Friday, 4 March 2011

50-41 The Greatest Films I've Seen

First I just want to mention a few films that I could barely distinguish from those that made the Top 50.

There are those films which begin extremely strongly and then tail off, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath, Takashi Miike's Bird People in China, Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, and Ti West's House of the Devil. There are films I feel begin relatively poorly before reaching an excellence that doesn't quite erase those initial disappointments, like Michael Mann's emotionally epic Public Enemies.

In the main the films that just missed out were generally lacking the ineffable that turns the very good into the unique and unforgettable: Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Karol Kachyna's tale of spying in Communist Czechoslovakia, Ucho, Karoly Makk's story of unconditional love in Communist Hungary, Szerelem, as well as Woman in the Dunes, Black Swan, Airplane, Dark City, Roma, Città Aperta and Matthew Bright's Freeway in which Reese Witherspoon galvanises the film with a presence and a charm seen only rarely, from Giulietta Masina, say, in Le Notti Di Cabiria or Ruan Ling Yu in The Goddess.

And now...

50. L'Eclisse
1962 ITA Michelangelo Antonioni

The three symbolic varnishes of this one image - the future, war, sex - bleed out like blotted ink. 

The unbearable (mainly sexual) tension of this first scene, feeling the heat through the fans that fight it off, reveals itself as the shrapnel of love in breakdown. Slowly, though, we sense a broader existential unease, a stopping up. Vittoria is restless and indecisive (portrayed brilliantly by Monica Vitti). She doesn't have a place.

This breathlessness, this growing sense of her being caught inside herself, despite an ostensibly electrifying new love, is transformed and extended to everyone by the denouement, which is only obliquely hinted at in the preceding story. Antonioni thought later that he was crazy to shoot the ending, an ending that manages to half-change (the switch is too abrupt for it to properly take root) many of the meanings of L'Eclisse's recurring images.

Antonioni's films, even the tedious majority, have a style apart - profound sensuality and outrageous symbolism matched with controlled minimalist compositions.

I was left groping for words with which to pin the film (which has moments of engrossing boredom) down until I finally refused to name what could not be properly named. So much of film, and Antonioni's films, is atmosphere, knowing through feeling. It's in the air.

 49. Knowing
2009 USA Alex Proyas

While L'Eclisse's ending (a 'twist' really) has little foundation, Knowing's, attacked by many for ruining an 'intelligent thriller', is organic, signposted and prepared for. It is the cap on an excellent film, as exciting in the quietly human as in the shudderingly cataclysmic.

Much of Knowing's cold sweatiness derives from the fact that, despite the film and the numbers insistence that the characters' fate is pre-determined, we believe, perhaps because of these strictures, that there will still be a way out. We are sure that a conventional filmic cheat awaits. 

Knowing plays with expectation. We expect John to embark on a romantic relationship with the woman, Diana, whose fate is intertwined with his. He doesn't. We expect him to use the numbers that foretell the future to save people. He doesn't. We expect him to grow out of his grief for his dead wife and to bond with his son. This he does, but in a way that allows him to let go of everything. 

Knowing is about one man's happiness in and acceptance of a loneliness from what he holds dear, what he cannot see or embrace any longer. He is a symbol of that same relationship of belief and care between Man and God.

The last ten minutes inspire awe because of the emotional conditions in which it occurs. It is so very hard to make the other-worldly fearsome and grand when graphical advances have brought us fantastical sights week after week. There needs to be groundwork laid. The ending is superlative. An adaptation of the Book of Revelations? Why the hell not?

 48. Abraham Valley 
1993 POR Manoel de Oliveira 

Abraham Valley proves that you can like a film without liking any of the people in it. In fact you can actively dislike them; their intellectual debauchery, their well-spoken sleaze.

Abraham Valley, loosely based on Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, tells of Ema, nicknamed Bovarinha, a married woman of loose morals and a looser sense of what she might want from her life. She has affairs that give her little pleasure and converses with would-be lotharios, at length, about love, a love she has only ever really felt for her family's deaf servant. They act as if Bourgeois Greek Gods, their every movement, utterance and caress an invaluable gift.

