Black Narcissus (1947 D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, W: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
It’s hard to pick one scene from Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece, “Black Narcissus.” Every shot is gorgeous, rich in color and perfectly shot. “This is no place to put a nunnery,” says David Farrar’s Mr. Dean. “Everything here seems exaggerated.” He’s speaking about the Himalayan convent where Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh holds out against her feelings for Dean. Sexual tension — of the controlled, British sort — runs his in this, for the time, daring film. Dean could be speaking about the film itself; it’s a powerful, vivid work. As for the most beautiful scene, the last one in the film, and the last shot of Mr. Dean, are pretty tough to beat. It might not be paced like a contemporary film, but it’s stronger stuff.
The Graduate (1967 D: Mike Nichols, W: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry)
OK. This one is going to open up some arguments. I was left absolutely cold by this film. Anne Bancroft is wonderful, of course, but I just was woefully unmoved by Hoffman’s character. He’s a drip. Also, reading about the movie, it’s pretty funny that Mrs. Robinson is “twice his age,” since Hoffman was 30 playing a 21 year old, and Bancroft was 36 at the time. Maybe I need to see it again, but I remember not enjoying or “getting” this movie at all. I do remember my film professor Rob Silberman at the U of Minn saying “Mike Nichols couldn’t direct his way out of a paper bag” about this movie.
The Haunting (1963 D: Robert Wise, W: Nelson Gidding)
I thought about this one long and hard. What about the great and terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre?” How could I not pick the massively influential “Night of the Living Dead?” But in terms of absolute scary perfection, nothing beats “The Haunting,” Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel. Richard Johnson’s Dr. Markaway brings Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and timid, unsure Julie Harris on an investigation of the haunted Hill House. Wise orchestrates vividly frightening atmosphere and brilliant scares with suggestion, sound and the barest of physical effects, like a door bowing in and out as if breathing. The ultimate haunted house movie, and still absoultely chilling to this day.
I wouldn’t say that I hate Pulp Fiction. But watching it recently, it feels a little like the bloom is off the rose. I wanted to catch up on Tarantino’s work after having a pretty confused take on Django Unchained. I watched Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, all in one day. And I can tell you, that’s too much Tarantino for anyone to take. He repeats the same lines from film to film, his arch dialogue hits too many off-notes (especially taken in bulk), and Samuel Jackson seems, at times, to be Tarantino’s own permission slip to use the N-word. I wish I liked this movie as much as I did when it came out. I don’t.
Freebie and the Bean (1974 D: Richard Rush, W: Robert Kaufman and Floyd Mutrux)
Alan Arkin can do no wrong in my book. In this comedy/thriller, directed by oddball Richard Rush (The Stunt Man, Psych Out), he’s a Mexican detective (yes, named “The Bean” — this movie has serious stereotype/race/gender politics problems, not the least of which was referenced in The Celluloid Closet, a great documentary about the depiction of gays and lesbians in film) paired with cop-on-the-take James Caan. Arkin’s simmering frustration, venting occasionally in that yelling-without-really-yelling thing he does contrasts with Caan’s smirking. Arkin’s just flat-out hilarious.There are gigantic stunt set-pieces, including a motorcycle chase in the Embarcadero in San Francisco and a car crash into the 5th floor of an apartment building. A subplot between Arkin and Valerie Harper playing, yes, “Bean’s Wife,” is less entertaining, but adds a slightly human touch to the overall cartoonish procedure. One of the first real buddy cop movies, and Arkin and Caan set the standard.
Eight Men Out (1988 D: John Sayles, W: John Sayles)
Asking me to write about a sports film is like… asking me to write about sports. I just don’t know enough to speak believably on the subject, and have gone so far as to ask friends of mine for phrases to use if I actually have to watch a football game, so I sound like I know what I’m talking about. This strategy, as you might expect, pretty much backfires. I also used to invent player names to amuse myself (George Rumpelbacker was a recurring Tight End) while other people talked about the game. SO. Then. Eight Men Out. John Sayles is a favorite writer/director of mine, and this one knocks me out for its ensemble cast (c’mon — John Cusack, Michael Rooker, David Straithairn, Christopher Lloyd, John Mahoney, and there’s more) and the sad story at its heart. It’s the story of the Black Sox scandal, in which eight players for the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspire to throw the World Series. Sayles focuses wisely on Buck Weaver, who took no money but was thrown out anyway, and Straithairn’s Eddie Cicotte — another in a line of Straithairn’s deeply believable conflicted men.
The Lady Eve (1941 D: Preston Sturges, W: Preston Sturges)
My friend, the producer and cinephile Barbara Stone, said that if anyone asked her advice about what to do if they wanted to write a screenplay or make a film, she’d say, “Go watch The Lady Eve.” Sturges’ mix of romantic comedy, slapstick and deeper social commentary is pretty much unmatched, and his films are marvels of literate dialogue and great comic acting. In this one, Henry Fonda is a naive herpetologist who’s been up the Amazon looking at snakes (Sturges’ metaphors are pretty obvious stuff, and hilarious), when he meets Jean Harrington (Barbra Stanwyck), and falls in love. Of course, she’s a con artist, along with her father Charles Coburn. The plot goes haywire from there, with William Demarest (Uncle Charley from My Three Sons) as Fonda’s voice of reason. There’s not a scene I can think of in film history that matches the intense romanticism, sexual undercurrent and, meanwhile, comic tone of the seductive routine Stanwyck pulls on Fonda, asking him to help her put her shoes on. One of the greatest movies ever.
The Thin Blue Line (1988 D: Errol Morris, W: Errol Morris)
Investigating the case of Randall Dale Adams, a drifter sentenced to life in prison for a murder that, the movie contends, he didn’t commit, The Thin Blue Line is gripping, stylized filmmaking. Using interviews and iconic imagery re-enactments, like the visual of a milkshake flying through the air after a cop is shot, Morris digs deep into the story. Philip Glass’ gorgeous score underlines the film. It’s a compelling tale, and after the film was released, Adams’ case as re-opened and he was released from prison. I don’t know if this is, specifically, the “best” documentary film, but it got a guy out of a life prison sentence, so that must say something.
Out of the Past – Jacques Tourneur (1947 D: Jacques Tourneur, W: Daniel Mainwaring, James M Cain)
It’s a simple line, sure. But one of the most memorable. Jane Greer’s femme fatale is trying desperately to convince Robert Mitchum that she may have done bad things, but she did them for a reason. We know the truth. So does Mitchum, it seems. “Baby,” he says, “I don’t care.” Jacques Tourneur’s noir masterpiece is the peak of the genre, gorgeously shot, appropriately muddied. Tourneur was coming off his run with Val Lewton at RKO and those films’ shadows populate Out of the Past’s aesthetic; Cat People’s Nicholas Musuraca shot Out of the Past. Tourneur would go on to make the great demonic horror movie Curse of the Demon (also known as Night of the Demon).