Thursday, May 26, 2005


Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss look into their hearts

Movie lists are irresistible for those who love to read them and use them for anything from ideas for Netflix rentals to a jumping-off place from which to begin making connections and thinking about movies in ways both personal and universal. But they’re also irresistible to film critics and others who write about movies because, whether it’s a top ten list of movies of the year, or a list like Time magazine’s oddly titled “All-Time 100 Movies,” they’re an easy-to-read shorthand format for displaying, and dissecting, a critic’s predilections, prejudices and a general sense of the writer’s aesthetic and historical perspective. Lists like the American Film Institute’s attempt a few years ago to provide some sort of definitive statement—the 100 best American films, period—are usually doomed to fail. Such attempts to sum up the vastness and fluidity of 100 years or so of film history, even one “narrowed down” to exclude films not made in this country (and there have been a few of those that have popped up in the past 100 years), is akin to attempting to swallow the sea. And those annual critics’ top ten lists, that ritualistic gathering and ranking of the cream of 200 or so films released each year, can’t presume any sort of meaningful comprehensiveness. Even critics who get paid to see everything often can’t, so the list has less meaning for its arbitrary rankings than the occasion it offers the reader to be reminded of important films he/she may have missed, and for the critic to reconsider the year as a whole, talk about recent trends, revisit films that may look different after the passage of a few months, and even ponder the function, and future, of American film criticism.

Time’s “All-Time 100 Movies” list is, thankfully, a much more idiosyncratic enterprise, and one that doesn’t have much pretense toward an all-encompassing point of view—it is, after all, the product of two film critics, Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss, and therefore bound to have a bit of a split personality. A quick listen to the interview on the Time Web site reveals that the two critics’ methodology for coming up with contenders was little more than shuffling through their own memories, and the final list retains that informal, casually tossed off feel. Such a scrappy, incomplete endeavor is likely to come up short on scholarly value, which is fine because scholarship is hardly its intention. Its main marshaling impulse is the desire to get readers, most of whom may only be casual movie fans to begin with, talking and thinking and free-associating, about omissions, of course, but also about the films that were included.

Naturally, familiar titles like The Apu Trilogy (1955-56-59), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Casablanca (1942), Citizen Kane (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The 400 Blows (1959), The Godfather (part 1, 1972, and part 2, 1974), The Searchers (1956), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Tokyo Story (1953) are represented.

But I don’t think I can ever remember a list of 100 best/all-time/whatever movies that was limber enough to save a space for argument-starters like Barry Lyndon (1975), Chungking Express (1994), City of God (2002), Leolo (1992), Mouchette (1967), Olympia (Parts 1 and 2, 1938), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Talk to Her (2002). Every one of those titles seems geared to start demanding rants on the order of, “How they could put Barry Lyndon/The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)/Sherlock, Jr./Smiles of a Summer Night/The Purple Rose of Cairo on that list and not 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)/The Rules of the Game (1939)/The General (1927)/The Seventh Seal (1957)/Bananas (1971)?” That free association that Schickel refers to as part of his process of coming up with titles is exactly where the juice from a list like this comes from. While you’re arguing, in your head or with others, about this one’s inclusion at that one’s expense, you’re likely to start finding your way toward other titles by the same director that may feature stars who make you think about other movies that are nowhere near the list from whence you started.

And the admitted scattershot representation of films across various stretches of time and geography helps to deflate a reader’s indignation when a personal favorite is omitted. For example, any list I tried to compile myself would almost certainly feature Nashville (1975), M (1931), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Project A Part 2 (1985), Jaws (1975), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Rio Bravo (1959), Horse Feathers (1932), Dirty Harry (1972), Blow Out (1981), The Big Heat (1953) and The Long Riders (1980), and would have no place for Chungking Express, E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982), Farewell, My Concubine (1993), GoodFellas (1990), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Purple Rose of Cairo, Raging Bull (1980), Schindler’s List (1993) or Star Wars (1977).

But given those variances, it would be impossibly churlish to complain too seriously about a list of All-Time 100 Movies that actually includes City Lights (1931), Detour (1945), Drunken Master II (1994), The Fly (1986), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), In A Lonely Place (1950), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lady Eve (1941) and His Girl Friday (1940), The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Miller’s Crossing (!!! 1990), Out of the Past (1947), Ugetsu (1953) and A Touch of Zen (1971). And this list in particular provides a great place for those with scant familiarity with the towering cinema of India to start catching up— Satyajit Ray’s classic Apu Trilogy leads to two films with which I’m unfamiliar-- Pyassa (1957), another from India’s golden age of movies, and Nayakan (1987), from the more recent Bollywood explosion. Any time a list like this can provide a lifelong film buff with new and explored places to go, it has to do nothing else to justify its existence and earn my gratitude.