By the end her inoffensive husband has grown so tired of her flirtatious inconstancy that he hurls the cat she has suggestively stroked for many years towards the camera. It is as if he is saying, on our behalf : "enough of this bloody square-dance".

Oliveira's films lie in a fictional no man’s land, a ghostly literary atmosphere, with codes of courtship and ways of appreciating beauty that seem both anachronistic and fresh.

We feel true Ema only once, when we see in her eyes the numbed fear that there are no more paths in front of her.
That said, Abraham Valley's pomposity, which does not come across as comic or ironic, is somehow swept up into a perfume, a seductive and blissful haze. Ema (Leonor Silveira) has a presence. You understand why every man wants her and why her husband needs her "like a worm needs soil". The soft-spoken and measured narrator, too, lends the people and their sun-blessed villages a detached and languorous relaxation, like the slackening muscles of a couple who have just made love.

It really is splendid.

47. The Bourne Ultimatum
2007 USA Paul Greengrass

A wronged man. A skilled and highly-trained underdog seeking truth and revenge, cleaning house, leaving a bloody trail of justice.

Bold women putting their necks on the block. Unscrupulous authority pulling out all the stops to cacophonous crescendo.

The Bourne Ultimatum is one of the finest of all pure action films. The entire film, the last in a trilogy, is a brilliant third act chase. The chased is chasing, the snake swallowing its own tail. A bullet following its course, no time for comic baubles or for romantic hurdles, the unstable camera visualising Bourne's whiplash mind, the internal rush of panic and curiosity that is always, frustratingly, going faster than he can run.

Kinetic and thrilling, battle lines are drawn and scrubbed out all over the world. And when the battle is won our joy knows no bounds.

Read here The Bourne Ultimatum as an Action/Sports film.

46. The Searchers
1956 USA John Ford

Corralling classic spurs to action and audience participation - the damsel in distress, men on a mission, revenge for a brutal massacre, young love and unbreachable hate - The Searchers is every bit the sum of its parts and more, yoking big scenery to big emotion, beauty to beastliness.

Its epic roar, carved in the determined face of John Wayne's Ethan, does not quieten in the vast plains, the mountain ranges and the snowy forests. There may be stereotypical fools and greenhorns who colour the film silly but that triviality is the echo of home and the love of family that will pierce through Ethan's trenchant racism and rescue Debbie from her captivity (whose effects are, it must be said, rather incredible).

What makes The Searchers all the more rousing is that we are twice unsure of where we are going : Is Debbie alive and will Ethan kill her if she is?

This is a rare Western that is neither tourism brochure, historical re-enactment or hagiography of hats, whips and stirrups. As long as the men search, we're with them. As long as the women wait, we're with them. 

The sadness is that Ethan doesn't need to search for what he wants, what he wants above all things. She will not be captured.

 45. Lonesome
1928  USA Pal Fejos 

As it is for Ethan in The Searchers, love is close to home for the protagonists of Lonesome. Here, though, there is hope.

Mary and Jim live alone in their little flats, go to work alone but, from their windows, they watch the same floats and bands pass down the street.

Then, one sunny day, they spot each other and form an unspoken connection that glistens. We feel it immediately.

If they're going to be lonely then why not be lonely together? They visit the bustling attractions of Coney Island, content at long last to have companionship, someone to share a happiness with, an experience for two.

There is a fantastic scene that takes place on a gradually-deserted beach where they sit and talk. They are comfortable and awkward all at once. 

This scene was meant to be a sound scene with heard dialogue. Critics have bemoaned the inadequacy of the version (the version I saw) in which we hear nothing. Yet, for me, it is serendipitous. The scene is rare and perfect as silent. We sense what they are saying with their body language, leaning near and away, no need to put words in their mouths when budding love talks through their eyes.

Lonesome is a sweet and simple story, a demure knockout.

 44. Demonlover
2002 FRA Olivier Assayas

The same year that Brian De Palma released Femme Fatale, Olivier Assayas' Demonlover came to theatres. 

Both tales of mystery saturated with colour and energy and ideas, Demonlover was the pessimistic to Femme Fatale's optimistic side of the coin. It was also superior, matched only, in its ability to titillate and horrify on the spiral into the unknown, by David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

In Demonlover images have lost meaning for people, uncoupled from the reality in which they are born. As if digitised, we can be bought, sold and abused.

