My Favorite Movies of All Time, circa age 30 – #80-71

80. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985, UK/USA)

Snottily nihilistically angry, but easy to watch in spite of that. In a career like Gilliam’s who has practically bled to build every manic visual from the bottom up as the film industry turned as labyrinthine as the indifferent and cold bureaucracy that this movie portrays, Brazil feels like his magnum opus in aligning us with the tragic flights of fancy that its doomed functionary indulges in and transforming that into incredible designs that blur the escapist daydream and the dystopian nightmare together. Plus it’s undeniable that Gilliam is the member of Monty Python least inclined for comic performance, but he was still a member of Monty Python and so that indulgent absurd sense of humor lives in most of the walls Brazil entraps us in.

79. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984, USA)

Ironically for a band that has since had so much bad blood as Talking Heads has, this is than one of the great utilizations of capturing the energy and ethos of a live performance and containing it in the parameters of a film: as Joel Bocko at Lost in the Movies said before me (number 89 on his list), this is the story of a lone joining a community. And it speaks to me how invisibly that’s made, we get one weird stranger (as in the isolated “Psycho Killer” performance) meeting a friend (when Tina Weymouth joins for “Heaven”) and then another friend (when Chris Frantz jumps in for “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”) and so on until there’s an entire exciting ecosystem of sounds and visuals to transform the stage into living art. It’s also powerful enough to turn me into a Talking Heads fan simply from watching it.

78. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA)

Psycho probably deserves the acclaim it gets for demolishing narrative cinema as we knew it in 1960, but one can already the nugget of Hitchcock’s destructive reaction to his Hollywood success with Vertigo – possibly the sickest work by one of our sickest classic filmmakers. That it gets across this by subverting and weaponizing our associations with colorful spectacle, star power, and mystery storytelling ends up flexing what made him a master of the form, channeling that form to an angry and much too uncomfortable dive in the most malicious of cinematic psychosexual minds.

77. Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925, Soviet Union)

For a long while, I was a bit peevish that Battleship Potemkin took all the glory. Given that movie’s appearance in the previous installment, you can tell my attitude has changed, but I remain certain that Eisenstein’s debut is the crown jewel of his career. In lieu of establishing the vocabulary of narrative filmmaking (though it does do that), Strike also feels most given to experimentation with the allegorical statements constructed between the cut like letters in a word: it’s so fast that it feels like a direct shot of adrenaline, sometimes blurring images together with abandon but never losing the clarity of the impact, and sometimes breaking down the image into dynamic shapes and ghosts. In a year that saw Eisenstein giving us two masterpieces of leftist passion, Strike feels like the one where the passion is in the DNA of the motion picture itself.

76. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004, Senegal/France/Burkina Faso/Cameroon/Morocco/Tunisia)

If you ask me what movie feels the closest to carrying humanity in it, I’d regard it as a really hokey hypothetical that I’ve imagined as a question and then recommend the final film of Ousmane Sembène. The sense of color alone in its costuming, location shooting, and general designs is electrifying in its own right and the performances have an honesty to them that emboldens its central function as message picture against institutionalized misogyny. One of the earliest instances of me finding out how easily watchable modern world cinema could be (as I was apprehensive specifically on the recommendation of a college professor who I feel quite literally missed the forest for the trees when he described it before playing it) and I’m desperate for some boutique label to give this the high definition release it long deserved.

75. Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996, USA)

The Coen brothers are my favorite American filmmakers that are still working and while (spoiler alert) this is not my tippity-top favorite of theirs, it is the first exposure I had to their work and yet it’s also the only film I feel I’ve never been able to exhaust. Every shot rolls around in my brain for a while in how it fits within the cosmic fatalism and the characteristic Midwesternism of the Minnesota boys’ most Midwestern movie. The heavy notes of Carter Burwell’s score anchor themselves in killing my vibe hours after every watch. It’s maybe the most potent contemporary shot of my personal pessimism towards the world I have to live in, but it grapples that with a deep desire to at least eke out throw that snowblind of greed and misery and malice with hope and contentment embodied by one of the Coens’ great character creations: Marge Gunderson. It doesn’t mix its sense of humor and its soul-breaking darkness in one so much as make the tension central to how much of a challenging experience Fargo is, assuming you don’t just approach it as the perfect black-comedy thriller that it really just is on the tin.

74. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa Teinosuke, 1926, Japan)

The same sort of toolkit as Strike up above and its Soviet montage contemporaries, but this time in service to slippery surreal psychological horror. Feels like even the heightened contrast and beaten age of the celluloid in which this nearly-lost cinematic spiral is sourced adds texture to all the madness, not as a ground for us to find our footing but as a sensation that we feel we can hold in our hand and watch curdle throughout it. And amplifying the most sophisticated and cutting-edge technique of silent cinema against the already heightened pageantry of classical Japanese acting means we have passengers on this mental descent.

73. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998, USA)

It’s really possible that my second-favorite Malick is a toss-up (and yes, that read “second-favorite”. My number one is still to come) but this film feels at once like the most obvious entry to parody but also because it’s the quintessential version of everything he does that I love. The kaleidoscope of perspectives within a revolving door of famous faces only appearing for a flash to give the sensation that we know everyone this war is happening to, the meditative slowness taking more precedence that the combat we would expect of a war film, the general sense of being in-tune with the earth and the spirit of the film (the latter underlined by what remained my favorite Hans Zimmer score, even back when he was my nemesis), and most of all the real tension there is between admiration and condescension for the characters and just the tragedy of them being there intruding in the land against the blissful experience of knowing that land. It’s truly a poetic film that uses the concept of “war” as a pretext to struggle against what value life has in its fleeting existence and what remains in our wake. Plus, its general construction is – as someone most fascinated with film editing above any other component of moviemaking – one of my holy grails of movie editing.

72. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949, UK)

It’s funny: while I vehemently reject this movie’s categorization as film noir (it has to be post-war AND American, sorry!), it still feels like the movie that most illustrated to me what attitude and shadows come from that time and place as it matches the shape of that favorite of visual suites for me. In any case, what can’t be taken away is how it is the purest representation of cynicism and nihilism in the wake of one of the heaviest moments in the 21st Century and it gets that attitude not just by the shadowy applications but what it is applying those shadows to: its location shooting in the genuine rubble of Vienna and a dejected story of a man learning his best friend is a huge piece of shit.

71. The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928, USA)

Impressionist atmospheres and expressionist shadows, two characteristics of two of the greatest film movements of the silent era packed into one melodramatic package (and probably brought in by von Sterberg’s European background exposed to German and French cinema). That’s probably a big part of why – as a former New Yorker – I don’t blink twice about considering an non-realist portrayal of that city as maybe my favorite movie set there (different from my favorite movie ABOUT New York, which is Across 110th Street) but it’s really more about the universal emotions captured in a couple of seaside buildings over a few nights and dragged along by a pair of complex romantic performances. It’s not the soul of New York but the soul of people at the edge of New York: poor, shuffling, and looking for a connection for a couple of hours to distract them from the madness of the real world. When I lived in New York, I could relate to all of that and I’m glad to revisit those feelings in the span of this movie’s way-too-short 70-something minutes.

At the Movies

It’s been 10 years since Roger Ebert passed away on 4 April 2013, so by now we certainly have a generation of moviegoers and commenters who may be aware of who Ebert was but never experienced the way he was for decades THE film critic. A voice that reflect on populist sensibilities in the moviegoing landscape while also being extremely readable as writing in and of itself, an inescapable watermark towards marrying the conversational prose of film writing with the curious analysis and democratizing the sophisticated principles we bring when we talk about movies in any platform. If you were cursorily interested in movies beyond a casual interest between the 1970s to the early 2010s, you couldn’t escape his influence on how the mainstream processed movies and if you were still only interested in movies as a casual timepass around that time, you probably still encountered his quotes or clips of his entertaining At the Movies broadcast he shared with rival critic Gene Siskel and then successor Richard Roeper after Siskel’s passing.

