Tuesday, 8 March 2011

40-31 The Greatest Films I've Seen

 40. Aliens
1986 USA James Cameron 

James Cameron has always played with the opposition of feminine and masculine archetypes (stereotypes?) and the line where they may meet. As with the once flighty Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, Aliens features a vivid icon of the mother / warrior dichotomy: Ripley carrying both Newt and a flamethrower. In both films it is the role of motherhood that triggers a new courage and a new aggression.

Although it's best not to fit films into genre boxes, introducing elements considered as belonging to different genres (with their unwritten rules) necessitates satisfying the audience's hunger for an appropriate pay-off. Putting a child into an environment of extravagant machismo could have been hokey and awkward.  The visceral and sustained explosion of action could easily have suffered when counterweighted with the rhythms of outright horror, which is more vulnerable to an unrelenting pace. Finally, Aliens' science fiction DNA might have been quickly diluted.

Aliens is a one-of-a-kind film that succeeds in getting the best out of these ingredients, building a ferociously terrifying whole. This is a chunky film made of real hardware, far distant from the mirages of computer software.

There is the sight of Newt dwarfed by an Alien slowly emerging from the waters. There is the nauseating flesh of a face-hugger's legs squeaking along metal floors, the beep of oncoming danger, the hiss of acid spat. There is too the fraught gallows humour of a trigger-happy troop made to fearfully tiptoe moist forbidding corridors:

“We can't have any firing in here...”

“What the hell are we supposed to use man? Harsh language?!”

Witness the climactic adulation of one of Cinema's great heroines. Ripley explodes the myth that courage and strength are masculine qualities worn like a marine uniform. They can be feminine qualities too :

“Get away from her you bitch!”

On the feminine/masculine of Aliens and Avatar. 

39. The Skywalk is Gone
2002 Taiwan Tsai Ming-Liang 

In What Time is it There? Shiang-chyi bought a watch from Hsiao-kang from his pitch on a train station's Skywalk that traverses a bustling street. Soon after she left for Paris.

In The Skywalk is Gone she has returned to Taipei, perhaps looking for Hsiao-Kang. Only the skywalk (in real life as well as in the film) has been torn down. She can't search. Nostalgia cannot be refuelled with fresh feeling nor disappointed. She walks. She stops. She asks questions. There is a gap. She stares at a giant screen advertising inanities (Cinema brought low) and, from a cafe, overlooks the area where progress has erased history and memory.

We see Hsiao-kang too. Indeed they pass each other on a staircase. He turns around but darkness and time dull recognition. 

The Skywalk is Gone (which functions as a skywalk between What Time is it There? and The Wayward Cloud) is an elegant depiction of things lost but, regardless of the story, it is a pleasure to look at, to enter into its appealingly crisp and relaxing compositions. Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the few Directors who can make you sad rather than relieved that a long take has ended. In only 22 minutes it refreshes the eyes.

38. Mulholland Drive
2001 USA David Lynch 

The thin gauze of a dream through which seeps the gangrenous wound of reality.

Whether a fantasy or a dream, Diane/Betty's alternate world buries her pain and guilt deep. So momentous are her actions and her suffering, however, that they cannot be contained.

By making Mulholland Drive such a wilfully obscure puzzle-box narrative some of this pain, this human core, is lost on a first viewing. The characters are confused. The viewer is confused. However, the menacing ambience (that Badalamenti hum) and the phenomenal central performance by Naomi Watts leave an indelible mark (or should that be scar?).

You come back to the film not to find answers to questions but to get lost again. You learn that the final tragedy and its true explanation (from which we are kept at arm's length) is less important than the frightening disorientation of Diane/Betty that we are never less than overwhelmed by.

37. Once Upon A Time in America
1984 ITA/USA Sergio Leone 

Of 'period pieces' or adaptations of well-known classics the question is asked: 'How do we bring it into the now? How do we modernise it?' For something set in the past to be 'relevant' (as if people aren't people whenever they were born) and 'alive' there is often the assumption that it must be filtered through the perspectives and realities of the 21st Century. This is nonsense. 

Once Upon A Time in America demonstrates that the past is made relevant and fresh in the same way that all (human) stories are: making every detail of time and place so vivid that it feels like it is right in front of us. In other words, by paying greater attention to the world of the original. We are the 21st Century filter.

