The MediaLog Movies 100: The 20s

"The MediaLog Movies 100" finally returns after an extended absence to finish the countdown. This installment takes the countdown through the 20s, that is, the films ranked #21-30. The "Movies 100" is not a film by film ranking in precise order, though, but rather groupings of ten films which have no additional breakdown within each group.

The films are listed in alphabetical order, with the year of release, and in the case of foreign films, the country of origin (and English translation where applicable), in parentheses after the title, with the film's director listed after that. This is followed by a brief annotation on the film.

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.

Soon the "Movies 100" will reach its apex, featuring the Top Ten that all of the blogosphere, not to mention the nonblog world, has been eagerly awaiting. In the meantime, feel free to make comments on the countdown and the films in it.


The MediaLog Movies 100: The 20s

American Beauty (1999) Sam Mendes. Although this popular recent film has gotten some critical backlash, I really like it and think that it is a solid and engaging piece of cinema. An Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, a family man who goes through a midlife crisis when he loses his job due to downsizing, discovers his wife (Oscar-nominated Annette Bening) is having an affair, and realizes that his adolescent daughter (Thora Birch) thinks he's creepy. A stellar supporting cast includes Peter Gallagher as Bening's new squeeze, Mena Suvari as the Lolita-like sexually-assertive friend of Birch who Lester apes over, Wes Bentley as the odd next-door neighbor boy that becomes Birch's boyfriend, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney as Bentley's repressed parents, and Scott Bakula as the Burnhams' gay other next door neighbor. Lester's midlife crisis includes getting a carefree job flipping burgers at the local fast food joint, buying a hot rod, pumping iron, and taking up pot smoking with the clandestinely drug-dealing Bentley--all of which apparently makes Lester think he's a teenager again, as he lusts after a secretly virginal Suvari. Wrapped around all this great acting and parent-child conflict are profound themes of stopping to smell the roses, the dangers of unchecked familial dysfunction, and the recognition of beauty in simple, everyday occurances (such as the famous plastic grocery bag blowing in the whirlwind). The film is expertly crafted as well, by director Mendes (in his feature directorial debut), legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, and screenwriter Alan Ball (all of whom were also Oscar winners). American Beauty, on top of all its other honors, won the Best Picture Academy Award, earning its place as one of the key cultural indicators at the close of the millenium.

Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz. Few films are as well-known or as well-loved as Casablanca. It is the epitome of everything related to the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a great example of studio factory filmmaking, with Warner Bros. staff director Curtiz at the helm and every department of the vast WB production machine contributing to the film's creation. It is a great example of studio-era narrative form and style. And it is a great example of the star system, with Humphrey Bogart as Rick, the proprietor of a nightclub in wartime Casablanca; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, his old flame that happens to walk into his club "of all the gin joints in all the world"; Sydney Greenstreet as the owner of a competing club; Peter Lorre as a ne'er-do-well playing the expats against the Nazi occupiers; Claude Rains as a corrupt but charming French police captain; Hans Conreid as Lazslo, Ilsa's current flame who is a Norwegian resistance leader; and Dooley Wilson as Sam, who was never asked to "play it again," even though everyone thinks he was. The plot involves Rick's transformation from disinterested expatriate to committed resistance member, as he tries to rekindle his and Ilsa's former romance and make sense of the disintegrating world around him. Casablanca is the source of many famous movie quotes and legendary scenes, as well as the source of great cinematic enjoyment.

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964-British) Stanley Kubrick. This is the film that made Kubrick's career. A trenchant black comedy about nuclear annihilation, Dr. Strangelove is a satire on the Cold War, the potential "hot" war that at the time was still a very real possiblity, and on the film genres of the war film and the espionage thriller. Peter Sellers in a remarkable comic performance plays three roles: the farcically-named President Merkin Muffley; a military commander named Lionel Mandrake; and the wickedly funny title character, Dr. Strangelove, a maniacal wheelchair-bound scientist who has created a superweapon called the "Doomsday Machine." This machine is at the center of the black comedic plot as it serves as the ultimate pinnacle of arms race oneupsmanship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (represented deftly by the Soviet ambassador played by Peter Bull). George C. Scott plays the cocky general who gets into an argument with Bull's character as the characters try to avert apocalypse while holed up in the U.S. command bunker. This exchange is the set-up for the line by Sellers' Pres. Muffley that goes down as one of the greatest punchlines in cinema history: as Scott and Bull go at it, Sellers tries to calm them down by shouting, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

