Welcome to the penultimate installment of my top 101 favorite films of all time. Here, you’ll see: not shiny vampires, heists and cons, extreme Asians, adult fairy tales, war, black and white and color, the magic of film, the magic of romance, nostalgia, voyeurism, games, subverted tropes, a game of Chess, sleepy theater projectionists, all fun and no play, and the film that did what Breathless could not.
61. Nosferatu (1927) | Directed by F.W. Murnau
Murnau’s notorious illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a stylish, creepy film that practically invented the horror film as we know it. Twilight can go suck it, for it’s Max Schrek’s Count Orlock that’s the original cinematic vampire. With gorgeous cinematography, despite it being very expressionistic, what Murnau did differently was he filmed on location much of the time. There’s still a warped sense of humor and horror behind each wall, and the shadows play tricks on the mind, as every haunted house should. Murnau’s horror film is unrivaled for its originality and technical experimentation.
62. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) | Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh created his own Rat Pack with a remake of the ‘60s heist film. Gathering some of the biggest stars of the time, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and George Clooney, Soderbergh creates a very memorable and stylish heist movie that would change Hollywood heist movies forever. Soderbergh’s strength is that he is able to balance a labyrinthine plot with marvelous technical mastery. The director utilizes auteuristic techniques for what many would consider a fairly mainstream effort. Its inventive cinematography, the colorful palette reminiscent of Sin City, and the huge cast are all high points of the film. Regardless of how derivative a film may look just by a trailer or synopsis, when you have Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, all bets are off.
63. Oldboy (2004) | Directed by Park Chan-wook
The Korean crime noir sky rocketed the Asian Extreme movement to fame in the United States. Oldboy is, for one reason or another, absolutely infamous as a super violent, super gratuitous, and superbly written horror movie. Only one of those things is correct. Winner of the Grand Prix Jury Award at Cannes, the film, like I said, has its origins in film noir, with its first person narration and the fragmented memories. Is the film violent? Sure, but it is hardly as shocking as people make it out to be. Is it a horror film? Not at all. Violence does not a horror movie make. Park Chan-wook is actually quite skilled at leaving most of the violence to suggestion. Quick cuts and great editing aid the effect, actually making the scenes more visceral than graphic violence could have ever done it. The film is grittier and darker than the other films of Chan-wook’s thematic Vengeance Trilogy, but it remains incredibly effective nonetheless. Oldboy is one of the most incredible experiences to ever see, and you won’t see the ending coming.
64. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Del Toro’s adult fairy tale is a dream and a nightmare all at once. Using traditional elements from mythology and children’s fairy tales, Guillermo Del Toro fashions a political and moral allegory that only become more interesting with each subsequent viewing. There are a lot of things to love about this film, from its acting, its cinematography, etc., but what I like most about it is the visual realization of a completely different world. Though it takes place around the time of the Spanish Civil War, the world that Del Toro creates is a unique vision that incorporates many familiar elements. The visual symbolism adds depth to the film (such as the ever frequent Rule of Three). The end is heartbreaking and startlingly real. In this film, Del Toro proves that he is a well read, and skillful director, capable of creating his own world in film.
65. Paper Moon (1973) | Directed by Peter Bogdonavich
Bogdonavich is better known for his realistic portrayal of lost teens in the midst of the Korean War in The Last Picture Show, but his Depression-era tale of a con artist and the partner in crime who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter is the most fun. Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum, make the perfect team, and it is almost frightening to see such a young girl who can keep her father on her toes, both within in the film as a con artist and in terms of the acting. The gorgeous black and white photography and the jovial soundtrack are juxtaposed against the dark setting of the film. But worry not, this film is funny. With a hilarious turn from Madeline Khan, Paper Moon is a funny and sweet look at a slightly dysfunctional family.
66. Paths of Glory (1957) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
What I would surmise as the greatest anti-war film ever made, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory would set up a recurring theme that would be featured throughout his career, including Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. Portraying war as a machine that breaks down and destroys men, Paths of Glory is the story of a group of men in the French military in WWI who are sent on a suicide mission, but when they refuse and return unsuccessful and alive, they are accused of cowardice. Part film about war, part court drama, and all riveting emotional commentary on war, Kirk Douglas gives a brilliant performance and Kubrick eloquently and masterfully directs the most powerful message against war ever made.
