Top 250 American Movies: 21-30

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 28 is better than 29 is better than 30. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.

21-30: BEFORE SUNSET to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE

30) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper

What do Leatherface and Moby Dick have in common?

I think about this all the time.

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. 

from Chapter 36, Moby-Dick

Listen, I know I’m not special. Everyone thinks about this passage all the time. But there are two things about this description of Moby Dick via Ahab that stand out to me as regards The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The first is the “pasteboard mask,” which is made of a somewhat more stomach-churning material than card stock in this film. Leatherface, more hulking and more imposing and more powerful than anyone who wanders stupidly onto his family’s property, has that mask of skin hanging over his face like scabrous pizza dough. Even though the grandfather is too frail to kill, and Leatherface’s hitchhiking brother is obliterated by a semi in the last minutes of the picture, he is unkillable. He possesses, as does Moby Dick, both “outrageous strength” and “inscrutable malice,” with the latter propping up the former. It’s no wonder that four of the five trespassers meet their end at his hands (or hooks or chainsaw or whatever). They lack the malice of Leatherface, a malice which is even given a kind of shocking amount of context at that family dinner satire but which never really becomes understandable. Asking why Moby Dick or Leatherface strike with such terrific and inexorable intensity is sort like asking why hurricanes make landfall or earthquakes result near fault lines. Perhaps there is a scientific explanation that can be gleaned from the available facts, but the wailing that results after the buildings have fallen and the bodies have dropped is an existential wail untouched by facts. More important than the strength, malice, and sinew is that piece in Ahab’s monologue about “fair play.” Ahab believes that if the Sun struck him, then he would be able to strike the Sun in turn. This is, I suppose, true in some kind of Aristotelian sense, although even in the Newtonian interpretation the Sun has a lot more momentum behind his punch than Ahab has behind his. What I find most engrossing in Texas Chain Saw is this sense that people could, supposedly, fight back against Leatherface. It it is possible for his victims to run, as Sally ultimately runs. It is possible for his victims to punch or scratch or claw or kick. Just because they could does not mean they are guaranteed success. Ahab, in his pride, takes his analysis a stop further than is prudent: if he can strike Moby Dick, then he will kill Moby Dick, when only the first is even a real possibility. In the end, it takes an act of will followed by an act of God to get Sally away from the farm with her hide basically intact, and the film’s whale spins noisily and submerges once more into the deep.

29) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler

Does the optimism this film feels about the future of America’s returning servicemen feel deserved, knowing that the path these people were on would sow dragon’s teeth?

The three homecoming soldiers come home to Boone City, which is just Cincinnati. I’m sure “Boone City” was purposeful enough, naming this alternate Cincinnati for Dan’l, a shade over 200 miles from the Cumberland Gap and in 1950 the largest city within spitting distance of Boone’s stomping grounds. (Cincinnati, aside from being closer to Cumberland Gap than Nashville or Memphis or Atlanta or Charlotte, was also much bigger back then. White flight and deindustrialization come at you pretty fast!) In the late 1700s and early 1800s, when literal Cincinnati was founded, Boone was a famous contemporary figure much admired. In 1946, the most-told story of Daniel Boone is the story of heroic pioneering; in the present day, I think there’s at least a little bit of queasiness about what happened when white people made their second or third push from the Atlantic coastline into the landlocked interior of the country. It doesn’t make the pioneer spirit of Alt-Cincy wrong, per se, but it’s colored in a way that feels oddly valorized by the standards of 2022. Boone City is a serendipitous name for the world that these men return to, a world which is cold to them despite the value of their military service and the damage that they’ve taken both physically and mentally. It warms up a little bit after the men and their home have been rubbed together, like weather-chapped hands making friction in a chill, but it’s not as if the paths are going to be laid smooth for the three vets. Homer is more than proficient with his hooks, but there will always be barriers and impediments and long looks because he has no hands. Al’s boozing and his freshness with management do not seem to bode well for his future career, no matter how steady Millie is. And Fred might win Peggy in the end, but they are going to start from the bottom for sure; even if he makes it good at this construction job he’s landed, it’s still not necessarily a way to financial freedom like Al has, for example. Yet the general sense of the film, made and released in the initial waves of the Baby Boom, is that the world will work out for these ex-GIs. It’s a movie made for its own time as opposed to seventy-five years hence, and thus I can’t say that I blame it for a moderately tempered optimism. What else was it supposed to be? All the same, it is the kind of film where one can play anthropologist in the viewing. The virtues of one time become the weaknesses of a time well within the lifespans of Homer and Al and Fred.

28) Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), directed by F.W. Murnau

Can the subaltern star in a silent film?

Until Warners sent John Huston and company to Mexico for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Tabu may well have been the most prominent American narrative picture to be filmed on location outside of America. Quite simply there is no way to making Catalina into a convincing facsimile of the South Pacific, and Murnauwho by some estimations out-controlfreaked Robert Flaherty during and after production—went full William T. Sherman in his process here. Isolated some 4,000 miles from the bosses and using a crew of locals he had taught to operate the film equipment, Murnau was making a heretofore unprecedented movie in Hollywood history. His distance from Paramount meant it would not be, strictly speaking, be a “studio movie,” and his outmaneuvering of Flaherty meant that it would not be a documentary like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North or Cooper and Schoedsack’s Grass. There’s a western gaze in Tabu, undoubtedly, and the structure of the story is deep in the trunk of the star-crossed lovers family tree. Yet it is also a striking record of Polynesian people, about Polynesian people and their inescapable backgrounds, and in large part made by people from the islands. To put it another way, the infelicitously enamored male lead of Tabu is a pearl diver who falls for a woman of his own people, not an American naval officer racking up Japanese wives. There are few American films which truly focus on people who have basically nothing. Perhaps one could go to the occasional Chaplin film here (though even Chaplin ends up with something in films like The Gold Rush or City Lights), or to Barbara Loden’s Wanda or John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. The pearl diver who we see undertaking great dives and killing sharks dies in a very different type of water. He who has committed the gravest sin against his people’s faith dies at the end of the film, his hand in the air in the fashion of Stevie Smith, not waving but drowning.

27) The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin

Why is it so much easier to see Satan than to see God?

Without sounding like an evangelical preacher, it’s because Satan wants to be seen. The essence of faith is in what Paul referred to as “the things that are unseen that are eternal.” Blessed are those, Jesus chides Thomas after the Resurrection, who believe without seeing. Satan sees this as a market inefficiency to be exploited, like Billy Beane in the late ’90s realizing the value of on-base percentage and slugging percentage before the average GM. If God values belief in the unseen, then Satan is going to find ways to drive us mad by appealing to our sight, our most trusted sense. The second stretch of this film, after the prelude in the Middle East but before Linda Blair starts eating cigarettes by the pack and sounds like Mercedes McCambridge, is so effective precisely because our eyes say one thing and our minds begin to race for reasons why. There is a trump card in Chris’s deck when the pediatricians and psychiatrists cannot find anything wrong: what about her bed? she asks. The bed, which shook and creaked as if an entire football team was jumping on it, uncontrollable and unreined, is unnatural. No child could move a bed like that. Chris saw it; Chris was on it while it bucked. Scientistspeople who catch The Exorcist on TV without knowing what it is, evenlook at the situation and try to rationalize it. But there is no rationalization for a bed like that any more than there is a rationalization for a child spiderwalking down the stairs and hissing at a party’s worth of people. That scene where Father Merrin and Father Karras prepare to do battle with the demon possessing Regan, ascending the stairs so quietly and then entering the freezing bedroom, is a profoundly moving one. For someone who’s into it for the horror or the thrill ride, it’s a great deep breath before a plunge. For me, I watch that scene and think about it from the perspectives of the priests, men who believe seriously and unstintingly in the power of Satan. They know when they enter that room, the power of Hell will be waiting for them; the power of God they’ll have to bring themselves, and they will have to believe in that power themselves despite what their senses tell them. It’s about as inspiring as an explicit fairy tale can get.

