8.23.2006

The MediaLog Movies 100: The 40s

The legendary countdown known as "The MediaLog Movies 100" tiptoes through the forties in this installment. As anyone who has been following the "Movies 100" knows, it is not a film by film ranking in precise order, but a set of ten ranked film groupings which have no additional breakdown within each grouping (and if you didn't know, now you do). Films are listed in alphabetical order, with the year of release, country of origin (if not American), and director listed after the title. A brief annotation on the film follows.

These are not my favorite movies (necessarily) or what I think are the "greatest" movies of all time. They are movies that made an impact on me and my cinematic sensibilities, tempered by considerations of the traditional film "canon" and the conventional wisdom regarding what are the all-time "best" movies.

There are still forty more films to come, and I know that you won't want to miss finding out what they are (and especially my witty commentary on them). All the nations of the Earth await the secret identities of the ten films at the top of the countdown. Please, please, please, make a comment on any of my picks--even the Spielberg films.

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The MediaLog Movies 100: The 40s


Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppola. At times during this film, you wonder whether or not you really are experiencing the apocalypse. A strong cast includes Martin Sheen as the narrating Captain Willard, Robert Duvall as the near-psychotic Lt. Col. Kilgore (of "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" fame), Marlon Brando as the completely psychotic Col. Kurtz, and Dennis Hopper as a disoriented photographer under the thrall of Kurtz. Willard is given the charge by his superiors to travel through the Vietnamese jungle wilderness to "take out" the renegade Kurtz, who has established himself as something of a warlord. The journey into the "heart of darkness" (the movie is a loose adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel of that name) taken by Willard was replicated by director Coppola, who by most reports came a little unhinged during the protracted production of Apocalypse Now. The result, though, is imagery the likes of which has never been seen before or since.

Battleship Potemkin (1925-Russian) Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein was one of the Russian Formalist filmmakers of the 1920s, and Potemkin is his masterpiece. The story of the crew of the Battleship Potemkin who mutinied in support of the oppressed citizens of Odessa in 1905, the film is a rarity in the history of cinema in that it features a group protagonist rather than a singular one. The crew of the Potemkin serves as this group protagonist, as they first perform their normal duties onboard the ship, then rebel against their leaders to help the citizens. This help comes most potently in the form of turning the Potemkin's guns on the soldiers who are engaged in a massacre against the townfolk. The sequence showing the massacre, the "Odessa steps" sequence, is one of the most well-known in all of cinema; it serves often as a textbook example of the power of editing, and especially of the intellectual montage that Eisenstein promoted. Potemkin is a potent example that the movies include much more than just the product from Hollywood.

Delicatessen (1991-French) Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro. Another great example of non-Hollywood product, Delicatessen is a French film by the eclectic duo of Jeunet and Caro. Set in a post-apocalyptic city where meat is extremely scarce and dried beans are used as currency, the denizens of an apartment building dodge the cleaver of the butcher whose sparse delicatessen occupies the ground floor of their building and who would like to turn them into the daily special. Dominique Pinon and Marie-Laure Dougnac play a saw-playing musician and the cello-playing daughter of the butcher, respectively, who fall in love and save the day. Inventive imagery and creative sound effects (including one sequence that I like to call the "bedspring symphony") make the film a sensual delight.

Diner (1982) Barry Levinson. Like Levinson's Tin Men (in the 50s in the "Movies 100"), this is one of his "Baltimore films." Also his breakthrough as a director, it's an ensemble piece featuring a cast (many in their first movie roles) that just happened to go on to become big stars: Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Tim Daly, and Ellen Barkin. A group of college-age friends hangs out in the local diner, swapping stories over coffee and burgers, forestalling maturity. When Guttenberg's character gets married, their clique threatens to split up. The repartee among the characters is fast-paced, witty, and set the standard for aimless movie chatter.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Steven Spielberg. Perhaps Spielberg's best film (in my opinion), E.T. is a remarkable story of an alien creature and his symbiotic bond with a small boy. From the trail of Reese's Pieces and the jerry-rigged "phone home" contraption E.T. uses to, well, phone home, to the sight of E.T.'s face hidden amongst a bevy of stuffed animals to avoid detection by the adults and the unforgettable moonlit silhouette of E.T. riding on the handlebars of a bicycle, the film offers so many memorable moments that it remains one of the most memorable films I've ever seen. It's too bad that Spielberg (along with his buddy George Lucas) became a self-revisionist and decided to make silly changes such as replacing police officer's guns with walkie-talkies in the 20th anniversary reissue of the film.