When it comes to Steve James 2014 documentary Life Itself, taking its title and occasional passages from Ebert’s 2011 memoir, it is only partially interested in presenting a hagiographic summary of Ebert’s journey into becoming the most influential film critic possibly of all time. It goes through most of the expected beats of his career: Ebert’s beginnings as editor of his college’s newspaper The Daily Illini, his time as the film critic for Chicago Sun-Times, his establishing of the Cinema Interruptus series of interactive film talks as a staple for the annual Conference of World Affairs, and of course the broadcasting of At the Movies (but curiously not even referring to Roeper at all in the whole movie). But even through the continual display that Ebert loves movies and loves talking about movies and writing about movies when his battle with cancer took his ability of speech, there’s little illustration about the movies he loves or such specifics. It’s given the broader dimensions of his desire to champion the films of promising newcomers to the point of so many talking heads crediting their career as filmmakers to Ebert’s shining a lens on them. Including James himself with his breakout hit Hoop Dreams being a favorite of both Ebert and Siskel, but he doesn’t include himself in the same company as Martin Scorsese or Ramin Bahrani or Ava DuVernay.

Instead James’ role here – heard a couple of times behind the camera or in voiceover – is as a friend making a little memorial to his own friend. Life Itself is much more concerned with Ebert’s personality as a human being than as a public figure and while it’s impossible to ignore Ebert’s contribution to greater film discussion, most of that is used to weave into how Ebert felt about life or maintained his relationships to the people in his life. Certainly, the material on At the Movies is less concerned with what Ebert and Siskel argued so heavily about but why they were compelled to argue with each other and how that informed their personal relationship outside of the television screen. Often times it was with animosity but James’ film nevertheless argues for a clear respect of the game of the argument. The invocation of Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen as a talking head provides enough balance to suggest it wasn’t always Siskel being the stinker, but Ebert could be pissy in his own right.

That pissiness segues into the candid sequences of Ebert’s frustrating late days stuck in beds and chairs without a jaw going through painful processes to stay alive if only for the appreciation of life he displays through his writing (his eyes during an early close-up watching his throat go through routine suction is an unpleasant but sympathetic visual). James, in one of his many cutesy superimpositions of emails sent between him and Ebert (a gesture that’s still more preferable than the Ebert impersonator reading from the eponymous memoir), included an email by Ebert expressing the necessity of including even the most unflattering areas of this fight that isn’t intended to acquit the film from any questions of “ethics” in the material, but to establish Ebert is driving his own story just as much as James. Meanwhile, Ebert’s widow Chaz elaborates on how those many months were exhausting and a labor of looking to optimism even in the worst of moments.

The At the Movies material and the material of Ebert’s cancer fight are not divorced from one another. When it comes to Siskel’s sudden passing in 1999 from a cancer diagnosis he kept private, Chaz elaborates on Ebert’s personal heartbreak at never being told what his partner was going through. In that context, all the honesty James and the Eberts supply regarding the unglamorous ordeal of battling cancer and slowly dying before our eyes feels like a reaction to Ebert’s betrayal (there is a late reveal from Chaz that brings another snag onto this mission when it comes to an act Roger exercised his right to without telling his wife). That becomes another layer in which this becomes a very personal document from a level of intimacy that could only from James’ personal friendship.

One could maybe moan on the aesthetics or niceties of documentary presentation being treated incidentally from a filmmaker who has mastered the form the way that James did, but he’s not approaching this as Steve James the documentarian or talking about Roger Ebert the film critic. He is approaching this as Steve James the man who was fortunate to personally know Roger Ebert the man. And invites us to learn who Ebert was wasn’t all that often hidden from the people who saw him as the film critic: a man with his thorny side who nevertheless had a deep burgeoning love for the world and all the different people and perspectives in it, channeling that into his personal love for the cinematic image and the written form all the way to his dying days.