Watching, I felt like I'd seen it before - the suitcase of money, the cream cakes, the girl who dances like a music-box ballerina. It was deja vu. So rich was it in its aromas, its pungent smoke and its noises, as if Gheorghe Zamfir's pan pipes were charming something out from far inside and far back.

The first hour is sensational. The childhood of these friends, interspersed with moments of great tension from Noodles' adulthood, thrums with life. It is elegiac. It is moving. Then slowly that sharpness dwindles as the details (bad makeup, implausible motivations) and our sympathies (we see the best in the children but find it hard to feel sorry for a rapist cast as a pitiable loner) falter.

There are still moments - the operatic baby-kidnapping especially - but it's not the same. Noodles' life ends up feeling like that of any gangster. Once Upon A Time in America ends up feeling like any other film. But the memories...

36. The Postman Always Rings Twice
1946 USA Tay Garnett 

He wanted her! She wanted him! Lana Turner has never been so ravishing! John Garfield burns up the screen as the drifter caught in Cora's headlights! 

They loved! They killed! Destiny brought them together, and fate tore them apart!

That blonde hair! That lipstick! Those legs! That scream! James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice as you've never seen it before! Lana Turner as you've seen her a couple of times before! THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE!

In all good DVD stores now.

 35. Oxhide 
2005 CHINA Liu Jiayin 

Why would you want to watch a young woman and her parents eating dinner, measuring how tall she'd grown and arguing over discounts for leather bags? Why would you want to watch a family doing what a family normally does?

Oxhide (written and directed by Liu Jiayin; starring herself and her parents in their apartment) is a humanist and life-affirming film insofar as it shows daily interactions, that we may take for granted as banal and non-dramatic, as they are: nourishing, amusing, and comforting.  It turns the camera on us. 

It makes you smile. It's good to be invited to stay for a couple of days.

Oxhide is painstakingly scripted and rehearsed but, because the 'actors' are so obviously comfortable with each other, it has the glow of real life and of an affection and ease that cannot be faked. Maybe only by creating an artificial framework are they relaxed enough to be themselves on camera.

Jiayin's camera never moves. It is often placed at waist height and more often gives you less than the whole. Whereas Hou Hsiao Hsien's films allow you to turn your head as you sit in the corner of the room and Ozu's allow you an unobstructed view of your hosts, Jiayin's shots are somewhat more intimate (the placement of the camera adds humour too). It feels like a privilege. We are sneaking a peek at the cat hiding or of food being prepared and spiced.

It is a touching family portrait.

34. Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans
1927 USA F W Murnau 

Sunrise is so very beautiful. You bask in its rays.

Their love is so powerful. In fact it is rapturously affirmed in spite of the husband's mercurial desire to kill his wife (she sulks about it for a couple of minutes), This barely believable forgiveness, offered by a stereotypical angelic woman to the stereotypical dopey man, makes of this love a quasi-parodic ideal.

In Antichrist the hellish destruction by “man” and “woman” of their love grows from small seeds. Here, it is the opposite for the similarly nameless pair. Faced with the giant obstacle of her husband's affair and his (albeit short-lived) willingness to bump her off, she takes him back without qualms.

Sunrise is at times too soppy. Perhaps the dropping, in much of the literature on and distribution of Sunrise, of the mawkish “A Song of Two Humans” shows that we are wary of such brazen sentiment.

Nevertheless, most of it is luminous. It is said of some films that they look like great paintings. Sunrise is a painting. With light. 

33. Southland Tales
2006 USA Richard Kelly 

Southland Tales has been popularly dismissed as a garbled mess, a cornucopia of "undigested" influences, a "self-indulgent" folly. 
Southland Tales is gorgeous.  It is inventive and transporting in a way precious few films are. If worth can be judged by how hard it would be to replace something if it were lost, Southland Tales, in a cinematic world of few risks and little true insight, is priceless. It is sui generis, visually stunning, funny, moving, and only rarely less than startling. It is a carnival mirror to the fractured and melancholic mind-set of a United States reeling from terrorist attacks.

I believe Richard Kelly, in showing characters searching for truth and meaning in a troubled world, is doing as much as Andrei Tarkovsky did, in Sacrifice, Stalker  or Nostalghia, for the cinema of spiritual quest. 