67. Pleasantville (1998) | Directed by Gary Ross
TV in the 1950’s was quaint and retained a façade of family values. It was clean family fun. When the world is disrupted with reality in the form of art that challenges the norm for creativity, sex that challenges social values, and ideological changes, the transition is not smooth. But Pleasantville, with its brilliant use of color and black and white, presents a very real problem in the world today: acceptance of change. The people of the TV show within the film, a hybrid of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, amongst others, are xenophobic and closed minded and incredibly use to routine (and terrible jokes). That changes when two teenagers from the real world are sucked into the TV and trapped. It starts off as a very quaint, funny film, but moves into being a serious commentary on society’s perceptions of others. Incredibly clever and visually astonishing, Pleasantville finds new relevance with each viewing.
68. The Prestige (2006) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
The man behind Memento and The Dark Knight Trilogy returned to his psychedelic roots after Batman Begins with this mind bogglingly perfect metaphor about the beauty and pain of filmmaking. Nolan takes sleight of hand seriously, and throughout the film, literally, as two magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) go at it by trying to one up each other in their respective acts. Not only that, they also, you know, like ruining one another’s lives. But it’s all a magic trick. Through the three phases of the magic trick, the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige, Nolan creates an incredible illusion for the audience. The bottom line of The Prestige: everything about film is magic.
69. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) | Directed by Woody Allen
What could be lovelier than the story of a woman who is in love with the movies falling for a man who jumps right off the screen to court her? The answer is nothing. Although director Woody Allen intended the film to be a lot more “esoteric” than it turned out, highlighting how disappointing reality can be and how much more appealing fantasy is, The Purple Rose of Cairo is quite frothy and intelligent at the same time. One of the few films of Allen’s to explore fantasy (the other being Midnight in Paris), Jeff Daniels does a superb job playing the handsome and naïve screen character, an archeologist, and the rising star who plays the archeologist. Mia Farrow takes on the role of the neurotic, and does so splendidly. Full of wit and romance, it’s the best thing a film lover, and one who frequently falls in love with fictional characters, could ever imagine.
70. Radio Days (1987) | Directed by Woody Allen
Often compared to Fellini’s Amarcord, Woody Allen’s slice of nostalgia is one of his best films. Narrated by Allen and illustrating a wonderfully romanticized past through various episodes and vignettes, Radio Days is a beautifully fun portrait of the past. Allen would explore the power of nostalgia later again in Midnight in Paris, but it seems more light hearted here. Yes, that’s a very young Seth Green portraying a young Allen. Radio Days is fun and captures the world of a romantic remembering the best times of his childhood perfectly.
71. Rango (2011) | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard that, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
72. Rear Window (1954) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock, I like to think, not only enjoyed scaring audiences and leaving their stomach in knots from tension, but also enjoyed challenging the audience as much as any auteur likes to. In Rear Window, he makes the audience complicit in voyeurism. James Stewart is the photographer stuck up in his apartment in a wheel chair with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors that live across from him. When he suspects one of them for murder, well, you know what happens next. It’s typically suspenseful for a Hitchcock film, but it really engages the mind in ethical decisions. To what extent are we just as guilty as Stewart in the voyeurism? (This technique would also find relevance in Michael Haneke’s Caché.) And were he/we not watching, would this man have gotten away with murder? It’s those kinds of questions that make Rear Window such a compelling thriller.
73. The Red Balloon (1965) | Directed by Albert Lamorisse
Lamorisse’s short film is a glorious, lighter than air ode to childhood. In a small world where balloons have a life of their own, the pure joy and gaiety of the film make it one of the most delightful gifts film has to offer. The photography is sweet and captures the saccharine mood perfectly. Perfectly tender and heartfelt, The Red Balloon is a pleasure.
74. Saw (2004) | Directed by James Wan
While it may have ushered a new wave of horror movies under the sub-genre “torture porn”, James Wan’s debut feature Saw is actually a smartly written and taut psychological thriller. The film lingers more on the ethical decisions than the final results of the “games”, and is reliant on a fairly clever nonlinear narrative. The twists and turns in the story are convincing in this film, and, though it gave birth to many a sequel offspring, its ending isn’t so ambiguous that it called for any of the sequels. Although the acting is stale and overwrought (I blame Cary Elwes), it is sustainable primarily on its script. Saw is actually a very chilling film.
75. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) | Directed by Edgar Wright
While I was never much into video games or comic books, even one mildly acquainted with the style of 8-bit games and panel to panel comics should love Scott Pilgrim. The film’s visual inventiveness is one of the best things about it, recreating the same tone and sound effects one would find in a classic arcade game. Therefore, arcade and comic in jokes abound. The film also delivers script wise, featuring a wildly clever screenplay with fast paced dialogue, as well as a very fun soundtrack. While Michael Cera may feel comfortable, at times too comfortable, in his awkward archetype, here it suits him well without being insufferable. There’s a certain amount of deluded confidence in his character which makes his role funnier. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the love interest Ramona, and she gives her character some nice depth and a sense of vulnerability. Scott Pilgrim is a fun and wild ride, a game you’ll want to play again, long after your coins have run out.
76. Scream (1996) | Directed by Wes Craven
Horror started getting postmodern and incredibly aware of itself when Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson brought Scream to the screen. While at once parodying and revitalizing the once dead and dying slasher genre, Williamson’s sharp screenplay and Craven’s tight directing brought horror to the forefront once again. Playing on the tropes that were so very well known, Craven and his gang set up the rules to a successful franchise, and made his film a call for smarter horror films. The allusions and humor run rampant throughout the film. And it forever immortalized the single best question to ask around Halloween: “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
77. The Seventh Seal (1957) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
If you’ve heard me complain about Godard’s sledgehammer approach to philosophy, the filmmaker I immediately run to escape that is Ingmar Bergman. Capable of moving an audience and conveying his deep personal thoughts on life and death without bashing you in the face with a shovel, the perfect example of his technique is The Seventh Seal. Fantastically atmospheric, with moments of witty humor, Bergman’s bleak film about the meaning of life and death is both entertaining and without a doubt one of the most philosophically deep films ever made. It gives a whole new meaning to “Do you want to play a Game?”
78. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Directed by Buster Keaton
Bringing together a love of film and magic, Sherlock Jr. is probably Keaton’s most entertaining film, and undoubtedly his funniest. Some of his most enjoyable stunts are in this film, but the most magical sequence in silent cinema is in Sherlock Jr. After falling asleep at the projector, Keaton finds himself jumping into the screen and his environment changes from one place, to another, his body forcing itself to adapt. It’s one of the cleverest scenes ever made, especially within the silent era. And Sherlock Jr. is one of the most delightful films from the era as well.
79. The Shining (1980) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The Shining is a crazy amalgam of horror, suspense, chills, psychoanalysis, metaphor, and truly disturbing images. While there is much to analyze about the film, on a purely visceral level, it’s one of the scariest films ever made. Nicholson is perfect as the mad patriarch Jack Torrence, while Shelley Duvall is sadly underrated in a brilliant performance as his long suffering wife. The brutal shoot took a toll on the actors, which make their performances all the stronger. Kubrick’s stylish and skillful direction is all over the film, for, what is it more than Kubrick doing horror? It’s almost unbelievable the mileage Kubrick gets from this film, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats at all times. There’s never a dull moment in The Shining.
80. Shoot the Piano Player (1960) | Directed by François Truffaut
Sure, Godard can play the tribute game too, and while everyone likes to attribute Breathless as the film that shaped the New Wave, it’s Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player that did it too, and did it enjoyably. The comedy is deadpan, the action ripped from Hollywood noirs, and the romance believable and naturalistic. It’s so convincing in its adoration for Hollywood movies that it, at times, feels like a Hollywood gangster film simply made by a Frenchman. Truffaut’s film is a loving tribute to the films that inspired him.
There are few things I like less than a gimmick. Hence my vehement (former) hatred of 3D, as it was simply used to rake in cash while it was masked as a more immersive experience. Masquerading as something more than it is may be the worst part, for when you take away the veil, the only thing you have left is a lousy and sloppily written story. That’s what gimmicks do; that’s their purpose. The same goes for the short lived reemergence of scratch and sniff cards at the movies (they gave me one all the way back during Rugrats Go Wild), which obviously did not last long. But what happens when a gimmick disguised as a “loving tribute to a bygone era” sweeps audiences and critics off their feet, gallivants on the red carpet at international awards shows, and takes home the Academy Award for Best Picture? Ladies and gentlemen, you have Michel Hazanavicius’ smug load of fluff The Artist!