Anyway, I’d like to end this by recommending some of my favorite writings by Ebert himself:

“Do the Right Thing” is not filled with brotherly love, but it is not filled with hate, either. It comes out of a weary, urban cynicism that has settled down around us in recent years. The good feelings and many of the hopes of the 1960s have evaporated, and today it no longer would be accurate to make a movie about how the races in American are all going to love one another. I wish we could see such love, but instead we have deepening class divisions in which the middle classes of all races flee from what’s happening in the inner city, while a series of national administrations provides no hope for the poor. “Do the Right Thing” tells an honest, unsentimental story about those who are left behind.

One searches for human touches. Riefenstahl had no eye for human interest. Individuality is crushed by the massed conformity. There are occasional cutaways to people smiling or nodding, but rarely ever speaking to one another. There is no attempt to “humanize” Hitler. In his closing speech, sweat trickles down his face, and we realize that there was no perspiration in earlier shots. Is it possible that he posed for some of the perfectly framed shots of him reviewing troops? A 35mm camera and crew would have been a distracting presence in the street next to his car; one filming him from a high pedestal would have had to be crane-mounted, and shot out of synchronicity with the event.

Is the film for teenage boys and comic book fans? Not at all, although that’s the marketing pitch. It’s for anyone who still has a sense of wonder and a feeling for great visual style. This film contains ideas and true poignance, a story that has been thought out and has surprises right to the end. It’s romantic and exhilarating. Watching it, I realized the last dozen films I’d seen were about people standing around, talking to one another. “Dark City” has been created and imagined as a new visual place for us to inhabit. It adds treasure to our notions of what can be imagined.

The camera watches Elliott moving around. And Raven, that’s when you asked me, “Is this E.T.’s vision?” And I said, yes, we were seeing everything now from E.T.’s point of view. And I thought you’d asked a very good question, because most kids your age wouldn’t have noticed that the camera had a point of view–that we were seeing everything from low to the ground, as a short little creature would view it, and experiencing what he (or she) would see after wandering out of the woods on a strange planet.

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

My Favorite Movies of All Time, circa age 30 – #90-81

90. Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998, USA)

As a Wes Anderson apologist, I strongly feel this movie is the best argument against the idea his fussy style is shallow. It helps that his deliberately lateral tableaux approach is applied here against earthy grounded real-world environments, but it also confesses all the hyper-control comes from a vulnerable kid who needs to grow up and learn the world is bigger than his head. Might be a tiny bit personal to me having first seen it at the exact age where that was a life lesson I had to learn and cope with. Also the soundtrack is just so cool.

89. A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902, France)

I had a chance to see Neil DeGrasse Tyson speak in person once and the subject of his choice was not a specific celestial object or phenomenon but was Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece painting Starry Night as an example of how people view the skies. There’s a much too short amount of space movies on this list unfortunately (including the absence of the most obvious cinephile choice, which was one of the last removals I had to make to fit this in 101), but this seems like the quintessential idea of artistry fancily imagining what objects are up there. None of this is based in plausibility but every bit of it feels real somehow, bringing the fantasy and magic directly to us and declaring you exist in the same world as this. Personal weird note: I can’t think of this movie without also having “Tonight, Tonight” by The Smashing Pumpkins playing in my head, one of my favorite songs ever, and so the sense of adventure in my soul is activated with either work.

88. Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (F.W. Murnau, 1922, Germany)

Can you imagine a world without this movie? Shudder to think. Fortunately, in its most complete form, this ends up making me shudder on its own merits: the grotesque designs on Max Shreck’s face amplified by his slow deliberate movements like a creature acting as a man, the nightmare atmosphere drawing out shadows in the otherwise realist location shooting (it’s curious how this is considered an exemplar of the Expressionist movement while eschewing the angular artificial sets that define its visuals). Taken from the text of the quintessential vampire story (to the point of the movie’s peril), Murnau arranged a sense of cinematic horror when the genre was barely defined in the medium and that is the act of a master of the moving image.

87. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928, USA)

Yet another master of the moving image (but I’m biased and believe all the silent era masters are so…), this time emphasis on being emotionally moving. In an era that lent itself to broad performance styles directed towards the universal soul, this doesn’t stand away from that approach but it does feel a lot more clear-eyed and realist about the couple it lands its eye on, the profundity of their lives’ ups and downs together, and their extremely small place in the greater scheme of a world of stories as complex as theirs. The latter point is stressed by the tremendous representation of the city as a general set of lines and geometry, dwarfing the central drama within its cells of one moving city where everybody can find success or tragedy. Jean-Luc Godard called Au Hasard Balthazar “the world in 90 minutes”, this is “the city in 98 minutes”.

86. Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961, Spain)

In a career full of relentless stinker shots to all sorts of powerful institutions, this feels like the most electric and outrageous. Its swings are nasty, the result of its fearless appropriation of contemporary images and gluttony for targets without feeling unfocused one bit. Indeed, the central anchor of men in power and Catholicism are never being spared no matter where Buñuel sets his sights. But it’s the shameless perversity at hand and cruel sense of humor that gives Viridiana its edge most at the hands of one of cinema’s greatest satirists. It’s also probably what ensured this would be the last film he could make in his home country, but nobody ever mistook Francisco Franco of taking criticism well.

85. The Three Colors trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993-’94, France/Poland/Switzerland)

The first of my several “cheat by giving a whole-ass trilogy or duo one spot” entries (heck, another one is coming up on this post). Certainly all three films are distinguishable by their style and tone (the chilly funereal Blue, the drily comic White, the distant but comradely Red) and masterpieces on separate levels so it’d be tough to summarize what I love about them in a singular summary. But there’s no denying the films’ conversation with each other as individual heightened human dramas maps onto the social observation Kieślowski is making towards the relationship between the European nations this is set in. But they also combine into a survey of the moral order of the universe, giving us a compulsory sense of how we as people live with one another, whether we try to fight the fact or embrace it.

84. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978, USA)

Part of this is a silly exercise: there is no consistency on the color timing of the film’s day-night dichotomy through its multiple home video releases. And they all look beautiful, any version of this features the images in horror cinema that I consider to be the most elemental in conveying dread and menace. John Carpenter and Dean Cundey use only the essentials to craft a lean experience in encountering a random force of evil and it’s resulted in the crown jewel of their career.

83. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925, Soviet Union)

Of all the entries on my list, this one feels the most obligatory: as somebody who considers editing to be where the film is made, it would only be expected to have the movie that most codified how narrative cinema is constructed and arranged. But the fact is that Battleship Potemkin doesn’t get to that spot without being as watchable as it is, propaganda in that it is a compelling and succinct portrayal of one of the great acts of revolution. So good, most cuts are just trying to catch up.

82. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973, UK)

A whole lot of tensions that stuck around in my brain ever since I watched this as a high schooler: certainly many literal within the central characters’ representation of conservativism vs. freedom without clocking a good or evil in there. Introduced me to my interest in folk music and probably planted the seeds early for my vehement rejection of organized religion by the time I entered college. Putting aside my personal response to the film, it magnificently uses rustic pleasantries as a source of never-ending unease, the music gives it a dreamy haze that matches the soft visuals, and this stands with Planet of the Apes as a movie where the first thing anyone knows about it is its ending and yet the journey never fails to disarm one enough to take a blow to the gut once we get to those final moments.

81. Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924, Weimar Republic)

Metropolis is the best remembered work of visual world-building in Lang’s career and I don’t want to imply that the achievement of Metropolis‘ set designs is not intimidating and one of the great feats of cinema. But the pair of films he released as parts to the Die Nibelungen story is, carving an entire mythic fantasy out of stone and fire and forest and making that the overwhelming backdrop to an arch tragedy befitting of this source material’s famous opera adaptation. And even in all the arresting bombast, it has such an enthusiasm for its theatrics that one of the goofiest movie dragons ends up among the most charming parts of this duology.