Denying it a place in the top ten are flashes of quirkiness for its own sake, sketch-like fragments that don't quite work. Nevertheless, I doubt I'll see a film like Southland Tales again.

Read my essay on Southland Tales and Bad Lieutenant entitled A Wounded America

32. Sátántangó
1994 HUN Bela Tarr 

It is very hard to describe the films of Béla Tarr, for me at least. Then again, the greater a work of art the more it surpasses the unremarkable, to which we are practised in giving words.

Snail-like camera, thudding sounds, chiaroscuro eclatant and a thousand textures of grey. From Damnation to Tarr's latest, A Man from London (almost as good as Sátántangó), there is a monolithic weightiness to his work. 

The style gives the people of his films - downtrodden by circumstances humdrum (the inescapable in music repeated) and mystical - a kind of gravitas and presence tied to the land, to the houses, to the limitations of their minds and bodies. It would be remiss to suggest that the plot of Sátántangó is of little consequence but, truth be known, the sedentary and torpid grace of its images and movements overshadow the comings and goings of the village.

The girl and her cat, the owl in the darkness, the doctor hunched over his desk, the prostitutes huddling round a barn fire, the haunted eyes of helpless souls and the protracted tango that leads to rare gaiety in well-earned exhaustion. If only it were ten hours long instead of seven.

31. The Village
2004 USA M Night Shyamalan 

Grief is a retreat inwards. So, often, is fear. 

The elders of The Village want to escape all evil and protect innocence. They think that 'Us' and 'Them' can be separated. Only 'us' is 'them' and innocence will always be sullied and corrupted by wrongdoing or by suffering.

The Village is a proper story - a fabulous concept, beautifully executed. 

'Us' and 'Them' can be the US and "Them", as many have proposed. The monsters and the people in "the towns" could represent anything : terrorists, foreigners, members of other races, cultures or ways of life considered damaging. Fear creates fear. The Village, powerfully simple and splendidly constructed, is fertile ground for allegory.

A situation will always stand for and bring to mind similar situations. We needn't focus directly on those echoes, nor should we, lest we lose our intimacy with the story at hand. The Village is by turns sweet, nerve-wracking and heart-rending. These people have lost faith in others and, therefore, in themselves. They have endured the death of loved ones and they can no longer bring themselves to live.


  1. This is a really fascinating project, Stephen, refreshing in its eclecticism, and I definitely look forward to seeing how the list plays out. You've knocked out a few here that would be heavy hitters for me as well; Mulholland Drive, Southland Tales, and Sunrise I count as all-time personal favorites, movies I watch at least once a year that always effortlessly thrust me into that special zone of cinematic nirvana. The big ones here I still need to see are Satantango and Once Upon A Time in America, and Oxhide sounds just fantastic, very much up my alley.

    I also have to give you props for including The Village. I'm pretty certain it wouldn't appear on a list of mine like this, but I do like it quite a bit, and it's easily my favorite thing Shyamalan has done behind Unbreakable. It's such a richly felt work, in both its allegory and aesthetics, and crafts some sequences of really unbelievable suspense. I remember seeing this in the theater being one of the more intensely visceral aural/visual experiences I'd had at the movies in a long time.

  2. Thanks, Drew!

    I'm always glad to hear SOUTHLAND TALES being praised. I think it, as well as THE VILLAGE, will grow with time once expectations and critical hammerings have been forgotten.

    THE VILLAGE, much like BAD LIEUTENANT and SOUTHLAND TALES, is another portrait of a wounded america or wounded americans trying to restore its/their footing.

    THE VILLAGE for me is Shyamalan's best, with LADY IN THE WATER close behind. I didn't see it at the cinema. It is intense and tragic. The ending is complex too - not sad or happy but uplifting in some way.

  3. Seeing Mulholland Dr., Southland Tales and The Village makes my heart skip a beat out of joy. Even if I wouldn't put The Village in my own top 50, it's still one of the best Shyamalan efforts in one excellent career with just one spec of dust: Lady in the Water, which I thought I'd love, but I didn't. (Haven't seen Last Airbender yet).
    Southland Tales is one of the masterpieces of modern cinema and I love every bit of it, have you read the graphic novels? (that I should've mentioned when you did the thing about artist/directors, Richard Kelly wrote those comics.

  4. Jaime,

    Ah, another vote for Southland Tales . I like The Last Airbender (it seems that people who enjoyed the animated series dislike the film, but I like both) though I don't think it's nearly as good as The Village .

