Top 250 American Movies: 1-10

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 8 is better than 9 is better than 10. We’ll just be poking into some movies that are, simply, the very best.

1-10: NASHVILLE to THE MASTER

10) The Master (2012), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

How does The Master depict the American tradition of religious revelation?

I read Under the Banner of Heaven for the first time a few weeks ago, and there’s a quote in there that’s been hanging around in my mind ever since. Jon Krakauer quotes a German intellectual named Eduard Meyer who predicted, “As Arabia was to be the inheritance of the Muslims, so was America to become the inheritance of the Mormons.” Obviously we’re still waiting on the whole inheritance thing to come true, as Meyer hypothesized it back in 1904. And despite many attempts to squelch religious pluralism in this country by many different religious groups, the United States, five times larger than modern-day Saudi Arabia, is probably too big to ever become as unified under one religious aegis. All the same I can’t stop thinking about this idea that one day, the dogma of a singularly American religion will ultimately sweep the continent. Surely the American Protestant is not like the English or German Protestant, but one thing he has in common with those Europeans is that the geographical center of his faith is far to the East, in Israel and Palestine. The Mormon has no such geographical qualms despite the primacy of Jesus Christ in his faith; Joseph Smith saw an antediluvian America as an essential starting point, and of course the nearly transcontinental journey of the Mormons over decades from New York to Utah is not all that different from what schoolchildren are taught about Manifest Destiny and westward expansion.

The Great American Novel was written by Joseph Smith, and if that’s number one, then L. Ron Hubbard must be the author of the first runner-up. Lancaster Dodd is more the latter than the former. (If there’s a weakness in The Master, it’s in its abridged approach to the women of the religious movement. Amy Adams plays a woman not unlike Emma Hale Smith, I suppose, with significant influence over her husband. On the other hand I don’t think the film really gets into the way that American charismatic movements have actively exploited women as childbearers and childrearers first and second. But it can only do so much!) His evangel is not a Christian one, and the basics of the faith are, in their most hopeful moments, so close to Scientology that it’s a wonder that David Miscavige hasn’t had Paul Thomas Anderson assassinated. There are two moments that have stood out to me since my first viewing of the film as especially salient moments in dissecting the religious experience. The first is the scene where Dodd is interrupted by a skeptic during a conversation about The Cause, a skeptic who is there purposely just to say that he doesn’t buy any of Dodd’s ludicrous claims. They are ludicrous! You can’t cure cancer by going into the person’s mental past and just erasing it! All the same, our sympathy has to be with Dodd in that moment. The interloper is not even out to convince anyone in the room with Dodd, only to prove that he personally is not fooled by Dodd’s pseudoscientific nonsense. Of course he oughtn’t to be, but there’s something so obnoxious about this kind of agnostic stunt (like Sinclair Lewis daring God to smite him then and there); that kind of person better be doing the same thing in the waiting rooms of acupuncturists and chiropractors too. In the second sequence, Joaquin Phoenix just walks back and forth, from a window to a wall and then back and forth and back and forth. It’s intercut with other moments, but it’s that visual metaphor for the struggle of faith, the constant concern and doubt and shuffling and groping, which underscores the brilliance of The Master. There’s good case to be made that those few seconds are the most pivotal ones in American religious cinema, outstripping anything accomplished even by Scorsese or Malick; there’s a good case to be made that Anderson has created the most potent spiritual images since Ingmar Bergman sent a giant puppet God bursting through a door in Fanny and Alexander four decades prior.

9) Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Is this the American feature with the most important performance from the country’s most important actor?

