Top 250 American Movies: 31-40

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 38 is better than 39 is better than 40. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.


40) Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), directed by Bill Morrison

Will future generations ever really know what it was like for a film to have texture?

I think about this tweet a lot:

Stebbins is one of my favorite movie writers and thinkers, and this is typically clear-eyed. Especially given the compression that our streaming services are guilty of, there’s just a loss in the way most movies look…even the ones that won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Dawson City: Frozen Time is a masterpiece no matter how you look at it. It has this lovely hook of the lost films which were “discovered” under an ice rink, and it has the subtlety to understand that “discovery” is a term that foreigners use and not the natives. It’s an ode to silent films, almost wordless itself except in a few newish interviews, an ode that turns melancholy and grief-stricken when the sheer filmic casualties of the era are considered. It contains the history of a boomtown during a gold rush, two terms that speak “Wild West” to most Americans but without the human specificity that Dawson City provides. But what makes this movie absolutely indispensable is its command of texture. Not only the texture of the original films in their original condition, but the texture of those films as they are now. Damaged, stained, worn. The films are now over a hundred years old. Many of them have been burned away by the excitable children of Dawson City, who knew that they could have a diverting experience lighting the celluloid on fire. Some of them are wet with drips, moistened by their long burial. Morrison, who earlier in the century proved himself the master of damaged film with Decasia—I’ve left avant-garde and abstract films out of my rankings here or otherwise Decasia would be here too!is the emissary of texture. In a visual medium, Morrison’s command of the old prints calls to mind the brush of velveteen or the dully promised cold of the freezer door or the faded spot in the cover of a paperback where your thumb has often rested.

39) Duck Soup (1933), directed by Leo McCarey

Where’s the line between McCarey (a man with several wonderful comedies on his CV) and the Marx Brothers?

Take films like A Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races, both directed by Sam Wood. Not that Wood was completely immune to comedies, but this is a guy who made his name with lopsided dramas. McCarey, like Wood one of Hollywood’s preeminent redbaiters, also had something of a slovenly way with drama (with a clear and impeccable exception we’ll get to another time). But unlike Wood, McCarey had a way of being lighter on his feet because he was willing to hitch his movies to the talents of his actors. Where Wood spent ages turning Gary Cooper into a Hemingwayesque tragedian which he was totally unsuited to be, McCarey had a grace with his leads. Performances in actors’ oeuvres which I think of as being most essential to their images were honed under McCarey, even if they weren’t comedic. Deborah Kerr as the patron saint of women with terrible timing in An Affair to Remember, Irene Dunne as relentlessly clever in The Awful Truth, Bing Crosby as the arm who sounds like a cheerful holiday doorbell in Going My Way. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne and Barry Fitzgerald and especially the Marx Brothers were just funny, and McCarey simply held the door open for them to waltz through in the silliest way possible. Duck Soup isn’t the kind of movie where anyone holds the door open, preciselypeople use open hallways as mirrors or appear in halls of state via fireman’s poles because doors as doors are for suckersbut for McCarey that still works just fine. This is the Marx Brothers at the absolute zenith of their abilities, fifteen years after Armistice Day and five years after the Kellogg-Briand Pact, leading an enormously choreographed performance of a song about going to war over a series of trifles. It’s also the movie where Harpo Marx manages to confound a rival peanut vendor into holding one of his legs up. There’s never been a movie this short but also as wall-to-wall hilarious as this one. Like many a great thriller, Duck Soup is lean as venison.

38) Eraserhead (1977), directed by David Lynch

Has any movie gotten so much right about urban decline in America?

Maybe this is like watching Lawrence of Arabia and fixating on the guerrilla combat tactics of the early 20th Century, but what grounds Eraserhead, a film as uncomfortable as any narrative film ever made in this country, is its treatment of a Rust Belt malebolgia. Lynch, who was living by the skin of his teeth in Philadelphia for much of the production of this film, has the sense of what it’s like to live somewhere where everything has crumbled. The buildings outside and in have fallen, and what lives inside things like the radiator are the strangest, weirdest pests. Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a few years before, Eraserhead takes the concept of a family dinner and turns it into trickles of flowing blood and looks of disgust onscreen multiplied by the many looks of disgust in the audience. The presence of a child is unplanned, and whatever pleasure our protagonist and his ladyfriend might have had in creating their baby is completely elided, so much so that it’s actively confusing for Jack when the little being we all lovingly call “Eraserhead Baby” pops up and starts making those sounds. What career can Jack hope for? What pleasure can he take? What bonds can he forge? He’s living in an America untouched by any marker of Great Society and which will by the time Reagan takes office will be nothing short of unlivable. Lynch, always recognizable for the completeness of the production design in his films, makes the bare quarters of Jack Nance into something every bit as recognizable and heart-palpitating as the dumpster behind Winkie’s or the Red Room. In the city according to Lynch, life changes from faint and inscrutable to overwhelming and fearsome in no time at all, underlined in thick strokes by endless droning noise.