    I knew about Richard Kelly's comics but I haven't read them. Are they integral to the plot of the film or are they stand-alone?

  5. I'm so happy to see all this love for Southland Tales - where was all that affection when the movie came out and everyone was making fun of it nonstop? It's such a great, fun, hyper movie, a wonderfully skewed vision of our media-deluged society. It's Kelly's best movie by some distance, and the Rock actually delivers a hilarious, wonderful perfomance, all little twitches and broadly mugging expressions.

    Mulholland Dr. is one of my very favorite movies, and probably the movie I've seen more times than any other.

    I can't get behind The Village, though. Love the atmosphere, love the visuals, but the writing, the acting, and the final act are all pretty lousy. As for Lady in the Water, yikes - I've seen contrarian attempts to redeem that film in the past, and they inevitably seem like they're ignoring the film itself. Can't say I blame them.

    Anyway, this continues to be an unpredictable list, and that's great!

  6. Ed,

    "Fun" is the word. It's always making you laugh or smile, even when there are grave things at stake. Yes, The Rock is good. I knew he'd be a good actor from his Wrestling days (a top school for honing a larger-than-life charisma)

    I think The Box is a very good film too, because it doesn't want to stop going through the vortex of strangeness until it starts to be so much more than you expected.

    I don't think The Village is poorly written at all. Sometimes the acting by Joaquin Phoenix or Adrien Brody doesn't convince me but otherwise I think the cast are very good. The last act, for me, is the best part.

    I like Lady in the Water and consider it his 2nd best film. I don't like it to be contrarian and I don't think any part of it needs to be redeemed.

    Thanks again.

  7. It's nice to see The Village here. Unlike most people I'm not too shocked to see it since the film already made my top 10 of 2004 and my top 100 of the last decade.

    To me, it's a flawless work, comparable to von Trier's Dogville as a satire on contemporary post-9/11 society (and not just because both films take place in artificial villages during mock-recreations of the past), as well as a drama that makes fairly weighty statements about the nature of humanity; questioning our propensity for violence, conflict, forgiveness and love.

    I'm also a big fan of Lady in the Water, a film that requires no excuses; the most direct and heartfelt of Shyamalan's films about loss and tragedy (a main theme in all his films, including The Last Airbender) as well as an incredibly intelligent meta-comment on the nature of stories, how stories are told and the role that stories play in giving hope to the hopeless.

    Looking forward to the next instalment.

  8. Stephen,

    Remember how the movie starts with Chapter IV?

    Well the first three chapters are the three comics. They are essential, to some, to understand the movie.

  9. Lights in the Dusk,

    That's a good comparison you make with Dogville. I'm not a big fan of it and, because of that, I've avoided Manderlay so far.

    It's nice to hear that someone else enjoys Lady in the Water . What did you think of The Last Airbender ?

    "Looking forward to the next instalment."


  10. Jaime,

    "Remember how the movie starts with Chapter IV?"

    Only now that you've mentioned it. A true chapter IV rather than a retrospectively renamed one (!)

    Well, I'll definitely look for them now. Thanks.

  11. RE: The Last Airbender

    I enjoyed the spectacle of it. The action sequences, fight choreography, CGI, set-design, soundtrack and cinematography were all excellent; something the majority of mainstream critics seemed to conveniently gloss over when trashing the dramatic aspects of the film.

    I suppose it did suffer from being the first in a planned trilogy. The 90 minute running time was too brief to really establish everything; 120 minutes at the least would have given the story more room to breathe. It felt like only half a film.

    That said I still admire the way Shyamalan brought his own thematic interests and visual style to the mythology of the series. I found it interesting as a companion piece to Unbreakable, which has the same emphasis on a character discovering he has extraordinary powers and learning how to use them.

  12. I was so excited for Southland Tales - especially after it got terrible reviews - and I thought it was unbelievably inert. So much plot, and it just seemed to amount to little more than a couple of mystical events which were completely meaningless, pure fantasy. The AMERICAN plot mechanics just sullied what could have been great in someone like Kusturica's hands. I guess there's a reason why I barely watch American films anymore. The musical number was great, though, and if that sort of aside could have ruled the film I would have loved it. I'm not a big fan of Tsai, but I haven't yet seen The Wayward Cloud which just might be the one to see, given what I just said.