Time’s site is fun to navigate too. Though you have to be a subscriber to the print edition in order to access the reviews of each film as they appeared in the magazine upon their release, nonsubscribers can still click on each title to get a capsule review or comment written this year, which in some ways might be the more valuable piece of writing, given how much has already been said about some of these works. There are also links to a list of Richard Schickel’s Guilty Pleasures, the same critic on Great Movie Performances, Richard Corliss on Great Short Films, both writers checking in on The Best Movies Scores of All Time and those interviews with Schickel and Corliss regarding how they put the list together. Any way you click it, the new Time list trumps more recent list-making enterprises by well-meaning institutions like the American Film Institute through its sheer unpretentious zeal and love for the movies, whenever and from wherever they may have come.

(Other lists more serious cinephiles might want to take a look at are the Sight and Sound International Critics Poll and another one recently unleasehed by the British Film Institute, The BFI 100, a selection of favorite British films of the 20th century. And has a tasty list of its own: The All-Time Top 100 Voices in the Movies.)

One for the Comments column
Take a look at the Time 100 again and let us all know:

1) What ONE movie on the Time 100 would you get rid of, and why?
2) What ONE movie would you insert in its place, and why?

And, of course, and as always, as much ranting and raving to go along with those choices as you please. This is why Schickel and Corliss put the list together, after all. Let’s hear it.

Richard Corliss talks extensively about the All-Time 100 and the movies that he and Schickel left off the list.


Loxjet said...

Okay, Dennis. Nix "Hard Day's Night," which, as a time capsule of stylized mid-'60s cinematography and the Beatlemania epidemic, is an important film, but as a movie-- uh, Grandfather talks Ringo into blowing off a gig. I recently received this movie from Netflix, and as a movie it's pretty damn sad. Of course its merits lie in its stylistic, musical and historical values.

Which is why I'd replace it with "The Killing Fields," which is quite a different film altogether but which is also an incredibly important piece of history, as it lays bare the lies told to the American people by three successive presidents.

"The Killing Fields" was gorgeously shot, tremendously acted and directed and, frankly, pretty damn chilling. It is to "Hard Day's Night" as Charlie Rose is to Britney Spears.

Sorry, Ringo.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

A Hard Day's Night, eh? Well, I completely understand your reasoning, and as entertaining and as groundbreaking as that movie was, I too could probably think of several other movies I'd put on my own list before considering that one.

But as far as deleting a movie from Time's list, my first instinct was to root out Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, which I thought was one of the most overrated movies of the '90s, a mere slip of a thing inflated to some sort of artistic gravitas by the ineffable new-wave cool of its director's style.

I considered Star Wars for a while, but I think enough has been said about that whole phenomenon, especially in the last few weeks, to make that particular fish not worth the effort of baiting a hook. It pretends to be nothing more than it is (unlike its bloated prequels, one and all), and for its lack of delusions of grandeur alone I decided to let it stand.

Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas is almost always mentioned as a great film, and while agree that it's perhaps 1/2 or 2/3 a great film, it suffers from having a cipher (Ray Liotta's Henry Hill) at its center, and when the movie becomes about his decline into cocaine-fueled paranoia, GoodFellas itself devolves into a rattled, shrill and uninteresting shell of its former self.

But for me, the movie that least deserves its reputation as an all-time classic, on the Time list anyway, has to be Scorsese's Raging Bull. It's interesting as an intellectual problem-- can a movie about a man who sees himself as a brutal animal itself find the essence of that brutality and transcribe it to the screen in a meaningful way? As one who was quite taken with the movie in 1980 and rapidly became less and less enthralled in the passing years, the movie's dissection of La Motta's misanthropy hasn't enough distance to become enlightening-- it's so busy immersing you in La Motta's stunted worldview-- his jealousies, his grunting, jabbing, violent impulses-- that it becomes monotonous, something I don't think it would have been had Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader not been so interested in identifying with the boxer's brutality and singlemindedness. (Schrader may have overidentified, too, with Travis Bickle, but the jolt of talent Scorsese brought to Taxi Driver lifted it out of its antihero's morose, navel-gazing psychosis to present a portrait of a city, and a man adrift in a city, and what happens when that man "just cannot take it anymore." Raging Bull has spectacular fight sequences, but Scorsese shows remarkably little interest in La Motta as a character, except in how the man's brute force became a signal cry from his soul. Instead, he buys whole-hog into the man's wounded vision of himself. Only LaMotta's brother Tommy, played by Joe Pesci, sparks the film with an appreciable energy, but the concept of his character too is limited by the director and writer's obsessive fascination with the grunting inarticulate power of these men, who, more than any others in the Scorsese filmography, come to resemble the kind of stereotypical slobbering, dead-eyed brutes that would get the Italian Anti-Defamation League in a lather.

