A “Top Ten” for grown-ups

Buster Keaton "The General"

Buster Keaton “The General”

When it comes to movies, everyone has a Top Ten list, or a top 100, or top 500. Tastes differ, of course, and no two persons’ lists should be the same. But when you gaze through so many of these lists online, it is appalling to see just how many of these not only include so many mediocre films, but how many of them fail to include anything older than a decade or so, or anything from anywhere but Hollywood.

Here’s one such online list:

Avengers

Avengers

1. Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Movie
3. Avengers (2012), just so no one thinks of that god-awful film with Sean Connery, Ralph Fiennes, and Uma Thurman
4. Courageous
5. Rudy
6. Dumb and Dumber
7. Independence Day
8. We Were Soldiers
9. Tomorrow Never Dies (Brosnan is my 3rd favorite Bond but this is my favorite Bond film)
10. Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark

If someone thinks Avengers is one of the greatest films ever created, someone doesn’t get out much.

Another, responding on the same website complains:

“These lists have a hole in them without Blade Runner on them. Also, R Scott’s original Alien.

“And no Peter Jackson LOTR (Lord of the Rings) flicks? That’s surprising. I felt they were a bit too long and I prefer the Tolkien books but Jackson’s The Two Towers is epic and on my list ( despite my ambivalence to hobbits lol.)

“And what about Donner’s first Superman?”

It’s easy to think Superman is a great movie if you have never been out of the house, but Sonny, there is a great big world out there, and in it, Superman isn’t even a blip.

This isn’t just about “movies I like,” in which it’s fine to enjoy anything. There are bad or indifferent films I love to watch, too. No, it’s about movies that, if you care about film, you should have seen. At least, should have seen if you want to express an opinion that has some authority to it, and not just the mewlings of an esthetic infant.

Just as there are books you should have read, if you want to consider yourself literate, and music you should be familiar with, and art that should be part of your inner life, there are movies you should have seen.

No one can have seen them all, of course. It is a lifetime’s work to expand one’s horizons and learning never ends.

It isn’t that the movies on these online lists are not good movies, even great movies. They mostly were all worth seeing. It is that the scope of the lists was so narrow, and most of the films mentioned were made in the past 10 or 15 years. One wonders what a modern moviegoer thinks constitutes a great film. It would seem: lots of action, clever dialog, color film, and a whipped cream topping of CGI. Car chases, things blowing up and wizards or werewolves.

Kill Bill

Kill Bill

If you think having seen Kill Bill parts 1 and 2 on a double bill has taught you anything about the potential of film, you are greatly mistaken. And this is not a slight on Tarantino, who is a wonderful filmmaker: It is a slight on your supposed erudition.

The films you should have seen are not necessarily the best films, either (although most are). They are the films that created the course of film development, and changed that course. They are the films that opened up the possibilities.

Some have done so through discovering new potential in the medium itself, like D.W. Griffith or Jean Cocteau. But others have discovered ways of giving the popular medium the depth of the greatest literature. If you think Batman Begins has depth, you are still wading in the shallow end of the swimming pool.

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

I am not talking simply about Postmodern referencing: that Martin Scorsese references The Great Train Robbery when Joe Pesci points his gun straight into the camera and fires. Such cleverness permeates current cinema, where you can hardly make a film without some witty reference to a famous film of the past. That’s nothing more than an in-joke.

Rather, I’m talking about the larger film culture that has grown and continues to grow as a living tradition — cinema as a single body of work, seen as a single, long-growing vine with thousands of leaves, stems, flowers and fruit, grown from the seeds planted by the Lumiere brothers, raised through silence, sound and Cinemascope and Technicolor.

I’m talking about movies as a humanistic art: One that can tell us about the experience of being alive. The lists I came across mostly concern film as a theme-park ride — fun, but of little consequence. As if a list of great novels were proposed starting with John Grisham, passing through Jackie Collins and ending with Dan Brown. Again, no slight on any of them: Their books can be fun to read, but they ain’t Proust.

So, Mr. Big-Shot Critic, what would your list be? What movies should anyone have seen before they can consider themselves cinematically literate?

Well, there isn’t anything so simple as a list. Rather, there is a constellation of films you should have sampled from. In other words, you can’t really say you know anything if you haven’t seen a film by Robert Bresson. Can I list Mouchette, or Diary of a Country Priest, or Au Hasard Balthasar as the one film you need to have seen? Not really, but you should have seen at least one Bresson film, and if you do, you will almost certainly then want to go on and see more of them, maybe all of them.

Au Hasard Balthasar

Au Hasard Balthasar

You will find a deeply moral core to all of them, and told in an odd, quiet, straightforward manner, usually with no professional actors, to keep the films from seeming too “theatrical.”

Or, you need to see a few screwball comedies from the 1930s. Is there one to put on a list? My Man Godfrey? It Happened One Night? Bringing Up Baby? If You Could Only Cook? Again, no, but if you watch a couple of them, you’ll want to see more of them, and you’ll never again think of American Pie as a witty movie.