    I love Tarr's cinema, though, and Satantango is filled with some amazingly choreographed camera movements which oftentimes don't show much but use duration and juxtaposition in ways that montage never could.

    Everything else I'm kind of indifferent about or haven't seen. Mulholland Drive included, except for its ending. Pastiche is not really my bag, I guess. Crazy little people on the screen along with nightmarish subjective camera effects? Yes please! Again, I don't understand why these parts are pastiche instead of explored fully.

  13. Lights in the Dusk,

    Yes, TLA was very nice to look at. I heard the 3D was poor but that's not how I watched it.

    Generally I enjoyed the film quite a lot. It lacked a little spark for me - some of the goofiness (or even the laughter and smiles) that helped make the animated series so enjoyable.

    On the other hand, if you truncate a long story into 90 minutes then there is no time, for these characters, to take things lightly. I appreciated their seriousness. They weren't smart alecs, they weren't precocious or irritating. They were sombre and determined.

    I also liked how the film ends with a show of strength/nature's power that unites the warring tribes in awe. In the series Aang destroyed them, or at least drove them away.

    re Unbreakable it never grabbed me but, given that I've liked his later films ( The Happening apart) I may go back and watch it again.

  14. Jean,

    I can certainly see how Southland Tales could be seen as a hodge-podge of self-conscious strangeness. All I can say is that it worked on me.

    I haven't seen The Wayward Cloud either. I watched What Time is it There? after The Skywalk is Gone and was disappointed.

    About Tarr, sometimes I wish he would use even fewer shots, so that you could get lost in them. Most of his very best scenes, for me, are the opening shots, mere introductions to the story. In The Man From London the Black and White seems in higher contrast and I preferred that crispness - only the story doesn't captivate.

    I see where you are coming from on Mulholland Drive as I might similar criticisms of Lost Highway or Inland Empire . It is as if, now and again, that he doesn't wish to look the truth of the tale straight in the eye.

  15. Great seeing ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, SUNRISE and SATANTANGO here, though several others sweeten the pot as well. As I stated under a previous installment, I admire the astounding richness and diversity, and the glorious time period mix. I have one piece of very good news (a press release) here Stephen:

    "Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America getting the restoration treatment in Italy
    Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America starring Robert De Niro and James Woods is getting a digital restoration including the addition of 40 minutes of footage that had been trimmed following the picture’s 1984 Cannes premiere. Leone’s children have picked up the Italian rights to the film and are working on the restoration with the film’s original sound editor. The plan is to debut the restoration at either Venice or Cannes in 2012. No specific word on what kind of US theatrical or DVD exposure this thing will get, but it’s got to happen.."

  16. Oh yes, I like THE VILLAGE quite a bit too, and have defended it tirelessly!

  17. Thanks Sam for the kind words and the information on Once Upon A Time in America . Forty more minutes sounds great.

    Glad to hear more appreciation for The Village too.

  18. 'It is as if, now and again, that he doesn't wish to look the truth of the tale straight in the eye.'

    For me, I just wish his lies looked less like other people's lies. When they look like nobody's but his own I swoon.

    As for Tarr, he definitely has a way with opening shots. The cows in Satantango are just amazing, for no apparent reason. I have no comment on your wish for fewer shots, if only because I find it difficult to imagine Satantango's length being comprised of fewer shots. Or maybe I could imagine it, but it'd take me about 7 hours, and I'd rather just watch the film.

  19. Jean,

    "When they look like nobody's but his own I swoon."

    Yes, nicely put.

    "Or maybe I could imagine it, but it'd take me about 7 hours, and I'd rather just watch the film."

    Haha! The more pared down, 'slow' films I see the more I wish they were slower still. I think it's because I want them to be even more different from the norm and therefore in some way more interesting/refreshing/useful.

  20. Oh my. This is getting dizzier and dizzier. I'm glad that there's love for The Village.

    "Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the few Directors who can make you sad rather than relieved that a long take has ended.' - Glad you said that, Stephen.

  21. "I'm glad that there's love for The Village."

    I propose that those that like The Village form a peaceful community away from it all where one can like it undisturbed, innocent of the mauling it often receives in the towns.

    I'm not often moved by the stories of Tsai Ming-Liang's films but I do like watching them for the feel - he has cool bursts of colour once in a while too.