I'm tempted to say I'd replace Raging Bull with My Cousin Vinny, but I won't, even though I'd rather see that comedy in a minute over Raging Bull. And I'd probably say Nashville 719 out of 720 minutes in a typical day. But this is the 720th minute, so I'll stand up for Blow Out, one of the many stylistic and emotional peaks in the career of satirist, provocateur and master filmmaker Brian DePalma. As Pauline Kael said when the movie came out, Blow Out seems like a kind of artistic summing up of his career up to that point. A sound man, frantically piecing together the circumstances of a political murder through his own sound recordings made at the scene, finds that his own overreaching paranoia may not be sufficient to encompass the magnitude of the situation in which he finds himself-- it was a story for which De Palma could expand the technique he'd mastered in Carrie and Dressed to Kill and enrich it with emotional gravitas as well as potent characters and political satire dark enough to make The Parallax View look positively rosy and flush with the promise of the future. That he would still have masterpieces like Casualties of War and Femme Fatale in him in the two decades following Blow Out is amazing in itself. But De Palma proves in Blow Out that the carping about his cribbing influences from Hitchcock (or, in this case, Antonioni) isn't an indicator of his creative bankruptcy as much as the refusal of his detractors to see past the obvious influences and recognize how the synthesis of those elements (a method not exactly unique to DePalma in film history, or to any artist in any medium) is joined with the sensibility that is uniquely his. Whether you believe that sensibility includes rampant misogyny and sadism is another question (I would disagree with both charges), but Blow Out remains, I think, important as the first major statement by a master filmmaker.

Now to the important question: what have you got against The Spongebob Squarepants Movie?

Anonymous said...

I've always had trouble with these lists. I was driven mad back in the '80s & '90s by my subscription to Rolling Stone magazine, with their unending series of "100 Greatest Albums of All Time," "Greatest Singles of All Time," etc., etc., and I finally convinced them to let me cancel the subscription (they kept begging me to extend it, and how could I refuse their offer of minus 3 cents per issue, or whatever it came to). And as Woody Allen said about awards in "Annie Hall" (paraphrasing): "All they do is give awards in this town...Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolph Hitler". Anyway, for Time magazine's list, I agree about "A Hard Day's Night" (we bought the Criterion DVD, and couldn't sit through it anymore, sadly), "Goodfellas"(Dennis, you gave the best description I've seen of how it falls apart as it drags on), and "Raging Bull." I thought it was great when I first saw it, too, but it just doesn't hold up for me on repeated viewings. As for my own choice to take off the list, I'm afraid I'd grab my usual whipping boy, "Pulp Fiction," and replace it with "Days of Heaven." Ha! Take that, mean-spirited, ironic world! (I almost chose "The Fly" (1986) to remove, but then I thought maybe I owed it another look, since it is now, incredibly, almost 20 years old and my tastes have changed).
Oh, and I want to see "The Killing Fields" at last, thanks to Loxjet.
The Old Grumbletonian

Thom McGregor said...

I don't know what's wrong with you grouches. "A Hard Day's Night" is a great film, slight in its subject matter, but perfectly carried out and wittily written and directed. In my mind, it towers over "The Killing Field," despite its very important subject matter, and other serious movies like "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull." The plot of "A Hard Day's Night" might be extremely thin, but what I get when I see this movie is a feeling I can only describe as transcendent silly happiness, sort of like watching Monty Python's fish-slapping dance. It's beyond explanation. Something that perfect and lovely, to me, is an absolute thing of beauty. Even if I don't learn a thing from it. And what movie would I replace with another? Um, I'd just switch Drunken Master 2 with Project A Part 2. Do you think anyone would notice? (Except Dennis!)

Anonymous said...

Thom McGregor, after reading your comments, and just having been thinking what a grouch I am lately, and agreeing heartily that a fun time often bests an "important" film like "Goodfellas," I'm inspired to give "A Hard Day's Night" another chance. Thanks for a heartfelt and well-stated defense. (More concise than mine tend to be nowadays, too).

Loxjet said...