I consider myself a mild enthusiast of silent film, especially the comedies. I have certainly explored the romantic dramas, such as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, the seedy horror of expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the experimental, like Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Comedies, however, are my forte. I was enamored of Chaplin and Keaton when I was young and hold them close to my heart in a nostalgic way. So, you would think I would initially be excited that a silent film would take center stage again in world cinema in such a year of highs (The Tree of Life) and lows (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) as 2011. I was indeed very eager. It was nice that a silent film should garner such attention from such a large audience. Though, it took me forever to find out what they were talking about, and the lauds from everyone’s mouths were words blinded by the whimsy and garish light of the grey scale, clearly bedazzling them from the fraud of a film that it is.
The film begins with the premiere of a film, an element that is to begin the trend of wink wink moments directed at the audience. It’s 1927, and the only thing I could think of was, “Is that right? Are those filming techniques right?” George Valentin (Oscar and Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) is the Douglas Fairbanks Jr.-esque character, successful in every action/adventure/romance/thriller he releases. The landscape of film is static at the moment, but there is to be a shift in the wind soon after. He bumps into a nobody extra named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who shortly thereafter rises to stardom. Her rise to stardom, however, is marked by two things: 1) talkies have taken over and silent are quickly becoming a thing of the past and 2) this is all at the expense of Valentin’s stardom. Valentin becomes a forgotten piece of film history, and Peppy enjoys newfound fame, with the hint of obligatory guilt. You see, despite their short meeting, they’re in love. What ensues is a series of faux existential crises that manifest themselves if fairly delirious ways, and other fluffy moments.
Yes, I understand perfectly that this is a loving tribute to the silent film era, something that wants to be so authentic that the aspect ratio (1.33:1) is the same as most films between 1927 and 1931, the period that the film takes place in. The film is mostly silent. There are various allusions to other directors and styles (even the use of some music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo). This may supposed to be cute and clever, but it comes off as smarmy and anachronistic. Stylistically, Hazanavicius likes to jump the gun to show off how much he likes silent film and how much he loves to pay homage to it. This, however, makes it so that these seemingly minute details do not fit within the context of the film, making the seemingly minute into something rather important. If you’re going to make a movie like it’s 1927/1931, don’t fill it with pieces of style and content that came after it. Without that gimmick and anachronistic series of elements, there is honestly little to say about the plot. Too little visual storytelling happens, its reliance on the gimmick and on “talking”. It’s flat and tired, and can barely stand up for itself.
What’s worse is that all of this is seems incredibly smarmy and the self-awareness is overwhelming. Every time Dujardin winks at the camera – not so much breaking the fourth wall, but winking at the audience within the film – it feels like he, as well as the director, is winking at us, muttering amongst themselves, “Aren’t we cool, and cute, and amazing for making a silent film in 2011? Isn’t this the best?” This total self-awareness ruins the experience, making the gimmick seem even more glaringly obvious that it already was. Gimmicks are bad enough, but when the people in the film are in on it and smirking all the time, the audience is jarred beyond belief. I found them to be completely smug. I found the entire film to be smug.
What I found to be mildly ironic is that Peppy Miller, during an interview for an upcoming film, condemns silent actors to just mugging for the camera, essentially. There seems to be more mugging on the camera from Dujardin as Valentin than in any silent films I’ve actually seen. From Modern Times to The General, from The Last Laugh to Sherlock Jr., there may have been overacting to a point and some embarrassingly hammy reaction shots, but Dujardin really milks it for the camera. As to whether or not this is to prove Peppy’s point and satirize the issue itself or if this is really Dujardin paying tribute to the silent era. Whichever it is, it’s done neither convincingly nor enjoyably.
It occurred to me last night, while at the 60th Anniversary screening of the great musical classic Singin’ in the Rain (which was amazing, by the way), that The Artist is essentially a very bad loose remake of that film. It tackles the same ideas, the same issues; it has a very similar meet cute, and a somewhat similar conflict and resolution. Both films explore the transition from the silent era to the sound era and how worried studio execs were at how actors would sound on the screen. Granted, while similar in theme and plot to some extent, both films take on different routes. The Artist is far more overt and self-congratulatory about its tribute, while Singin’ in the Rain remains fairly modest, giving far more insight into the studio system than The Artist ever did. Most importantly, though, Singin’ in the Rain explores these themes and ideas with sincerity and real wonder, without the smirk or self-awareness. The Artist, with all its hammy acting, anachronistic stylizations, and thin plot, smirks through the entirety of the film. It ends up being too self-aware and even “meta” for its own good. If probably would have fared better simply as a period piece instead of a full-fledged silent project. If you’re looking for a film that accurately and sincerely looks at the transition from silent to sound sans gimmick, you’re better off Singin’ in the Rain.