The General (1927) Buster Keaton. Along with the next film, Chaplin's The Gold Rush, this Keaton film is often listed as one of the best films ever made and one of the high points of silent film comedy. It's not my favorite Keaton film (that's yet to come in the countdown), but there's no doubt that The General is a masterpiece. Buster plays Johnnie Gray, a Civil War Confederate train engineer (Keaton had a strong love of trains). The title "General" is Johnnie's locomotive, which is stolen by Union troops, causing Johnnie to follow in another train engine in a lengthy chase that is the comic centerpiece of the film. Keaton engineers (pun intended) many sight gags and physical stunts based on the locomotive and railroad setting, including one monumental (and genuine) crash in which two engines collide in the middle of a trestle bridge, sending both vehicles and the bridge itself toppling into the ravine below. The film contains more subtle sequences as well, such as a scene in which Johnnie unwittingly wanders into a Union headquarters house in search of food and ends up learning valuable enemy secrets while hiding under the dining room tablecloth. And there is a love interest, Annabelle Lee, who does not respect Johnnie until he proves his courage through the locomotive chase. Keaton's romantic entanglements were much different than Chaplin's--and "entanglement" might be the best word to describe them; whereas Chaplin's Tramp tended to worship his usually unattainable amours, Keaton tended to not only treat his as functional equals, which he does when Annabelle joins him in attempting to recapture the General, but to actually get the girl at the end of most of his movies, which is the case here.

The Gold Rush (1925) Charles Chaplin. This is my favorite Chaplin film and is also considered by many to be his best and one of the best films of all time. Made at the peak of Chaplin's silent feature career, The Gold Rush has the Tramp in the Yukon with hordes of other prospective prospectors. No gold is struck, although the film is a goldmine of ingenious comic situations. The centerpiece of these is the sequence in which the Tramp and a tall hirsute mining companion are snowed into their ramshackle cabin with scarce provisions. They sit around dreaming of a good meal, and the miner imagines the Tramp as a giant chicken that looks good to eat. Then, in one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema, the Tramp boils his shoe and proceeds to eat it, treating the nails holding the soles to the uppers as if they were chicken bones and the shoelaces as if they were spaghetti. Since the Tramp always gets the short end of the romantic stick, he also meets the beautiful Georgia, a rustic dance hall denizen, and pines away for her even though she is spoken for by a burly brute. The Gold Rush is silent comedy at its zenith, made by one of its greatest practicioners at the top of his form.

M*A*S*H (1970) Robert Altman. Known by most people as the movie precursor to the long-running TV series of the same name, M*A*S*H was many other things as well. First of all, it was the movie that launched Altman, at the time a longtime journeyman TV director with a few obscure features to his credit, into the top tier of American film directors. He capitalized on this film's commercial and critical success to make some of the greatest films of the early-1970s "New Hollywood" movement--including McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, and Nashville. Second, M*A*S*H was a potent critique and indictment of the Vietnam War, using the film's setting during the earlier Korean War as a smokescreen to make caustic comments on the nature of warfare. Next, it was an innovator in both filmic content in the new ratings-system era (inaugurated two years earlier with the adoption of the ratings code) and in narrative form with its episodic, meandering structure. Oh, and it was the inspiration and basis for the TV series (which Altman hated) that ran for eleven years and was one of the most popular programs of the 1970s. The story is set at a Korean "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital" near the frontlines and chronicles the misadventures of a group of surgeons and nurses who are there to patch up the wounded and save as many as possible from grisly death. Black comic tones seep through the film, as Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliott Gould), Duke (Tom Skerritt), Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), and "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only movie cast member to reprise his role in the TV series) attempt to stay sane while acting at times insane.

Pulp Fiction (1994) Quentin Tarantino. This is perhaps the charter member of the 1990s fractured-narrative movement that I have discussed in connection with several other films in the Movies 100. John Travolta (in the role that caused his 1990s comeback) and Uma Thurman star in Tarantino's innovative story of gangster intrigue and pop cultural minutiae. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, and Ving Rhames also populate the cast in this narrative that is broken into three asynchronous, interweaving parts. The film's three segments criss-cross their timelines and mix their characters and incidents in such a fashion that the final scene of the film actually (in terms of strict chronology) comes immediately before the film's opening scene. In addition to narrative experimentation for the sake of experimentation, Tarantino engages in this storytelling mixture for thematic reasons. And as with all of his films, the director also includes here a playful soundtrack of 1970s tunes to spice up the cinematic broth.