Diane moves in the world of animated pornography, a domain growing 'interactive' with the popular torture-a-la-carte site "Hellfire Club". She and her competitors want control over distribution. No-one knows who's stabbing who in the back and what level of the game each character is on. Whoever wants to climb to the top can also end up at the bottom.

Sleek and messy, Demonlover is an exhilarating film on all levels. It shows us our desires taken to (logical?) extremes and, while it gives us pleasure, it makes us sick.

For a full review of Demonlover click here

43. Top Secret!
1984 USA Abrahams, Zucker, Zucker

If Comedies are quarries to be mined for laughs, then Top Secret! is perhaps the most sparkling haul of all. 

 It doesn't subtly and gingerly pick away at the rock-face; it blasts a hole a mile wide. Nevertheless there is always intelligence in the service of its high-class nonsense. Once extracted, the jokes, whether primarily verbal or physical, are immaculately polished.

Its story may be weaker and more confused/convoluted than the trio's more revered The Naked Gun and Airplane but it is funnier.

Top Secret! isn't always a spoof of Elvis Films or War Films or the thousands of conventions that have built up since Lumieres' train rolled in (speaking of which, a gag involving a train and a platform is one of the highlights). Rather it is a comedy that wants to make mirth from everything, even if its digressions derail the plot or a couple of whoppers fall flat. 

Big gags and little ones come thick and fast, delivered furiously deadpan or with a giant goofy Val Kilmer grin. It is, I think, the funniest film I've seen.

 42. Antichrist
2009  DEN etc. Lars Von Trier 

Their son has died and a hole has opened up within them. The woman grieves the deepest, with asthmatic desperation.
Fissures open up as little power struggles and resentments shake them. They comfort each other as if they are feeding on each other. She accuses him of being exploitative, baring her teeth, screaming, her very soul turned inside out.

As in the films of Ingmar Bergman, or Park Chan Wook's Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance, the human being is shown as raw flesh and blood, capable of inflicting cruelty and suffering unimaginable pain. The dark earthen hues and fierce physicality recall the striking brutality of Goya's black paintings. Awful intensity and pellucid stillness.

Antichrist's immediacy makes every extreme act, allegorical im/complication and supernatural apparition (accusations of misogyny were baseless) credible and apt, the result of a grief and a guilt that swallows everything.

 41. Home Alone 2 : Lost in New York
1992 USA Chris Columbus
Perhaps I saw Home Alone 2 at the right age, not far from the age Kevin was when he got lost in New York.

Kevin was cool. He was ingenious and resourceful and yet he was still a kid, scared and lonely. I liked that. I liked that he got one over on the burglars, the child who tormented and bested the adults.

I liked the warmth of his hotel apartment against the cold, crisp Winter. Inside was safety, fun and frolics, outside were the ruthless bad guys, away from anything that meant family and comfort. It was that same potion of gleeful mischief, of defeating those sour-faced Grinches, that powered another film set at Christmas, Die Hard

I revelled in Home Alone 2 and its cartoon antics (see Joe Dante's segment It's A Good Life from The Twilight Zone: The Movie for evidence that cartoons are nightmarish creations). Although I don't like seeing people humiliated Home Alone 2 is an exception, schadenfreude at its best. He may have had a red nose, but they had the red faces.


  1. Wow, that's quite a list so far, Stephen. I love that you've got L'eclisse, The Searchers and Home Alone 2 within a few spaces of one anther, even if I can't share your enthusiasm for the latter movie (to say the least). This is obviously a very personal list that doesn't get hung up on consensus or tradition.

    L'eclisse is an amazing film, utterly hypnotic in its slow rhythms, its graceful way of insinuating us into the lives of these bourgeois drifters who long for something more without quite knowing what that something is. And that ending! Oh, it's beautiful, and sad, and also kind of a knowing shrug: life goes on, whether these beautiful movie heroes find love and satisfaction or not.

    Love that you have the final Bourne movie on here; those flicks wouldn't make my best list, but I can sympathize with what you say about them being "pure action," kinetic and intense, nearly abstract. They all tend to blend together in my mind as a series of great action set pieces, chases across buildings, bullets flying everywhere, the stoic hero looking confused and determined at once.