26) My Darling Clementine (1946), directed by John Ford

If this is America’s most mythic picture, at least about America itself, then where does Clementine herself fit into that myth?

If you were to make a list of the most important characters in My Darling Clementine, you could make a pretty good argument not to even put Clementine in the top 5. She’s certainly no higher than fourth (Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Chihuahua), and even that requires putting Walter Brennan’s devious and wicked Old Man Clanton lower than her. Cathy Downs, whose claim to fame outside of this movie is probably the string of low-budget sci-fi movies she made in the mid-late ’50s, is not even a particularly noteworthy screen presence. The camera does not linger on her the way it keeps Linda Darnell, for example, and even in other Ford movies the unsullied prim beauty is more memorable than her: Maureen O’Hara in How Green Was My Valley, Shirley Temple in Fort Apache, Grace Kelly in Mogambo, Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk. Downs is something of a nonentity, and even when Henry Fonda is tripping over his feet for her or Victor Mature is trying to send her away, she seems basically anonymous. God and Country are there in the church meeting/celebration that Wyatt takes Clementine to; postbellum decency is affirmed when the Earps and Company finally outgun the Clantons at bloody-fingered dawn; the Shakespearean recitation of Granville Thorndyke becomes the whispered expectation of an early grave in the mouth of Doc Holliday. Clementine is what they leave behind, the personified relic of an East that cannot touch them in Arizona. All grace and manners, adorable in her own way, desirable and unfalteringly good. But she is not for these men. Either the Clantons (or even Doc) will defile the West with their carousing and double-dealing, or the Earps will populate it with the seed of men good and true. There’s no room there for Clementine. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, some years after playing Doc Holliday himself, Val Kilmer says, “It’s literally like someone took America by the East Coast and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on.” The thought is a little less crude in Mature’s interpretation of Clementine, but it’s not that far off.

25) Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

In this saddest of movies, where do we hear the first sob?

Sniffles we may hear throughout the film. Sniffles for the initial diagnosis of eviction facing Bark and Lucy, sniffles for the way Lucy can’t seem to fit in during the bridge lessons, sniffles for how much her granddaughter is ashamed of her, sniffles for how roughly Bark is treated by his daughter, Cora, compared to the kindness shown him by his new friend Max. I think there are two reasonable places to put the first sob, though. The first is the scene where Lucy, knowing her son and daughter-in-law are scheming to send her to a nursing home so that she won’t disrupt the family’s social life any longer, asks George to do so. The sob is not for the ask, for George’s tearful reaction, or for the way that Beulah Bondi sits up in that chair with as much pride as she can muster. The sob is for her namedropping the name of the nursing home itself, when we know that she does not intend to make it painless for George and Anita to ship her off elsewhere. It’s not a sob for George, certainly. It’s for her. When she says the words “Idylwild Home,” she may just as well be saying “You Don’t Really Love Me Repository for Unwanted Mothers.” This is a good scene, a powerful scene, but I personally don’t feel the lump in my throat until Bark and Lucy are together at the hotel where they honeymooned. We’ve gotten the first taste of kindness from the car salesman who mistakes the old folks for closeted millionaires. (In a different movie, perhaps even a different movie by Leo McCarey, this kind of misunderstanding would be played for laughs. In Make Way for Tomorrow, what should be a sticky little moment is instead quite warm to the touch.) The hotel scenes are so sweet that one wouldn’t want to cry over them any more than one would cry over a particularly frenetic puppy, but then the music starts. Bark and Lucy try to go out and dance with the hotel patrons and diners but find themselves unable to keep up with the fast pace of the music. When the conductor of the orchestra sees them, understands perfectly, and then changes the song so that those two might waltz together…that hurts. It’s a lovely gesture, but it’s at that moment, I think, that the finality of this day really shines through. At the end of this day, Bark will get on a train to California and Lucy will go to the Idylwild Home and they’ll die without having seen each other again. This is the last dance, the final box step for two plain folks who have made the best of it together for fifty years and will now die apart, never to have a moment so intimate or nostalgic again.

