50. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011, USA)
I don’t think it is the biggest gap between me aligning with a movie’s theses and my acute reaction having those messages hit me square in the chest, but it is maybe the film that got those messages embedded deep in me. Seriously, Malick’s cinema is a very persuasive sort assuming you can sink yourself into the impressionable associative sweep of it all and the large-scale grandiosity of this 30+-year-long project is of the sort of ambition – visually and intellectually – that I find myself unable to do anything but surrender to.
49. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966, Italy/Algeria)
I could certainly joke about the personal stake this movie has for me and claim that I should surrender my Algerian citizenship if I ever make a favorite movies list without this entry. But really it should be sufficient enough to point out no movie before or since has best wielded the heavy impact and presence of its images with the docufiction style, not even the OTHER famous international political thriller shot in Algeria, Z. And that unescapable carriage with which Pontecorvo and his crew re-create the brutal reality of the Algerian Revolution underlines the movie’s core attitude about how ugly and messy and all-around unpleasant but nevertheless necessary revolutionary violence is as a desperate means to establish a nation’s autonomy.
48. Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962, France/Italy)
Varda’s late resurgence in film circles as a beloved grandma of cinema is great, but I hope it doesn’t make us lose sight of how she was responsible for some of the greatest masterpieces of the French New Wave. Given this movie ended up high on last year’s Sight and Sound list, I don’t think that’s a real risk. And I’m thankful for that: Varda’s second feature here proves to be no less experimental than her contemporaries, even while dealing with such a sober central matter as the psychology of a young woman who thinks her life may be at a terminal risk. With real-time storytelling to map out that headspace and a mindful usage of both visual and audial loops (credit to Michel Legrand for being game on the latter), Cléo from 5 to 7 turns out to be generous enough to demolish any notions of French New Wave as chilly and intellectual and imply the sort of storyteller Varda would develop further into.
47. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954, USA)
As unconventional as Westerns get, which is a nicer way of saying this shit is so fucking weird. But it is weird with a direct sensibility: dominated by the duel masculine and feminine will of Joan Crawford’s protagonist, Ray and Harry Stradling Sr. consistently find profound ways to define her visually against the brutal southwest environment and those are alone worthy of masterpiece claim. But then there’s the deft way Ray navigates Crawford’s Vienna through a variety of genre tones with the assistance of a tremendously recognizable supporting cast, the most energetically charged of whom being Mercedes McCambridge’s sexually psychotic antagonist. So it’s also as watchable as Westerns get, especially as an entry I’d dare to recommend to the poor souls who dislike the genre.
46. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, 1938, USA)
A more typical example of the heights of Technicolor cinema, but you can see precisely why it’s the most go-to example that isn’t The Wizard of Oz. The greens have never been more green, the browns a nice combative rusticity against it, the purples so overwhelming and florid. And it’s all surrounding the charisma of Errol Flynn as both confident embodiment of heroic braggadocio and physical feats, imbuing so much swagger into the quintessential rebel.
45. The General (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, 1926, USA)
It’s not often I find myself wanting to figure the best marriage between spectacle and storytelling, but it is quite possible Bruckman and Keaton found it in their action masterpiece. Full of the sort of daring stuntwork around an ongoing train chase that would make Jackie Chan or Tom Cruise bow their heads and declare themselves unworthy, The General remains the high watermark for the deranged ability of a showman to risk life and limb just to get the audience thrilled and amused and all the emotions in between.
44. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)
I’ve been an atheist for a long time now, but some of y’all already know I come from an Islamic upbringing. I didn’t see Winter Light until later in my life and it comes from Bergman’s Lutheran background, but somehow it felt like looking at a mirror of my past and the moment I recognized I didn’t believe in God: both the personal liberation and the fear of what such conviction would do to those I felt I needed to protect. It really shook me to my core to look back on that. Fortunately my personal connection to the material doesn’t overwrite my recognition that this is the most impactful usage of Bergman’s characteristic close-ups, giving lead to an excellent leading cast to embody the apotheosis of Bergman’s career-long search of God’s presence and slowly segue itself with those shot scales and performances to dealing with the emotions and uncertainties of humans in the world just like me.
43. Miller’s Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990, USA)
A perfect clock of a gangster yarn, the sort of film where you can tell that the directors (no less my favorite directors to have worked in my time) have carefully thought out and planned every single shot and beat of a picture so that the drama is clicking as reliably as it should. And yet, it’s also much more human than it’s given credit for (hell, that’s the story of the Coens’ entire career), delivering a tragic understated character study about a man willing to break his bond to another man just to save that one’s life. That accomplishment is most impressive when attached to the most ambiguous and ambivalent character the Coens have ever crafted, as sharply unknowable as the Continental Op and as sadly pathetic as Phillip Marlowe.
42. Fantasia (Walt Disney & Ben Sharpsteen et. al, 1940, USA)
To this day, there’s no animated feature that feels as ambitious and bold. In its variety of visual representations to admittedly butchered versions of famous classical music compositions, the revolving door of Disney’s top-of-the-line animators went and exhausted every color of the wheel and then threw in a couple more out of thin air. Making “beautifully unreal color” something of an unexpected theme of this set of ten, I suppose. But then there’s also the masterful character animation – the real versatility of the animators’ playfulness leaking through – and the continued showing-off of the multiplane as its grand finale pans through. At a point in which the resources of the Walt Disney Animation Studios were greater than they ever would be, Disney and his collaborators saw to throw in everything and the kitchen sink in this.
41. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944, USA)
Look, I love the Music Box and I generally do enjoy the company of their audience but there has never been a more irritating divide between my sensibilities and theirs than a moment near the end of Double Indemnity where Barbara Stanwyck has Fred MacMurray at gunpoint and somehow breaks down and declares she loves him too much to kill and the entire theater groans and laughs goes “oh come on” in unison. I suppose they think that was an another act from a shrewd and sociopathic femme fatale, I think they were fucking idiots. It’s the killer instinct that’s an act from Stanwyck’s character in this film (who is otherwise still a sociopathic villain) and that’s the subtle layering of maybe my favorite film noir performance ever in a movie. Virtually every scene Stanwyck has either has a moment where she wears the mask or takes off the mask at the margins of the sequence and I don’t see that appreciated very much for some reason. But throwing that aside, film noir is a very time-and-place-specific set of aesthetics and themes that’s also my aesthetic in all of cinema so it bugs me that this is the only film noir on the list (neo-noirs don’t count) but I couldn’t let that one spot go to anything but the pinnacle usage of all that subgenre’s tools. The right amount of bitterness towards post-war Western life and the ease with which we could accommodate the grievous amoral calculus of a war’s shadow onto it.