37) Silence (2016), directed by Martin Scorsese

No director has more movies in the top 100 of your list than Martin Scorsese. Would you say that he, not John Ford, is really America’s greatest director?

This makes the sixth of Martin Scorsese’s films in the top 100; so far, we’ve covered The Age of Innocence, The Irishman, The Aviator, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. While I didn’t exactly go off-script for what I think Scorsese’s best movie is, I think it’s worth talking about how Scorsese has become the poster boy for “familiarity breeds contempt.” Scorsese has been making features since the late 1960s, and his breakout, Mean Streets, will turn fifty years old next year. His top-grossing movies by adjusted box office are The Departed, Cape Fear, The Aviator, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street; in other words, people came to see the movie because of Leonardo DiCaprio. The first line in his obituary will be for the crime films like Goodfellas and Casino and The Departed, his Best Picture winner. It’s where we’re most familiar with him, in part because Goodfellas has become his most beloved film, in part because Gen Xers and geriatric Millennials are the dominant culture writers and they remember stuff like Goodfellas and Casino, and in part because it’s the easiest way to use his greatness as a cudgel. No single word in the discourse is as nonspecific and damning as “problematic,” and it’s easy to call something like Wolf of Wall Street or The Irishman “problematic” without having to analyze what, exactly, is the problem. Yet like John Ford, probably the only American director I would be comfortable rating ahead of Scorsese without a long think, the soul of his work is not really in what people associate with him first. The soul of John Ford is in The Quiet Man or Pilgrimage or even Judge Priest before the Cavalry Trilogy. And the soul of Martin Scorsese is less in Goodfellas or Casino or The Wolf of Wall Street than it is in Silence; I’d say that Silence is even further from Goodfellas than The Quiet Man is from, say, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. So much of Scorsese’s work closes on this idea of men who cannot finally accept the changes that have crashed in on them, either because they’re physically or psychologically unable to (The Aviator, Raging Bull, After Hours) or because they simply cannot accept that their choices have driven to a place which is both untenable and inexorable (Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman). Silence manages to do both. Rodrigues cannot shake off his belief in God any more than he could rip his left arm out of its socket with his right. He cannot live without his connection to God and to his church, and yet to save lives in a final instant requires him to sever it publicly. On my first go-round with this movie I found the sequence where he can hear God’s voice telling him to step on the image of himself a little much, and while I still don’t love the voiceover, it all works for me much better now. In that moment, as Andrew Garfield tumbles in slow motion to the ground, we see the full psychosomatic spread of what accepting that change does to a man, and it is rending.

36) Some Like It Hot (1959), directed by Billy Wilder

Won’t anyone give Marilyn Monroe some credit for being about as funny as anyone else in this movie?

I want to, even if on a literal level I can’t quite get there. I still think the funniest person in this movie is Joe E. Brown, whom Wilder rescued from the past so he could play a rich boy equally gormless and harmless. But is Monroe as funny as Jack Lemmon? Just about. Is she as funny as Tony Curtis? Funnier! I don’t really enjoy the game of “What if x person were in y movie instead of z person?” very much, but just imagine trying to see someone else playing Sugar Kane. More than Lemmon or Curtis, more than Brown or George Raft, Monroe feels absolutely essential to this movie, as if no one else could have possibly filled this part. While Joe is blowing up floaties so he can doggy paddle his way to the yachts and Jerry is using a comically overlarge shovel to gold dig more effectively, Sugar Kane is pure air, and the smaller the space the higher she is on the Beaufort scale. On the train and especially in those sleeping berths, it’s incredible she doesn’t blow Jerry’s wig right off. In a larger crowd or on the beach, she’s simply living on a a slightly different plane than the rest of them. The other ladies in the band have their feet in the sand. Sugar, a little zany, self-aware enough to know saxophonists are her weakness and giddy enough to fall for “Melancholy Baby” every time, could walk on, or I suppose slightly above the beach, for hours and never ever burn her soles or get sand stuck in between her toes. In this most rewatchable American comedy there is certainly a fair bit of drama, not least that the reason our heroes end up in drag—and just to add to the indignities, in Florida—is because they’re in real danger of getting gunned down by the mob. Maybe the underlings play for laughs, but short of that one bit about tossing a coin in the air, Raft never really winks for us in what’s an honestly committed performance. Even the initial meetup between the guys and the bandleader, doused as it is with “AND I’M DAPHNE,” is still a little stressful. It’s not until we meet Sugar that this film kicks back a little bit and gets into that most magical vibe.