[clears throat, imagines a giant rabbit that only I can see, speaks] I mean, throw me a softball, why don’tcha. In my opinion, there are maybe six actors who you could call the most important in the history of the American cinema. There’s Stewart (who, helpfully, I’ve made the case for already), Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Jack Nicholson to start. And then for influence, reach, and some level of symbolic importance, there are Charlie Chaplin and Marlon Brando. I happen to think it’s Jimmy Stewart, and the abridged version goes something like this. For one thing, no actor features in so many of the truly great American films, especially ones by America’s most important directors. For another, Stewart’s progression as an actor from slender cherub to bright-eyed fetishist across the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s is the hand on America’s filmic rudder at that time. No performer has changed so brilliantly and seemingly without effort as Stewart did. As far as I can see there are two challengers for this particular title of “most important performance, etc.” if you decide it’s Stewart. We’ve covered both recently: It’s a Wonderful Life, which ties together prewar optimism and postwar bleakness (or is that backwards?) to perfection, and Rear Window, which puts the pleasure of the gaze into a practically atavistic state. I’d grant them as strong challengers, in that order, but for me it’s still Vertigo which feels most essential. Vertigo is a film which thrives on its deception of us, our belief in the reality of Madeleine, her mental illness, her death. It thrives on the way that we believe in Scottie’s creation of a fetish object as at least partly cathartic, and how Judy must hope and even believe that Scottie loves some remnant of her as a person and not just the blonde he saw fall from the bell tower. It asks us to believe in a kiss with a swirling camera and Bernard Herrmann’s dizzying music accompanying it, believing that there is something romantic in that moment while at the same time acknowledging the ravening fangs that must be behind Scottie’s lips while he gets what he’s wanted for months. To bring us there, Hitchcock runs us through Jimmy Stewart, who trusts like a child and grieves like an atheist. What a gesture it is as Judy, in the Madeleine costume, walks out of the green haze in front of the motel bathroom. Scottie has it all now. He has the living woman, the woman who will prove he’s not a premature dotard in mental or physical faculties. And what does Stewart do as he sees her? He cranes his neck a little and gulps. You can see the questions flashing in his eyes. Is she real? Is she as good as he hoped for? And will his schlong answer the bugle call despite being discharged from duty some time ago?

8) The Thin Red Line (1998), directed by Terrence Malick

What does this have in common with the World War II movies from the 1950s?

Back when I did my comparison of the initial critical reviews of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan, one of the strands I found quickly (and was more than a little weirded out by) was the type of review that let The Thin Red Line have it for being insufficiently respectful. Saving Private Ryan, for these critics, was the one which gave the Greatest Generation its due. The Thin Red Line, which took the thousand-year view of the conflict rather than one centered on Tom Hanks, was perhaps even amoral in what appeared to people like Manohla Dargis and David Edelstein to be an insouciance about Japanese expansionism or Japan’s alliance with Hitler. (The right-wing press, for their part, had a real time about Saving Private Ryan: did it wave the flag enough? Was the problem that Steven Spielberg is Jewish? It’s real interesting to see the kind of stuff that sneaked into the discourse in the ’90s back when we were all presumably less partisan!) What fascinates me about this discussion is that in all the talk about the movies of the present, there is scant consideration of the movies of the past. What Spielberg is doing in Saving Private Ryan is not literally unprecedented in the history of World War II movies in America, but it’s pretty close. Most of them, for all the big stars and big scores and big messages, are not really like Saving Private Ryan. Go back to the 1960s and of course there are a number of internationally co-produced pictures with casts of thousands and bit parts for fading stars. These are primarily procedural films, aiming to wrap arms around the breadth of an operation or some starting point: The Longest Day, In Harm’s Way, The Great Escape, and the more French than American Is Paris Burning. Even films like The Battle of the Bulge, which skips the whole “real person” angle in favor of composites and fictions, fall into this basic approach. They are flag-waving in some sense, I suppose, although part of me thinks that they are simply too dry and analytical to inspire much passion. The feeling these films aim to convey is more like awe than pride, more like gratitude than patriotism.

