils or marble, a series of chipped tiles which cohere together by force of will and little else. What Jack and Ennis have is not quite love, I don’t think, and it’s not their fault. Idealist that I am, I believe in love as a moment-to-moment phenomenon and I cannot find in either man that moment-to-moment focus. What Jack and Ennis have is not a replacement for love, but in their ability to burnish a treasure it’s close enough. They have perseverance, said as eloquently as I’ve ever heard it in a film. “Wuall, if you can’t fix it, Jack,” Ennis says, not quite looking Jack in the eye as he does so, “you gotta stand it.”

45) Malcolm X (1992), directed by Spike Lee

For a biopic to be good, does it have to be based on a book as great as The Autobiography of Malcolm X?

I mean, it doesn’t hurt. By my calculations this is America’s greatest biopic, if not necessarily its greatest film based on some historical figures. The biopic is the Deuteronomy 28:19 of film genres: “cursed when you go in and cursed when you go out.” I’ll grant that everyone has a slightly different understanding of what makes a biopic—you could argue that Goodfellas or The Social Network are biopics, even if I wouldn’tand that my take on it is a little stringent. As long a period of someone’s life as can be represented is one of my requirements. Even more importantly, no matter how many people there are in the film, there can be no argument that the film has a single individual as its absolute focal point. As far as I can tell, I’ve got seven biopics in my top 250: Malcolm X, Raging Bull, The Aviator, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Reds, Milk, Marie Antoinette. It’s not lost on me that there are no biopics from before the 1980s here (condolences to the Sergeant York stans out there), nor is it lost on me that the most staid and predictable director here is probably Warren Beatty. Even then, Beatty is about as definitional an auteur for Reds as anyone can be. Malcolm X has the titanic performance which doesn’t deserve the soft condescension of “transformative” but absolutely deserves “spellbinding.” Denzel Washington absolutely dominates Malcolm X, which is right, and it’s the best proof I’ve ever seen that someone doesn’t have to look like a deepfake to give a great performance that gets at the heart of the person s/he’s portraying. Malcolm was light-skinned and 6’4″. Denzel is not light-skinned and if he’s actually six feet tall then so am I. It doesn’t matter, because acting still matters. Spike Lee has rarely been better as a visual stylist than he is here, and of course the perpetually cocked fist I imagine slows down his screenwriting is ready to be released throughout this picture. And yet…maybe The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which this film is pretty faithful to for a movie that has to end sometimes, really is the secret weapon. If Malcolm X is a towering film, then the book it’s based on is stratospheric, and it provides insight to a director and screenwriter and star that goes to the marrow and capillaries of Malcolm.

44) There Will Be Blood (2007), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Was there, though?

Daniel Plainview kills two men in this film. The first is “Henry,” a man who falsely claims to be Daniel’s long-lost brother and makes his way deep into Daniel’s confidence before he figures out something is amiss. The other is Eli Sunday, who is like a little brother to Daniel in that Daniel beats the crap out of him every time out except for one unforgivable, unforeseeable time when Eli happened to win in front of God and everyone. They are not the only men who get the better of Daniel—his adopted son, H.W., turns into a decent human being despite having spent as much of his life as he did in Daniel’s orbit—but they are the only two who do so in a way that pain him. They humiliate him. Henry proved that Daniel had human hopes, familial expectations, nostalgia, and the other weaknesses of the world’s Abel Sundays. Eli proved in the heart of Daniel’s fiefdom that he was not infallible, that he could be coerced and made mock of even in front of the people who are inferior to him in power, wealth, and opportunity. So he kills them with none of the foresight or fanfare of a Francis Dollarhyde. The film ends, fittingly, with Daniel falling to his butt on his bowling lane after having bludgeoned Eli to death, muttering, “I’m finished.” Surely Eli’s murder will be solved, just as surely as old Bandy knew that Daniel had killed Henry by the morning after. The blood is not really about how much is spilled from a pair of cadavers who in life had delusions of besting Daniel more than once. It’s about a bloodless man who is roused to immense and murderous passion. The blood that matters is the red stuff pounding in Daniel’s temples at moments many years distant, not the red stuff he spills.

43) Goodfellas (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese

How is it possible that this movie gets more entertaining every time you watch it?