35) Meek’s Cutoff (2010), directed by Kelly Reichardt

What if the Israelites had ascended Sinai and seen Moses dancing around an idol of his own making?

That’s a good image, even if there’s something a little Mel Brooks about it that undercuts the seriousness of Meek’s Cutoff. Alternately, on a more literal level there’s that dramatic flourish Jesus provides to the end of a parable in Matthew 15, when he says, “They are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” Stephen Meek is guilty of something, but Reichardt and Bruce Greenwood grant him some subtlety in what exactly that culpability is. Perhaps Meek is mostly arrogant and really believes that he’s just thrown off as opposed to entirely clueless about where in the Oregon desert he is. Or perhaps he is a blind guide, and simply leading other blind people into peril because he doesn’t know any better. The film allows itself to be read in either way, although once one chooses an interpretation it becomes hard to countenance the other. I see Meek as a Moses who knows just enough to believe that he has been favored to receive God’s grace, a deliverer who might be sufficient to deliver people from Independence, Missouri, but not to deliver people to the Willamette. The most crucial difference between Moses and Meek is that Moses could conjure water, even if he did it in a fashion quite unlike that instructed to him by God. Meek, much to the chagrin of the three families he’s got in his charge, does not have that power, and in every drop and slosh of drinking water Reichardt does some conjuring of her own. What the families do once they depose Meek is not exactly aimless, for they do proceed with some fairly ambitious operations, but we can see in them the hope of a destination more than the taking of it, just as Moses’s people wandered for forty years. But they cannot find water, cannot take in more of it without damning themselves, and en route to a promised land Reichardt makes the increasing lack of water terrifying. Quail could be on the menu, or even manna, but there’s nothing to wash it down with.

34) Days of Heaven (1978), directed by Terrence Malick

If the Garden of Eden is in Missouri, then does it follow that Canaan is in Texas?

Another unusual western, another Bible story, this one actively cribbed from Genesis rather than being metaphorical. Give Malick a little credit for regional pride, I suppose. He imagines Canaan in Texas, the state where he spent a fair bit of his adolescence; Joseph Smith put the Garden of Eden in Missouri despite coming of age in New York. Yet Malick does not have the optimism of Joseph Smith or of the Book of Genesis. Where Abraham and Abimelech could make a covenant with each other at Beersheba, there is no dream that warns the wealthy farmer off of Abby, and no peace made between the farmer and Bill. What drove Bill (and Abby and Linda) from Chicago to Texas in the first place was his own violence. It is not God’s command that Bill departs from Ur but out of a basic self-regard for his own hide. And it is not God who intercedes in Bill’s favor to end Abby’s marriage but Bill himself, who kills the farmer in what feels like an inevitable battle between them. To answer the question: yes. Both Smith and Malick are mythmakers of a type, although I don’t think even dweebs like me would call Terrence Malick a prophet in our religion. Smith, in his need to Americanize the Gospel during those heady years of the antebellum republic, transported Israelites to the Western Hemisphere and laid low those Nephites at the hands of the Lamanites. Malick’s story, a much less grandiose one, is perhaps just as chilling. In America, there is no God. There’s no God in the factory where Bill killed a foreman in an argument, and there’s no God in the fields either. If there is a God in America, someone who could repair the relationship between Bill and the farmer, he’s awful quiet.

33) Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott / but actually the Director’s Cut from 1992

The most difficult part of this movie is not in sussing out who’s a replicant and who’s not, or the twisted fatherhood of Tyrell, or the marvelous riff on noir down to the simulation of Los Angeles. It’s in Rachael, and how the film approaches her and how we are asked to approach her as well. Is she like a fabricated owl, with large glinting eyes? She does not give consent, as far as I can tell, to what is presumably her first sexual experience; no matter how calm she is afterwards, it’s always seemed to me that Deckard rapes her as opposed to having some kind of romantic first time. Almost every interaction she has in the film with just about anyone, from Deckard to Tyrell to even Gaff, is made so she can prove something about them. Deckard has the capacity for feeling, Tyrell has the capacity to make a nearly human replicant, Gaff has the capacity to understand where Deckard does not. I think Sean Young is very good in this, but it’s hard to explain what it is she’s doing so well short of having a doll-like beauty, if the doll were dressed up to be a professional. Where I think Blade Runner reverses the noir (and this is where that riff feels especially potent) is that Rachael fills a void in the story which is usually reserved for Gladys George, Kathie Moffat, Phyllis Dietrichson. Rachael is not a catalyst for evil, and more importantly is not wicked in herself. It’s hard to look at those difficult, occasionally murderous ladies of film noir and see them as victimized, somehow, by a lineup of tough guys and private dicks. Rachael is a victim of violence at the hands of men and replicants alike, and if there is a figure in this film who commands our sympathy, it must be her before it’s Roy Batty or Deckard or Sebastian or Pris. Rachael is the only one who is truly buffeted, who never really assents to the conditions of the world that she’s stuck in. Deckard plays the game, as does Roy; Sebastian finds a niche for himself. But Rachael simply is, and everyone else in every room she’s in knows that she’s pretending where she believes in herself fully. In other words, our pity for Rachael is the proof that we might be a little human ourselves.

32) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), directed by Robert Altman

How is Leonard Cohen like a persistent rain?

“He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” we hear a voice sing, the disembodied Leonard Cohen perhaps three decades before he was born. The rear end of a horse and a donkey are visible in that shot. There’s a church steeple too; the town they’re closing in on is called Presbyterian Church. There’s a third ass in that shot, and his name is McCabe. The lyric from “The Stranger Song” that stands in more literally is the one about a dealer waiting for a card “so high and wild/He’ll never need to deal another,” given that the first thing McCabe does to show that he’s more civilized than the clammy proletarians of Presbyterian Church is to pull out a cloth to play poker on. But it’s the line about Joseph that’s always gotten me, especially the idea of one who is “looking” for a manger. The gift of the Biblical Joseph was in his faithfulness, how he stuck with a pregnant girl rather than casting her off for someone who would be more obviously profitable to him. Without him, there is no way that Mary gets to Bethlehem and puts the messiah in anything, even a feeding trough. The gift of McCabe is not in his faithfulness but in his nose. He can sense where the manger will be, and he intends to be there just early enough to say that he had a hand in laying the infant in the hay. In the first few moments of the film, while we’re still getting names of actors on the screen, Altman has set one of the constants of McCabe & Mrs. Miller in play. Leonard Cohen’s dolorous tones are going to live in the ether, nudging Vilmos Zsigmond’s flashed film stock. The next constant in the film, one that is not amplified until a little later, is the perpetuity of liquid in the air and ground of Presbyterian Church. Mud is everywhere. There’s snow in the most climactic scenes. But most of the time, there’s just rain, rain of many species from drowsy mists to hard downpours. Leonard Cohen and the precipitation are here to lull you, much as McCabe is lulled by his self-importance and immediate success, into a false sense of inertia.

31) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), directed by F.W. Murnau

How does this film pull off the historically hard left turn from “I am going to kill my wife” to the two of them walking arm in arm down the street?

A smidge past the half hour mark, almost exactly a third of the way through Sunrise, George O’Brien begins to lift his hands from his side. He is raising them in order to commit a terrifically savage crime: he is going to kill his wife, the mother of his child. He has been talked into it by his mistress, a woman from the city who sees a future with him which is unsullied with petty details like “Janet Gaynor.” Gaynor knows what her husband has in mind. She leans back over the edge of the little rowboat and then comes back forward, her hands together, pleading. O’Brien’s arms come up, and then there is a bell, and in what is a genuinely transcendent moment of physical performance, he puts his arms over his eyes as he hears the bell. It is two separate motions made into one, dictated at the speed of thought. Reluctant murder becomes titanic guilt. Ten minutes of film time later, he has chased after her on foot and via public transportation, has pulled her out of the road, has tried to give her a piece of bread at a restaurant that she cannot eat before she bursts into sobs. (Murnau makes their hands, with little shining rings, the centerpiece of those shots…we know before Gaynor does, and a heck of a lot sooner than O’Brien, that this moment of kindness is going to end badly.) Then by chance into a wedding, where the minister’s presentation of the vows to the groom clearly shake O’Brien to his core. It’s not until that moment, that he takes his turn to collapse sobbing (into Gaynor’s lap) that she can take it as proof that something broke in him, and now that break has been set and with great pain. What’s interesting about these chapters of the film is that O’Brien never puts a hand on Gaynor except with affection or gentleness. He never actually does anything to hurt his wife physically, though of course putting an honest fear of death in her is the worse crime. But the reason that stands out to me is that in this scene where this married couple watches strangers become manandwife, I think he realizes the enormity of what’s happened. He raised his hands to himself, not to her. To kill her would have been suicide, and he cries defeated tears into his wife’s dress as if she had interrupted him as he was putting a gun in his mouth.

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