It Happened One Night (1934) Frank Capra. Any film that was directed by the great Capra, starred Clark Gable, and was one of the great screwball comedy deserves a note of distinction. Claudette Colbert co-stars as a spoiled debutante who becomes a fugitive from her overbearing father who wants her to marry a dolt. Gable is a newspaper reporter assigned to cover the story of her flight; he infiltrates her life by acting as her cross-country escort, only to fall in love with her in true screwball fashion. The two are at each other's throats throughout the film, when they are riding on the bus, when they check into a motel as a married couple to avoid suspicion, even when they finally profess their love for each other. Gable especially gives a vibrant performance, and it is his role in this film (for which he won a Best Actor Oscar) that catapulted him to superstardom.

On the Waterfront (1954) Elia Kazan. Films often reflect what is going on in the culture, and sometimes reflect real life events in the lives of their makers. Kazan was one of the filmmakers who "named names" in the blacklisting era of the late-1940s/early-1950s, and this film is a defense of, and an apology for, if you will, having done so. Marlon Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a washed-up boxer who works as muscle for the local mob down "on the waterfront." Rod Steiger is his brother, Charlie, who should have looked out for Terry, but instead looked out for himself financially. Terry rats out the mob guys after feeling responsible for the death of a friend who died at the hands of the mob. Karl Malden is the priest and Eva Marie Saint the girl who help Terry out in his quest to break the grip of the mob on the workers of the waterfront. The film is almost Neorealist in its stark imagery shot on location on the real New York waterfront, and is the source of one of the greatest movie quotes ("I coulda been a contender").

The Player (1992) Robert Altman. Considered Altman's "comeback" film (after a decade making films based on stage plays, partially in Europe), The Player is the ultimate Hollywood insider film. Famous for the dozens of cameos by actors and filmmakers playing themselves, the story of the film is about a cocky movie executive (Tim Robbins) who accidentally kills a writer and tries to cover it up. It's a great satire on the film industry of the early-1990s, especially in the opening shot which is a continuous eight-minute shot without a cut that roams around a movie studio as it comes to life one morning. Altman's career was revived after this film, and he went on to make the great Short Cuts the following year.

Return of the Jedi (1983) Richard Marquand. The third of the original Star Wars trilogy, Jedi is also the third best (which means, guess what, the other two are still to come in the countdown). Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were seminal moviegoing and cultural experiences for me and millions of boys my age, but by '83 I was growing a little long in the tooth (along with the millions of other boys) for Ewoks and X-Wings. A Star Wars film is still a Star Wars film, though, and so this movie was third only to the first two installments, and remained (for a while) still ahead of everything else. I always thought that having Leia and Luke be brother and sister was stretching credibility a little too far, but it was still fun to watch the two of them, along with Han Solo, Chewbacca, and R2-D2 and C-3PO, beat the pants off of mean ol' Darth Vader and the Emperor.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Preston Sturges. If It Happened One Night was the first great screwball comedy, then this might be the last. Joel McCrea stars as the title character, a movie director who has made his success with light, frothy comedies, but who aspires to be a serious filmmaker. In order to gain the life experience he thinks he needs in order to do so, he sets off penniless to find out how the "other half" lives. At first, his studio insists on trailing him with a caravan replete with publicist and staff physician, but once Sullivan ditches them, his journey becomes a little too real when he is suspected of a crime and, because he has no identification, is sentenced to a chain gang. While incarcerated, he attends a movie screening with the inmates and witnesses them howling with laughter at a Mickey Mouse cartoon, which makes him realize that it's not so bad to make people laugh after all. Veronica Lake is the damsel that he encounters during his travels who ends up as his love interest.

1 comment:

Fred said...

Okay, now you're just TRYING to draw me out. ET, while very good, is FAR from the beard's best film. Munich, Ryan, Schindler, Empire of the Sun, AI, all better films.