But take it back to the 1950s, when the generation of men who had fought in the war were now creeping up towards middle age (at least by the standards of the day), and the films are not even as robustly proud as they are in the ’60s. There are the Best Picture winners, From Here to Eternity and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Both may end with their lovable, anti-authoritarian rogues developing a conscience and dying for it, but before they die for it, they fight the military tooth and nail. The Cruel Sea, like River Kwai a British import, is shockingly frank about what PTSD does to survivors of years of combat. American ’50s films include some hard chews about other wars (The Steel Helmet, Paths of Glory, even What Price Glory to some extent), coarse Pacific two-hander Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, George Stevens’s heartbreaking The Diary of Anne Frank, and especially The Naked and the Dead, which is stunningly choleric. (Look outside the English language in the 1950s and the best films are hardly more sanguine: The Cranes Are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, Kanal, The Bridge, Fires on the Plain, Night and Fog.) In other words, the films made about men who had been in the war up close were not exactly waving the flag and toasting God and Franklin D. Roosevelt. When men who went to that war made movies based on books by men who had been to that war and then marketed them to men who had been to that war, the result is work that is temperamentally more similar to The Thin Red Line than to Saving Private Ryan.

7) Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder

What level of reality do we grant Schwab’s Pharmacy in this film?

A lot is made, including by people like me, of the great casting in this film that forces viewers to recall names which are only twenty, twenty-five years old. (America is so fascinating in this way. What other nation looks at someone who was well-known just twenty-five years ago and sort of scoffs and says, “Jeez, where’d they dig up that relic?”) Of course there’s silent star Gloria Swanson as the mostly forgotten silent star, director Erich von Stroheim playing the mostly forgotten director of some of her pictures, and even Cecil B. DeMille as the kindliest version of that fascist you’ll ever see. But then there’s Schwab’s Pharmacy, one of the jewels of the Hollywood experience for so many of the hoi polloi of the ’40s and ’50s in particular. Schwab’s is the place where Joe Gillis comes very near to being in touch with real life once again. Norma sends him in there for cigarettes, Artie and especially Betty are there, he forgets all about the cigarettes for the decaying dame in the giant Italian automobile. Billy Wilder is not a director who I’ve ever really pointed to as an essential in terms of set design—there’s The Apartment, this, and then like, Ace in the Hole?—but Sunset Boulevard of course has the fantastic ruined chateau on the title street, Paramount Studios and its backlot. And it has Schwab’s. Not literally, though. The Schwab’s in the film is a replication of the real thing, and from all accounts a very good one. Yet Schwab’s is not quite playing itself, in much the same way that none of Swanson, von Stroheim, or DeMille is really playing themselves. The difference is that of those four entities, only Schwab’s is the one playing a genuinely human figure as opposed to a grotesque or burlesque, and that’s pretty impressive for a drugstore. Sunset Boulevard is a love letter with an awful lot of threats inside the envelope, but there’s real love, albeit a recursive one not unlike starting at the right Vermeer, for the fake Schwab’s that teems with real feeling.

6) Do the Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee

What makes this movie the greatest provocation in American cinema?

Do the Right Thing, and I promise I’m not saying this because of the title, is quite possibly the most moral film ever made in this country. I think that’s a kind of provocation in itself. Hollywood movies are a terribly fake race, and if you smell Brylcreem in the air it’s as likely to be a summer blockbuster or holiday Oscarbait as it is to be Joel Osteen. Do the Right Thing is realer than most documentaries, not merely lived in but sleeping sweatily on sheets that haven’t been washed in a month. It is the double truth, Ruth, a film which speaks to the Bed-Stuy of the late ’80s with a special coat of makeup on it for effect, using the kind of reds that one associates with Pedro Almodovar more than Lee. (Not enough people cite this as the great New York movie, incidentally. If you put Dog Day Afternoon in your quote tweet and not this you’re doing it wrong.) It is a film which sees integration as a necessity, even though that integration twenty years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. is one fraught with deep suspicion on all sides. And at the same time, as much as Sal’s and the grocery store run by an Asian couple are essential in this neighborhood belonging primarily to African-Americans and (at least in the film) the occasional Hispanic person, that sense of belonging to a certain kind of people is as essential as the integration. Mookie puts the trash can through Sal’s window, but no matter how stentorian (and nominatively determined) Buggin’ Out is about it, the first projectile was launched by Sal and his stubborn insistence on refusing to belong to the neighborhood. Do the Right Thing is provocative and breathtaking now, and as long as there is an America I think it will remain every bit as provocative and breathtaking as it was in 1989 and as it is right this minute. The morality the French cinema wants is in Pickpocket or A Man Escaped, the Italian in Rome, Open City or The Flowers of St. Francis, the Japanese in Tokyo Story or Late Spring, the Canadian in The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica, the Argentinian in La cienaga or Zama, the Russian in Andrei Rublev or The Sacrifice. In America we have Spike Lee, and we have Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. At his very best, Lee has always been able to be profoundly, maybe even spiritually moral, and yet he does it without moralizing. It’s not about claiming to have all the answers—see the dueling postscripts in this film between Martin and Malcolm for proof—but about having eyes that can bear to see injustice and hearts that can resolve to see that injustice brooked, stymied, vanquished.