24) The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick

What makes this America’s greatest horror movie?

We have what I think are America’s three best horror flicks in this post: Texas Chain Saw, The Exorcist, and The Shining. All three of them are the kinds of movies which do not come off easily. Texas Chain Saw doesn’t come off easily because it’s just really tough to that much blood out of white clothes. The Exorcist doesn’t come off easily because you close your eyes and see Regan’s suffering imprinted on your eyelids for days after watching the film. And then there’s The Shining, which doesn’t come off easily because you can’t scrub what isn’t there. The Shining is like a phantom stain, one that you think you see after you’ve washed that sweatshirt two or three times now and you still think you can see the mark on it but it’s a little bit faded and will other people notice, is it actually there or do you just know where it was so well that you can’t unsee it? The Shining is not, certainly by the standards of those two other films (or Psycho, or Halloween, or The Blair Witch Project…) viscerally terrifying. Kubrick flooded a lobby with cranberry juice, and he’s not aiming for you to have to spend extra quarters at the laundromat later. Like Lynch with Eraserhead, his goal is to give us images that are unsettling, that feel wrong over and over again. It comes back to the technical brilliance of The Shining…the obsessive use of Steadicam, the rightly feted sound design which puts Danny’s trike on carpet and hardwood more than the camera ever does, the tightly controlled performances of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, the instantly recognizable carpets and bathroom stalls and bars, the invasive score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. Other films have made greater use of terror, but as for the horror that lives in the digestive tract, The Shining reigns supreme.

23) Broadcast News (1987), directed by James L. Brooks

How does the marriage plot have stakes if fornication is no longer frowned upon and if no-fault divorce means you can stay home and split up?

Obviously it’s by making the marriage plot about ethics in television journalism. Brooks is not making a film where we judge Jane for going to bed with some man she’s not married to; he’s making a film where we judge Jane for who she’s going to bed with. That’s not really true either, though. We’re not judging Jane for who she goes to bed withat least that’s not what the movie wants us to do, and if we’re openhearted we aren’t judging Jane for developing this crush on Tom. Broadcast News wants us to judge Aaron, the consummate model of voice of God impartial Northwestern J-school pre-Trump journalistic ethics, for being unable to remove his bias in the face of new details in a story he’s been following. It wants us to judge Tom, the perfect example of pretty privilege who has a sonorous television voice because it resonates beautifully in the acoustics of his empty skull, for feeling bad about being inadequate and doing absolutely nothing to make himself semi-adequate. In the marriage plot as someone like Jane Austen would have understood it, the point was to marry the right guy out of the choice of two because the rest of one’s life depended on it. Financially, socially, morally, parentally. But in the marriage plot of the late ’80s, and I suppose this must be true into the present day, the point is to marry the right guy out of the choice of two because one’s self-worth depended on it. Broadcast News breaks the mold. The choice isn’t really between Tom and Aaron; to be perfectly honest the only person in the film who thinks that’s true is Aaron, whose arrogance crosses into narcissism and self-importance almost from the jump. The choice is between marrying someone who makes Jane a better journalist and marrying someone who fillets her ability to feel that competency, and that Jane escapes two bad apples is the reason to sigh loudly with relief at the end of the film.

22) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), directed by John Ford

If John Ford is America’s greatest director, why is his second-highest movie so low?

