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.


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