The American Film Institute (AFI) did a TV special last night on the best 100 films of all-time, as chosen by 1,500 critics, filmmakers, and historians. Roger Ebert has the complete list.
Here’s my thrown together list of the fifteen best films:
1. The Maltese Falcon, (1941) with Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor. Directed by John Huston. There are no special effects, no big cinematic shots, but there is the black bird, great black and white cinematography, four classic performances, and a superb detective story.
2. Miller’s Crossing, (1990) with Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro (a New Paltz alum), Marsha Gay Harden, and John Polito. Directed by Joel Coen. This, not Fargo, is the Coen brothers’ best film. I can’t keep my eyes off it, and get sucked into it every time it’s shown on TV. It is a beautiful piece to look at, with an enigmatic presence and a story put together with masterful artistic grace. A career performance by Byrne.
3. The Godfather, (1972) with Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and James Caan. Directed by Francis Coppola. Brando animates the entire thing; its greatness rests completely on his shoulders and emanates to the story, the other performances, and the direction. This is one of three or four Brando films that allowed his talent — his great, great talent — to reach a fullness of expression such that it breathed life not just into the whole of the film, but into an era of filmmaking itself. Look at what it did for his three co-stars and the director, for instance.
4. Dr. Strangelove, (1964) with Peter Sellers (times three), George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. The only film to take full advantage of the genius of Sellers, who easily could have been nominated for an Academy Award for each of his three performances (he got one nomination). The ultimate black comedy about the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear destruction.
5. Breakdown, (1997) with Kurt Russell, Kathleen Quinlan, and J.T. Walsh. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. This is surely not on anyone else’s list, but I think it’s an extraordinary film. It’s a simple story, with a simple theme: some human beings are evil sociopaths who have no mercy, at all. That’s something we already know, but this movie contextualizes it along the American highway in a way that brings the essential danger lurking in everyday events right into your solar plexus, and it is more frightening as a straight-up drama than any horror movie ever made, except one.
6. The Exorcist, (1973) with Jason Miller, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Lee J. Cobb, and Linda Blair. Directed by William Friedkin. Nothing comes close to it from the horror genre, which might be explained by the fact that it goes right to the source of horror. That makes it more than a genre film and more than a horror film. The dramatic opening sequence in Iraq, where we see Father Merrin at work as an archeologist, sets the mood perfectly.
7. North by Northwest, (1959) with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason (playing a member of the Vandam family). Directed by Hitchcock. The way this film retains such great magnetism is, I think, a tribute to how Hitchcock uses Grant. Grant’s character is a distracted “modern man,” an advertising executive too busy to be considerate of others (in an early scene in Manhattan he steals a cab from another waiting passenger by pretending that his secretary is ill). But just below his distracted inconsiderate surface, Grant is valorous, romantic, and unintimidated. He remains ridiculously cool throughout the ordeal of being misidentified as the mysterious Kaplan, while James Mason sets him up as a murder suspect and also repeatedly trys to kill him. I think that this is both Hitchcock’s and Grant’s best film, because at the core of the talent of each was enigma, and here they are both at their most enigmatic. That combination leaves North by Northwest just ever so subtly beyond the reach of interpretation, out there on the nervous edge of what could be described as peculiarly uneasy entertainment.
8. The Best Years of Our Lives, (1948) with Dana Andrews, Fredric March, and Myrna Loy. Directed by William Wyler. One of the most affecting movies made about the distinctive American spirit as it comes back from the shattering of World War II. I think Andrews in particular moved in a territory of human emotion not easily represented in art, but which many Americans traversed after the horror and dread of that war.
9. On the Waterfront, (1953) with Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, and Karl Malden. Directed by Elia Kazan. I had never really watched this until the last few years. I have no idea why I avoided it. It’s another one where Brando animates the whole thing. Otherwise it would have been just dreary working-class realism. Brando turns it into Shakespearean tragedy.
10. Great Expectations, (1946) with John Mills, Alec Guinness, Anthony Wager, Valerie Hobson, Jean Simmons, Finlay Currie, and Martita Hunt. Directed by David Lean. Great Dickens. Great story. Great Lean.
11. Casablanca, (1942) with Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Paul Henreid. Directed by Michael Curtiz. A great film despite the awful flashback sequence to the Bogart-Bergman romance in Paris. This is a story about a gritty American waiting out the ensuing world catastrophe in North Africa and intending to look out for no one but himself, and then finding the Nazis in his face yet again. He gives up the love of his life, Bergman, for the cause. Bogart gives an iconic performance, and Rains, who is among the greatest character actors of all-time, is perfect.
12. It’s a Wonderful Life, (1947) with Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Travers. Directed by Frank Capra. Often missed amidst the supposed sentimentality (I think it’s not a very sentimental film at all) is Stewart’s insanity as an actor (as opposed to an actor playing insane), as when he rips into Uncle Billy or Mr. Potter, respectively. There’s a lot more to the story than Clarence the also-ran angel and Stewart’s redemption from his contemplated suicide. Mr. Potter does in fact represent a real type — a destructive prick who resents the cultural integrity of small towns like Bedford Falls. (Though he as easily could have been a bureaucrat as the local moneybags.)
13. Citizen Kane, (1941) with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. Directed by Orson Welles. Captures the big, blaring world of an out-of-control rich wunderkind and his ambition to build an empire, which could be as much the biography of Welles as it was assumed to be of William Randolph Hearst. It’s a great, innovative movie, with one striking modernist camera shot after another. It was as if the vorticist Wyndham Lewis made a film about newspapers and fantastic money written by Ezra Pound and photographed by T.S. Eliot and they were all having affairs with Ayn Rand at the same time. Now, go and watch it again and see if I’m not right.
14. The Producers, (1968) with Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, and Dick Shawn. Directed by Mel Brooks. It’s hilarious. Mostel is hilarious. Wilder is hilarious. Shawn is hilarious. The comedic premise is hilarious. It is impossible for a movie to be this funny. It’s so funny that it makes Brooks’ other great comedy Young Frankenstein look like a disease-of-the-week TV film.
15. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, (1956) with Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan, and Carolyn Jones. Directed by Don Siegel. Best of the estimable 1950s Sci-Fi/Horror lot. The premise of your friends and neighbors being replaced overnight by alien “blanks” hatched from pods bears a striking resemblance to what happened to America in the 1960s, or whenever someone sends their kids away to college.