I don’t want to speak for everyone, because I know not everyone finds this movie as tremendously entertaining as I do, and that not everyone wants to jump into this movie with the gusto of Morrie splashing into a swimming pool to sell toupees (SO CALL ME NOW!). BUT if this movie does not get more entertaining for you every time out, then I will absolutely keep you in my prayers. The reason Goodfellas is so endlessly fun is because it’s an opera buffa, as remarkable a comic epic as has ever been made in this country. Good heavens this movie is funny, quite often in the haha sense and almost unbearably in the cosmic sense. Henry gets everything he ever wanted from being a wiseguy: the sex, the drugs, the money, the freedom, the godhood. And then it’s not enough! He still can’t win! The last line of this movie is eternal: “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook.” Do you remember what the line immediately before that is? “Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and got egg noodles and ketchup.” The second-to-last line of this modern gangster epic is unapologetic Borscht Belt shtick, which is funny enough on its own terms—it’s one of my favorite interpretations given by the unfortunately late Ray Liotta—but which is just ravishingly goofy on a metaphysical level. When this guy was in prison, he ate like a prince. I have friends who practically dream about the idea of garlic sliced with a razor so it melts in the oil. Now that he’s a free man being protected by the feds, he’s got egg noodles and ketchup. In No Country for Old Men, they have the line about what good is a rule that brought you to this place? The good of the rule in the case of Goodfellas is that it’s screamingly funny. In the 1930s, gangster movies ended with Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni splayed and bloodied on the pavement. Crime doesn’t pay. In 1990, crime doesn’t pay because no one at a takeout place has a jar of Prego in the back somewhere.

42) American Dream (1990), directed by Barbara Kopple

Does this have anything in common with another Oscar-winning labor doc, American Factory?

Short of what I’ve listed already—documentary about industry, the Oscar, “American” in the title—not much. Both of these films approach their subjects with a similar thesis: blue-collar Americans are threatened in a specific instance, and the threat being posed to [Hormel employees/Fuyao employees] is indicative of a larger trend in American labor. Where the two films diverge, and where one proves to be a heck of a lot more prescient than the other, is the consideration of where the threat comes from. According to American Factory, the first movie produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, the threat to American labor is external. In the new globalized world where Ohioans cannot expect to work for General Motors anymore but must reach for jobs working for a Chinese glass manufacturer, they must adjust, if squirming and squeamish, to the expectations of their foreign bosses. (And to some extent, the Chinese bosses have to adjust to their American underlings, who have a lot of demands for people without a lot of leverage.) According to American Dream, which is nearly three decades older and more decades than that wiser, the call is coming from inside the house. The primary threat to American labor is American capital. Capital has always been more powerful than labor, and if it weren’t there would be no need for the union workers to go on strike together in American Dream. But what Kopple is charting is not unlike what Louis Malle found in the same state in God’s Country a few years earlier. It’s not just that capital is exerting pressure on labor in the old ways, with scabs and high interest rates and general obstinacy, but that the systems that protected the Hormel workers’ fathers and the Glencoe farmers’ fathers have rotted. The national union leadership and the federal liaisons to the unions are as impotent and flaccid as, well, those by now geriatric fathers. Kopple finds people in American Dream who are passionate about the strike, but there’s not the same level of solidarity and ire in Minnesota that she found in Kentucky perhaps a generation before. In C.S. Lewis’s final Narnia book, The Last Battle, an aged Professor Kirke looks as Narnia is ended even though he was there to see its birth in his childhood. Could Kopple identify with him when he says, “I saw it begin…I did not think I would live to see it die.”

41) Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Could I have made this with a camcorder?

Oh, absolutely. Common Threads is made about as simply as any great movie I can think of. There are people with videos of their weddings on flashdrives which have more exotic cinematography than what’s happening in here. I can’t imagine this film any other way, because the simplicity of this film is what makes it one of the truest secular humanist documents of American culture, period, rating with Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Common Threads comes down to a few people sharing stories about some loved ones they lost to AIDS. The people who tell those stories about their lovers or children or friends are not really like each other. Some of them will die of AIDS; some of them are uninfected. They come from different racial backgrounds, different socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of them have fame and access to the intelligentsia or the elite in their chosen fields. Some of them would have been completely anonymous forever if AIDS had never come into existence. What Common Threads finds is a deep purity of feeling, of love and affection and certainly grief. If this sounds trite, that’s fine. Common Threads is so brave because it dares to be trite, but wise because it knows that nothing can be trite which is specific. The specificity of Vito Russo’s recollections of his lover Jeffrey, the specificity of Suzi Mandell’s memories of her son David…these deny cliche. Epstein and Friedman are making home movies out of memory and archival footage and old pictures and clips from The Member of the Wedding, all of them precious with good will.

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