Admit it, Patty: You've always had a little "thing" for Ringo, especially his mid-sixties incarnation, all nose and limpid eyes and crashing cymbals...

Nobody blames you either, P, so you can be honest with your feelings. I mean, it's not like you have a crush on somebody totally lame like David Lee Roth.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Okay, Loxjet, time for some true confessions. I'd put The Spongebob Squarepants Movie on my all-time 100 list, and certainly A Hard Day's Night, before The Killing Fields. True, the film is an account of a very important chapter in history, but if that were the only criterion for making a great, or even a good movie, then we'd all be sitting around in 2005 talking about Gandhi or either version of The Alamo (1960, 2004) as enduring classics. And while The Killing Fields is gorgeously shot, I think it actually pays a little too much attention to the lushly picturesque and ends up falling into the trap that so many other American and European movies about "exotic cultures" do-- the balance of the story shifts, none too subtly, from the harrowing journey of translator Dith Pran and his escape from Cambodia to a heavy-handed apologia for the actions of (white) journalist Sidney Schanberg and his overwhelming guilt at having left his friend behind to be swallowed up by the Khmer Rouge. The movie is based on Schanberg's memoirs, so of course its told largely from his point of view, and that's exactly why it got made, and on such a scale. But whereas in real life it's no secret that, by the accounts of those who knew and worked for him, that Schanberg was "difficult" and a bit of an egotist, the movie shows his arrogance but also constantly apologizes for it-- he's an arrogant bastard, but, damn it, he's also right-- or contextualizes it so as to soften the harsh blows of his behavior. By the end, when director Roland Joffe is encouraging us to anguish alongside Schanberg over Dith Pran's fate, the movie starts to resemble a historical drama redone as a therapy session, a big-budget pat on the back to make Sidney Schanberg feel better. Of course, we get the big moment when the two are reunited, and at that point the movie has irrevocably become mostly about Schanberg's reaction to that reunion and, of course, Dith Pran's desire to return to the comfort of his white friend/benefactor/master's arms. The Killing Fields is not without its emotionally effective moments, but they are generally of the bash-you-over-the-head variety favored by director Roland Joffe (the ones that are not are almost exclusively provided by Dr. Haing S. Ngor's extraordinarily direct and vivid portrayal of Dith Pran). The movie equates having endured its horrors with having had your sensibilities raised about those horrors, even when it presents them in the most shamelessly manipulative ways. I haven't seen The Killing Fields since it came out 20 years ago-- this reaction is the one that I had when I first saw it. I've never sought it out again, and I wouldn't avoid it if I had the chance to see it one more time. But, as grueling an experience as it is, I'd much rather revisit Brian de Palma's Casualties of War, an almost unbearably painful movie about the horrors of war that stays true to its sense of outrage without dressing up cardboard sentimentality in docudrama "realism."

Dennis Cozzalio said...

But what about The Big Lebowski, Loxjet? Now, there's one we can agree on!

Loxjet said...

Dennis, you're right about "The Killing Fields," of course. I had recently seen it and it stuck with me... but it invetitably gets caught in the same trap that kept me from recommending "Hotel Rwanda"-- that sort of self-important pathos. I'm kind of a sucker for that stuff... being all bleeding-heart and all. But you're right; it was awful damn hamhanded, especially the New York City stuff.

I withdraw my recommendation.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Loxjet: I apologize for my rant. I know how you feel-- I, too, am a sucker for films that play on my emotions and my sense of wounded justice, though sometimes the experience can just be too wrenching (I haven't seen Casualties of War in a long time for that very reason). I just didn't feel like The Killing Fields served its true story very well. I still haven't seen Hotel Rwanda, but I was hoping it would sidestep some of the problems you typically see in a movie like this. Since I like Don Cheadle a lot, I suppose I'll probably still see it. Apparently there's a very good documentary out right now called Shake Hands with the Devil which documents the real-life military officer, played by Nick Nolte in the movie, whose world is still haunted by the killing he couldn't help prevent in Rwanda, and how he's involved with the citizens of the country now. Might be an interesting one to see as a companion piece to Hotel Rwanda. By the way, I never made it to "The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking." I gave up on Roger Waters with "The Final Cut," though I still have a real soft spot for "Animals," "Wish You Were Here" and, despite my better instincts, "The Wall." But not the movie...!

Anonymous said...

I thought "Hotel Rwanda" was very powerful, a solid piece of work. Memorable characters and fine, detailed performances, especially by Don Cheadle. And his accent seems authentic, unlike the one he did in the "Oceans" movies--sheesh!