    Looking forward to the rest of the list.

  2. Thanks very much Ed.

    "This is obviously a very personal list that doesn't get hung up on consensus or tradition."

    Yes. I think I managed to be honest and not thumb my nose for the sake of it.

    "And that ending! Oh, it's beautiful, and sad, and also kind of a knowing shrug: life goes on, whether these beautiful movie heroes find love and satisfaction or not."

    The ending really took me by surprise and it's very effective as a stand-alone sequence. I like your description/reading of it.

    "They all tend to blend together in my mind as a series of great action set pieces, chases across buildings, bullets flying everywhere, the stoic hero looking confused and determined at once."

    Funny you should say that considering that's how I used to feel (and still do to an extent) about French and Italian films of the 1960s, the same affairs, the same ennui.

  3. I like to think that the real value of lists like these is to triangulate the creator's unique aesthetic geography and to seduce the reader by not only exposing him/her to new or previously unexamined films but also to create a new context in which to understand the films, individually and as a whole. By contrast, we all know what a boring list looks like, and this is definitely not one of those. I greatly enjoyed reading this and can't wait to see the rest!

    Antichrist is a personal favorite of mine as well.

  4. Many thanks Trevor.

    I was dreading the punchline to "we all know what a boring list looks like,.."(!)

    ANTICHRIST could have been quite a bit higher. It's such an intense film that sometimes it can turn me off a little as well as blow me away.

  5. I can now safely predict that this list will not be predictable.

    Maybe when it's all over I can begin to make some sense out of this. As for now, it's like an explosion of culture clash. For the record, I just want to say that my childhood memories place the Gremlins films over the Home Alone films. I just want to put that on the record.

  6. Jean,

    "I can now safely predict that this list will not be predictable."


    "I just want to put that on the record."

    Duly noted.

    I hope I've intrigued you rather than alienated you.

  7. You've done both at the same time, which means you have intrigued me all the more so. As Trevor said, a list that is persistently predictable is boring, so even if all the films are great it becomes grating. Consider: You're watching someone write out a passage from a book you know and love on a chalkboard, and while every word that they write out comes from a source that you know and love, but because you already know and love it so much the writing becomes a redundant afterthought and the only thing that you can sense is the repetitive scraping of chalk against a chalkboard. In fact the day that you posted this list I had gone through some lists of people's favorite films listed on another website and there were so many lists that were just chalk scraping against a chalkboard, I just gave up. Besides, Val Kilmer has already made an appearance, what more could you ask?

  8. Well thanks again Jean. I'm glad.

    I've felt that scraping of the chalkboard myself a couple of times. There'll always be a place for Val Kilmer.

  9. Wow, Bourne Ultimatum, Antichrist & Home Alone 2 have made it to your Top 50! Rarely does one get to see lists that have included classic, eclectic, controversial and mainstream films with such ease and bravado!!!

    Well Stephen, all I can say right now is, I'm already hooked to the subsequent posts to this series.

  10. Thanks very much, Shubhajit.

    I try to treat films that are vastly different, and offer you different things, in the same way.

    I hope you enjoy the rest.

  11. Yep, HOME ALONE and ANTICHRIST pretty much tells how your wildly unpredictable film sensibilities would find their most strongest slant in a list such as this. Of course I love the inclusion of the Antonioni and the Ford, but I applaud the selection of so many from left field, and how you offer up persuasive defenses. Heck I actially dislike a few of these, but that's why it's fun. There's an irreverence and a refusual to acknowledge a full course of stuffy canonical choices. Bravo, Stephen!

  12. Sam,

    Thank you. I'm happy if I can explain why I chose what I chose and make it a worthwhile read even for someone who dislikes some of them.

    Thanks again.

  13. Wow. This is scandalizing. And simply exciting...

    "As long as the men search, we're with them. As long as the women wait, we're with them. " - You floored me right there...

  14. "Scandalizing". I like that!

    "You floored me right there..."

    Thanks very much. Have you seen Demonlover ? It's a really exciting, thrilling film - the kind that puts you through the wringer.

  15. Stay away from Antonioni, please.