Sunrise (1927) F.W. Murnau. Sunrise is the film that by conventional wisdom represents the peak of silent film artistry, and for those that appreciate the lost art of silent cinema, it is a sight to behold. The film begins as a love triangle between a farmer husband (George O'Brien), his simple and plain wife (Janet Gaynor), and a woman "from the city" (Margaret Livingston) who has seduced the man. The city woman convinces him to return to the city with her, but encourages him to murder his wife first. The man takes his wife out in a rowboat with the intent of capsizing the boat in an apparent accident that will cause her drowning death. When they get out on the water, though, he has a change of heart, although he frightens his wife greatly. As he pleads for forgiveness, they proceed to the city without the city woman, and while there they spend a day renewing their romance. They ride the trolley, peek in on a wedding, get their portrait taken, enjoy a meal, and stroll through the city streets, all the while realizing their love. On the return trip to the farm on their rowboat, a storm comes up and threatens their life, causing the man to save his love and the city woman to stalk off in defeat. I was lucky enough to see this film several times (on the big screen with live pipe organ accompaniment, no less) while an undergraduate student, as my film professor and mentor was a dedicated silent cinemaphile and film restorationist. The education I received as I was exposed to the many silent films that he presented to his classes is priceless, and Sunrise is near the top of the list of silent cinema masterpieces that I would never have fallen in love with had it not been for him.

Thelma and Louise (1991) Ridley Scott. This story of female empowerment was one that I saw when it was initially released to theatres in a period of my life when I had just started to study film. In that context, it made a powerful impression on me and helped me to begin to understand how to analyze cinema and appreciate its artistry. Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are a feminine odd couple (Louise is neat and methodical, Thelma is an impulsive mess) who are best friends and who are both stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships. On a whim, they abandon their mates for a girl's weekend, only the weekend goes awry when Thelma accidentally kills a would-be rapist in self-defense. They go on the lam as cop Harvey Keitel leads the posse that pursues them and their men (a comically uptight Christopher MacDonald for Thelma and a studly Michael Madsen for Louise) fret about their whereabouts. As the two women get more and more desperate they get more and more liberated: Thelma has an irresponsible jump in the hay with country boy Brad Pitt (in a star-making turn in his first big role), Louise loosens up (relatively speaking), and the two explosively confront a lecherous trucker who has been ogling them. As Thelma and Louise's options get slimmer, the expansive Southwest desert setting gets more stark, their spirits get freer, a sympathetic Keitel's posse gets closer, and the women get a final release from their predicament in a remarkable (and somewhat controversial) ending to the film.

Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles. Citizen Kane, of course, is considered Welles' greatest film, but this one often comes in second. It's a tale of border town intrigue, as Welles portrays the corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan, while Charlton Heston is Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas who has just married American Janet Leigh. Touch of Evil is famous for its opening shot, a tracking, arcing, craning, continuous shot of several minutes in length that follows Heston and Leigh as they cross the U.S.-Mexican border only to witness a car bomb explosion. Vargas begins to investigate the crime and uncovers not only a drug dealing hotbed in the form of the Grandi crime family, but deep-seated corruption on the part of Welles' character. A number of significant supporting parts fill out the cast: Marlene Dietrich (in one of her last roles) plays the madam of the local brothel who is an old flame of Quinlan's; Akim Tamiroff is "Uncle" Joe Grandi, the leader of the crime family; Mercedes McCambridge is a terrorizing gang member; Ray Collins is the local D.A.; Joseph Calleia is Quinlan's partner who is disillusioned by his friend's corruption; and Dennis Weaver plays a motel clerk whose creepiness is second only to Psycho's Norman Bates. In many circles, this is also considered to be the last significant original film noir. The film certainly has a gritty yet artful visual style, as the harsh contrasts of night and day, Mexican side and American side, corruption and integrity are all dramatized and visualized to potent effect. Whether or not Touch of Evil is Welles' second best film, it is definitely the last great film he ever made.

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