As those who’ve read the previous two parts of this post know, I’m talking about my 42 favorite films since my birth year, 1971. These aren’t in any particular order. They’re all winners.
21. Schindler’s List: Steven Spielberg had a great career going as a maker of hits, going all the way back to his early TV-movie classic, Duel. He could have rested on that, but instead he decided to stretch and capture a part of the Holocaust. To tell his story, Spielberg found both the perfect point of view characters–Oskar Schindler (a con man who becomes a hero), and Amon Goeth (a functionary who descends into homicidal madness)–and the perfect actors to play them, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. With them he tells the story of a man who, through wit and cunning, manages to preserve a small amount of humanity in the midst of mass slaughter. As Roger Ebert put it in his Great Movies review of Schindler’s List:
“Schindler’s List” gives us information about how parts of the Holocaust operated, but does not explain it, because it is inexplicable that men could practice genocide. Or so we want to believe. In fact, genocide is a commonplace in human history, and is happening right now in Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The United States was colonized through a policy of genocide against native peoples. Religion and race are markers that we use to hate one another, and unless we can get beyond them, we must concede we are potential executioners. The power of Spielberg’s film is not that it explains evil, but that it insists that men can be good in the face of it, and that good can prevail.
22. Ran: “Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.” These are the words of the Fool in this, Akira Kurosawa’s version of King Lear. Ran is a story of an old man trying to control a world that’s moving past him, and receiving nothing but heartbreak for his trouble. Time, Shakespeare’s prime enemy, must punish him, just as time was punishing Kurosawa. Before he made the film, he’d lost most of his eyesight, and the Japanese film industry had no interest in financing his movies anymore. Fortunately, there were members of the young generation who treated Kurosawa more kindly than Lord Ichimonji’s sons treat him in Ran. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped him secure the financing to make this $12 million masterpiece.
23. This Is Spinal Tap: For whatever reason, mainly that there are a lot of movies in the world and omissions are inevitable, I didn’t see This Is Spinal Tap until I was well into my 30s, though I knew of it thanks to the constant references to it in other media. I’ve since seen the picture about twenty times, and each time I find new reasons to laugh. Rob Reiner’s fallen on the movie industry equivalent of hard times since he made the execrable North, but This Is Spinal Tap was the beginning of a really great decade for him behind the camera.
24. My Dinner With Andre: Something that tickles me: while Andre Gregory is condemning electric blankets for separating us from our environment, he’s actually wearing one under the table to stay warm on set. It’s wrong to think of this as hypocrisy. Gregory and Shawn are not really themselves but characters who are comically artistic renderings of aspects of themselves. What emerges is a funny, exasperating, engaging conversation that isn’t real, but it ought to be.
25. Being There: Often the source of profundity in life is not the person who speaks, but the person who listens. It is this phenomenon that turns Chance, the Gardener (Peter Sellers) into Chauncey Gardener. Chance is a simpleton who knows the world only from the garden he’s tended and the television he’s watched in his spare time, yet the wealthy and powerful first convince themselves that he’s brilliant, then transform his strange little sayings about gardening into political and philosophical ideas. Peter Sellers is brilliant as the oblivious Chance, who lives inside a joke that he can’t understand much less laugh at.
Roger Ebert used the last image of the film, Chance walking on water, as a challenge to film students. What does the image mean? It means Chance can walk on water. Why? Because we’ve all decided he can.
26. The Silence of the Lambs: In my upcoming riff on Amityville 2, I call Dino De Laurentiis “the Eurotrash Roger Corman”. Funnily enough, both Corman and De Laurentiis left fingerprints on the Hannibal Lecter stories. DiLaurentiis had made Manhunter with Michael Mann in the 1980s, but it made almost no money, so D. let Corman take The Silence of the Lambs for the change in Corman’s couch. What did Corman do? He brought in one of his proteges, Jonathan Demme, who took Ted Tally’s script, cast smartly, shot brilliantly, and produced one of the finest thrillers ever made. Afterwards De Laurentiis smelled money and used his power to make sequels. Crummy, crummy, crummy sequels.
27. JFK: Does Oliver Stone know who killed John Kennedy and why? I doubt it. But for me, that’s not the point. This is a movie less about the specifics of the case than for how the assassination and its aftermath served as symbols for our changing feelings about our government and each other. The film is told from inside Jim Garrison’s head, as he first envisions the assassination much as the Warren Commission would have wanted, then slowly drifts through the collection of fact, spin, and fantasy until another version of the tale solidifies in his mind. Is it true? Probably not. But, I’m told, that’s how the period felt for many people who lived through it. Black and white switched places so many times in the 1960s. It was a paranoid time, yes; but there really were people plotting against us for their own purposes. (see Nixon, Richard) We’d come out of World War II telling ourselves that we were all in this together. The Kennedy assassination was the beginning of the feeling that we all really weren’t. Because it captures this feeling so well, and because it’s so astonishingly well made, I admire JFK.
28. Goodfellas: I love both The Godfather and Goodfellas, but I love them differently. I love The Godfather as a meditation on corruption and power, and the impossibility of balancing love of family with the demands of The Family. I love Goodfellas as an exploration of one man’s dangerous, thrilling addiction to the criminal life. Henry Hill loves crime. Even more than crime itself, he loves what crime can get him: clothes, cars, trips, the best tables, the best shows, the best of everything. True, one of his partners could kill him any minute for any reason, but for Henry Hill it still beats working a day job and having to stand in line for a table. It’s a perverted version of the American dream, but the way Henry Hill explains it makes it easy to understand.
Also, we have this movie to thank for the wonder that is The Sopranos, so thanks Marty.
29. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: I considered putting Being John Malkovich on this list, because I liked that Spike Jonze film a lot too, but this is better. It’s a terrific tale of our relationship to our own memories, and on how even the most painful of them, the ones we would most want to excise, shape us. It’s also funny, wonderfully acted, and touching. The only memory I’d like to erase is of seeing it, so I could see it for the first time again.
30. Before Sunrise: I admire all three of Richard Linklater’s tales of Celine and Jesse, but this is my favorite. I suppose the main reason for this is personal: I’m the same age as the two characters. I identified strongly with Jesse when I was 23 and first saw this film, and though nothing like what happened to Jesse had happened to me by that time, it’s the sort of day I thought I could have had if I’d ever made it to Vienna. Watching the later films stings, even though I like them, because its aging characters make me feel mortal. (Yes, I’ve seen Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in other pictures, and I’ve noticed their aging, but I feel it in Before Sunset and Before Midnight.)
So while I love the entire trilogy, the first movie is the one I most like to revisit.
31. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Growing up, this was my favorite movie. I’ve seen it over one hundred times. I’ve memorized both the theatrical cut and director’s cut versions. (Test me sometime.) I used to have it on the same videotape as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and thanks to a quirk in the recording, the end credits of Raiders faded perfectly into the opening music cue and Paramount logo for Star Trek II, which I felt said something about the relationship of past and future. Yes, teenagers can be ridiculous. Still, my taste for Star Trek II wasn’t ridiculous. Nicholas Meyer took what he found interesting about Star Trek and in doing so, reshaped it. He took advantage of the fact that his characters were aging, using it to give tremendous weight to the movie’s moments. Spock’s death in the film is so powerful not just because it’s a well crafted and timed scene, but because we feel the weight of the–at the time of release–15 years that Spock had been a part of all of our lives. In 100 years, much of Star Trek may well be forgotten (and some of it deservedly so), but not this part of it.
Next. The final 11: Homicidal barbers, fake saviors, and robots run amuck.