It’s a reasonable question, though it’s not really how I’d think about it. There are no directors with two top-10 movies, though there are two directors with two top-15 movies. But there is only one director with more than ten movies across the 250, and that’s John Ford. Eleven of his films are here (Liberty Valance makes ten, you can guess what’s still to come), and to be transparent a number of his movies land somewhere between like, 250 and 325 for me: The Lost Patrol, Wagon Master, The Iron Horse, The Horse Soldiers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 3 Godfathers. And from a different anglewhat is a great director’s worst movie?Ford comes out relatively well. In a career with over a hundred directorial credits, of which a little fewer than that are accessible, his worst film is probably Tobacco Road. It’s not a good movie by any standard, with few saving graces and an honestly shocking dearth of tonal command. Yet it does not disqualify Ford from the conversation as Ready Player One disqualifies Spielberg, for example, and taken in the sweep of many more films than contemporary filmmakers produce, the low achievement of Tobacco Road is almost impressive. So if Ford’s second-best film does not quite crack the top 20 over a nation’s output which numbers features in the tens of thousands, then I think that’s probably okay. Certainly it’s more than okay when that film is Liberty Valance, as canny a film as has ever been made in this country. Even by the standards of a a decade which your history teacher valorized as the most fascinating of the 20th Century, Ford has made one of its first truly radical documents. Radical, in this case, means accurate, and from the messenger Liberty Valance has even more weight: The great men who “built America” were themselves built on outright lies. Even if it was for the better, as Liberty Valance seems to agree, it is a slap in the face for John Winthrop and everyone else who presents America as the shining city on the hill. The shine, according to Ford, is not endowed by God or brightened by some halo, but is the result of subterranean mechanisms cranked twenty-four hours a day.

21) Before Sunset (2004), directed by Richard Linklater

Does this movie still work without Sunrise? Or even Midnight?

It’s funny you ask that. I almost watched this movie before I watched Before Sunrise because of the idiosyncrasies of that two-DVD pack I purchased them in. For some reason, Sunset was on top in that DVD case, and without looking very hard at the menu (surely there was a menu? maybe there wasn’t? I realize this story does not make me look good) I got about three minutes into Sunset before realizing that I was watching the wrong movie, but that was long enough to show me two things. First, that Celine would find Jesse in Paris. Second, that the little flashbacks built into Jesse’s explanation of his novel were longing if restrained, each shot of a younger Celine or Jesse dripping like the melt off an icicle. So no, while I am only a three-minute idiot as opposed to an eighty-minute idiot, I think it’s probably fair to say that this movie would work even if it didn’t have Before Sunrise on the front end. Sunset has that longish period of Celine feeling out Jesse. Celine explains why she wasn’t in Vienna, which is more than Deborah Kerr does in An Affair to Remember, and then we find out that Jesse was in Vienna when he said he would be. It’s a conversation which aches even without thinking about the first night in Vienna, the only night in Vienna. Celine’s regret turns to vexation when Jesse says he wasn’t in Vienna either, scolding him that if she could have come she would have been there. And then her vexation turns to barely veiled pleasure when Jesse admits that he was there, the I’m so sorry in her voice betrayed by a shyly chuffed smile. It’s much easier to answer if this movie works without Midnight, because me and like, everyone else in the world loved this movie without Midnight for the nine years Sunset was a youngest child rather than a middle one. Does this movie work despite Midnight is probably the better question, and for me it’s just as easy to answer. Sunset, with its seventy minutes of denial, five minutes of acceptance, and fifteen seconds of dizzying joy, is the perfect counterpart to the brutality of Before Midnight, a film that denies those fifteen seconds flat out. “There’s gotta be something more to love than commitment,” Jesse says in Sunset, even if Midnight does a lot of work to suggest that commitment plays a stronger role than Jesse wants to admit. But that interchange between “Baby, you are going to miss that plane,” and “I know!” is what the something more is, and it’s that flash of ecstatic resolution which makes the commitment feel worth it.

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