5) Fargo (1996), directed by the Coen Brothers

How much further down is this movie if it ends without the stamp conversation?

The margins are thin up here! I’m not sure that this is still a top-ten film if it ends with that line where Marge wonders at what the lust for “a little money” did to the captive Grimsrud, or if it ends with the arrest of Jerry Lundegaard, or if it ended with some other kind of scene between Marge and Norm “Sonuva” Gunderson. (I cringe a little to think of how this would be different if it ended with their child being born.) Mercifully, it doesn’t end like that. The dead are piling up across the Upper Midwest, sometimes near the highway and sometimes on top of parking garages and sometimes splattered and spewed from wood chippers, but there is something in that same world which is worth continuing on for. There is such vice in this decadent heartland, a vice which only seems particularly stark against this background of Lutherans and fresh snow. If this were New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or one of the other hotbeds of (neo-)noir, then this would hardly raise an eyebrow. But the film knows that we expect more Gundersons in Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Dakotas than Carls or Grimsruds or Jerrys or, bless his lonely adulterous heart, the Mike Yamagitas. Fargo manages to keep its brutality at a little less than an arm’s length through most of the picture, leaning into the dark comedy of Jerry’s delusional and grandiose racket, the sallow rodent visage of Steve Buscemi, the occasional hilarity of the accent or, my favorite, “We’re not a bank, Jerry.” And sometimes that brutality is utterly terrifying. When Carl and Grimsrud actually break into the Lundegaard home and kidnap Jean, who has knocked herself out in a desperate bid to escape the captors she doesn’t realize are not supposed to harm her, her fear is so disheartening and pitiable. The violent crimes in this movie are heart-pounding, because the Coens always clarify a victim. Perhaps Wade, in his brusque (and armed) rejoinder to Carl’s demands, is a foolish figure, but his death is still disgusting to the audience’s conscience. Carl himself is a pathetic figure, a bit criminal who admits that he has no idea how to handle the high-stakes crime he’s gotten wrapped up in and who ends his days bleeding, freezing, suffering, and, well, in several thousand chunks of goo. Yet there is something measured here, something really beautiful in the way Marge consoles her second-place husband about his stamp, a man bald and chonky and good as gold. It’s not a baby. It’s “two more months,” as they tell one another, a promise for the future, for a world that doesn’t exist yet, a world that still has a Jerry Lundegaard but who may yet be outnumbered by Baby Gundersons.

4) Koyaanisqatsi (1982), directed by Godfrey Reggio

How does a film which seems to state the obvious avoid cliché?