My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey

You need to see great silent films, too. Not just old Charlie Chaplin shorts, but the movies that created the great lexicon of cinematic grammar and vocabulary. Murnau’s Sunrise or Stroheim’s Greed. Again, your interest will likely be piqued and you may become a convert to silent movies.

How can you be cinematically literate unless you’ve seen films by Godard, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, Ozu, Bunuel or Satyajit Ray? You can’t. Or German Expressionist films? Or American underground films? Or Busby Berkeley musicals? Ernst Lubitsch? Or The Big Trail — the first American widescreen film? Or Abel Gance’s Napoleon? Max Ophuls’ liquid camera?

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

Becoming literate doesn’t happen casually: You have to seek out and study. You have to pay attention. Some of these films, such as Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, make serious demands on viewers; they don’t make it easy — it’s like doing homework. But you will feel exhilarated by the time you have ingested them.

So, I’m giving you homework: Here’s my list of a dozen films you need to have seen. Are they all of them? No. You need to see hundreds of them before you can have a meaningful opinion, but these are a good start. None is recent, and only two are American, because most of you have already seen Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction and The Godfather, to say nothing of Apocalypse Now, which would be on my list of Top Ten (which, of course, has at least 40 films on it).

Let’s take a few chronologically:

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

There is hardly a more influential film in history than Serge Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which the Russian director inventoried the power and magic of film editing to create meaning. It remains a powerful film, even when you recognize it for Soviet propaganda.

Metropolis

Metropolis

If Sunrise is too much to take at first, you could try Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) to see how silent film can tell a compelling story. It has several “special effects” in it, too. And as for special effects, you can only be amazed at the oneiric surrealism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) — now available in something like its original version.

The studio system in Hollywood produced some of the most perfect craftsmanship during the 1930s. They had pros, who really knew how to light, edit, write dialog, and record sound. They produced many genre films, such as Westerns, gangster films, melodramas and musicals, but one thing they did that has never been matched is comedy, the so-called “screwball comedies.” If you have not seen My Man Godfrey (1936), then you don’t really know how sophisticated comedy can be. Or sexy: Try Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and see how frank they could be about sex before the Production Code was enforced.

Rules of the Game

Rules of the Game

But this is still American film. The Thirties also gave us Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made. It is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving while at the same time satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

The Fifties and early Sixties gave us the Golden Age of foreign films, the age of the “art film,” and exposed Americans for the first time in any meaningful degree with movies from around the world.

Sweden gave us Ingmar Bergman, whose Seventh Seal (1957) is still the prototype of the Foreign Film, with its Medieval knight returning from the Crusades and playing chess with Death.

Seventh Seal

Seventh Seal

Italian Michelangelo Antonioni compressed angst, dissociation and anomie into a single intensely beautiful film in L’Avventura (1960), about a woman who disappears on a Mediterranean island and the vague search to find her. It is the apotheosis of existentialism in cinema.

Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim

The French gave us the New Wave, which rethought old American films with a fresh spontaneity. A whole busload of directors came to the fore in the Sixties. The warmest and most engaging is probably Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) about the Parisian demimonde just before and after World War I. It is the kind of movie that makes you not merely enjoy it, but fall headfirst in love with film.

Two gritty films present two poles of movie realism. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers is so realistic that you swear you are watching newsreel footage from the front. It shows an anti-colonialist uprising that doesn’t demonize either side, but shows the miseries and sins of both. In contrast, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is so stylized you might as well be looking at a motion-picture version of a Russian religious ikon. And many of its fans feel as though they have had something like a cinematic religious experience after the “meditation” of seeing the slow-moving film.

The missing element of too many Hollywood films is any sense that they mirror real life, that they consider the moral and ethical questions of existence in favor of pumping adrenaline and presenting a black-and-white, good-and-evil, superhero and archenemy vision of existence. Great films, however, look at the complexities in ways that can be profoundly moving. Fantasy is fine for adolescents, but grown-ups demand something more.

Vagabond

Vagabond

Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1984) follows a damaged, lost young woman as she wanders aimlessly toward a solitary death. We cannot just watch her decline as observers, but feel we share it, so deeply does Varda make us care about this woman.

A Short Film about Killing

A Short Film about Killing

And Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, takes an unsparing look at a murder and its punishment in A Short Film about Killing (1988), an acrid look at Communist-era Poland and a young man’s pointless beating death of an unpleasant cab driver, and and equally cold-eyed look at the brutal and legal hanging of the young man after he is caught and convicted. Kieslowski expanded this film from an hour-long segment he made for Polish television for a 10-episode series called The Decalogue, in which each episode illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, although never in a simple or obvious way.

See these films, or their many brothers and sisters, and then talk to me about Avengers.

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2 comments
  1. pat said:

    Please forgive the nitpicking, but I think it should be “mewlings.”

    • Pat, Thank you for the correx. A quarter century in the newspaper biz long ago showed me that EVERYONE needs a copy editor. I will make the correx in the copy. Richard

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