The point of Koyaanisqatsi, which it is not exactly shy about making, is that the average human life in America is “out of balance.” It is no longer in touch with the natural world. We obstruct nature by putting up buildings that obscure moonrise and moonset, by placing eerie grids lit in eerie colors on top of reddish earth. All of this sounds suspiciously like the kind of hippy-dippy crap that we punched out of lefties when Reagan was elected; who cares if you can’t hear the hoots of a spotted owl if you’ve got a job for forty hours a week? Koyaanisqatsi, down to the title which appears to be needlessly complicated and the insistence of Philip Glass’s music, seems like it ought to be at least a little bit trite, or at the very least annoying in the way that your average second-semester college freshman is annoying about the benefits of marijuana and Marxism-Leninism. But it’s not. It’s not that way at all. In the past I’ve written about Koyaanisqatsi as surprisingly funny, as prescient and wise. It makes it work through the images, of course, images which can stand chest to chest for majesty and wonder and aching with the images of any other film. The images are curious and inquisitive at times, serendipitous at others. Reggio does not cast our modern lives as something which is fallen and now we can’t recover, let’s start digging our bunkers for the apocalypse, etc. He casts the world we live in as a choice. The film starts with unspoiled landscapes. And then it shows us the landscapes of the late 20th Century. We chose this, Reggio says without words. We chose these grids, these lights, these skyscrapers, these roads, and we chose our nervous and harried faces. We chose this instead of that. We chose rockets and explosions and mushroom clouds over desert shrubs and clear skies and peaceful minds. There is a great literal honesty in Koyaanisqatsi as a documentary, a purity in the meaning of the word that is rare even in the best non-fiction. Reggio is documenting. Koyaanisqatsi is some intersection of service journalism, PSA, and terrible beauty.

3) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick

Where is the warmth in a reputedly cold director’s reputedly coldest film?

There’s certainly a symmetry in Koyaanisqatsi and 2001, one which I’ve never really thought about before but which seems obvious as I write about them in conjunction. Koyaanisqatsi is a deterministic film, one which believes that we have the agency over our planet as a species to improve our lives. Maybe the world we live in, the world that we made for ourselves, is about to fall in on itself; we have it in our power to reform it and make it better and healthier and realer. 2001, which on a literal level is about the key points in human evolution over a period of thousands of years, has a hopefulness to it as well. Just as Eden was sullied by disobedience, so was the Earth sullied by murders committed by humans as they evolved. (Whether you think the first murder was committed against the apes who are about five minutes less evolved than Moonwatcher’s bone-wielding shrewdness or against the little tapirs felled for newly carnivorous appetites says a lot about you.) The next stage of human evolution, signaled by the excavation at Clavius but completed by the entire IBM braintrust embossing “Victor Frankenstein” on their ID badges while they built HAL, was sullied by hubris. Two strikes, and two particularly wild cuts at that. Man plays God in both events, either by believing, as Moonwatcher does, that he may take life at his pleasure, or as people like Dr. Floyd believe, that man is not merely perfect enough to make more perfect beings but supreme enough to reject them as sentient and alive. But Dave Bowman, who ascends through mystical realms and sees himself aging into the Starchild, is hope in a new body, floating in a celestial amniotic sac. The film ends as the Starchild looks at the Earth, returned from his impossible sojourn. It is an unbelievably hopeful ending, one that I cannot reconcile with the frequent characterization of Kubrick as mechanistic or frigid. There’s a messianic angle to the Starchild, and I think there would be even if the film were not so focused on the two previous failures of humankind as it advances in some ways and regresses in others. I think it’s every bit as miraculous to believe that God would send Jesus Christ to Earth in order to redeem humanity from its sin as it is to believe that at this newest stage of human evolution, we have the chance to be as good as we could have ever hoped, and as good as we should have been millennia ago.

2) The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford

Can you be a good man if the man who made you the way you are is evil?

Asking for a nation. I mean, this is really the $64,000 question, isn’t it, because if our Founding Fathers, the formative figures in the foundation of this country’s government, were so impure that we cannot escape it, then there’s no hope for us. Probably John Ford held Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton in higher esteem than the average intellectual (which Ford certainly was) does these days. But Ethan Edwards is a founder of the American character just as much as Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis is, and his pronouncement that women retrieved from lives with Native Americans aren’t white anymore is just as essential to what built this country as that “We hold these truths to be self-evidence” business. In Ethan are several qualities which speak greatness, most of all his perseverance. A normal man, even an exceptional man, would have given Debbie up for dead or lost long, long before he finds her. Yet find her he does, and he returns her to the bosom of a family that, first of all, is more loving than whatever ministrations she received from Scar, and second of all, does not include him. Famously, the birth-door at the start and end of the film excludes him. He stands outside the homestead, not daring to enter; maybe Ethan would be thrown backwards onto his butt by an invisible hand if he tried to cross the threshold. That perseverance is a gift like some people are gifted with great physical attractiveness or a photographic memory or a strong throwing arm. It is also the oasis in a desert man, an oasis which succors a stupefying wickedness. Ethan’s racism is unquestionable, and the vindictiveness of his racism has roots which run with inordinate depth in the sand of his character. It does not start with some understandable, if still evil, quest for vengeance. It starts well before that, probably started many years before he took up arms for a Confederacy which existed solely to perpetuate a system race-based chattel slavery. The perseverance, doggedness, stubbornness, call it what you will, is his greatest strength and his gravest sin. He could not rescue his secret daughter without it, and yet I don’t think there’s any question that Ethan Edwards deserves to be damned, to burn in the same fires that most of us hope will be seven times as tenacious as Ethan for the great evildoers of the world. This question is for Martin Pawley, who is formed beneath Ethan, in opposition to Ethan, in fealty to Ethan. There’s a goodness to him that seems as natural and wondrous as the stones of Monument Valley, but his dependence on Ethan is like depending on a corrupt cog in an essential machine. The film ends before we have to know what will become of Martin and Laurie and their children. What that implies, and surely both Ford and the film mean to bring about this implication, is that the resistance of that corruption must be effected within the American viewers as well. If not, Ethans will overshadow Martins rather than being used and then cast into the fire.

1) Nashville (1975), directed by Robert Altman

Why are the ligaments in Nashville stronger than the ligaments of any other American movie?

They sort of have to be, don’t they? If they weren’t this movie would disintegrate at those ligaments, and Robert Altman’s triumph would be more like one of those Richard Curtis boondoggles. I’ve written about the Parthenon sequence at the end of this film about as much as I’ve written about any other scene, even more than the resurrection in Ordet or the hand on the shoulder in Brief Encounter. What I don’t know that I’ve ever done a good job at expressing is how incredibly natural it seems that everyone from this raucous, almost migraine-inducing opening credits could be there all at once. The camera pans across the stage and we see most of the musical and political figures of the film standing there, like figures having their portraits painted; the camera finds the normies moving closer to the stage. It has never occurred to me that any of them shouldn’t be there at that moment, and that’s the proof that the film has ACLs of flexible steel. Montage, praise Eisenstein, does a certain amount of work; think of that sequence on the Sunday where we see and hear several leads at church in musical performances and in worship. Jeff Goldblum and a few others do work primarily as transport and physical statements of transition. So many of the film’s best scenes, such as the “I’m Easy” performance or Barbara Jean’s collapse on the tarmac, invite connection between the characters through proximity. When people talk about Robert Altman’s advances in cinema, so often they bring up his approach to sound mixing, placing tracks on tracks, hearing multiple conversations at once like we’re in crowded elevator, craning our ears to get as many words as possible. It’s thrilling, but what’s understated in that description of Altman’s work is the power of physical proximity. We don’t get those speakings and clinkings and shufflings on top of each other without the people being near one another, and that’s what Altman understands better than, well, Richard Curtis. It’s not just that the people are interconnected because of chance happenings or because some people happen to know other people. What makes Nashville feel so right at the Parthenon is our belief that we do brush up against one another. The film doesn’t find it strange at all that if you trace people’s footsteps backwards long enough, you’ll find them colliding, or just missing one another, or colliding into one person and thus missing another. Nashville posits that we’re all like molecules in a sealed vessel with the pressure increased, moving faster and faster and bound to create heat through our chance crashes against one another.

2 thoughts on “Top 250 American Movies: 1-10

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