This is the third of four posts about my favourite movies, taking in everything from Elia Kazan's apologia for informing to Pixar's finest film, via martial arts, pastries and Lillian Gish with a big gun.
Part 1 (100-76) is here, and part 2 (75-51) can be found here.
50. Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937)
A crackling feminist masterpiece that passes the Bechdel Test 90 times a minute, as a flawless ensemble cast trades blistering, bitchy, pitch-black wisecracks while hanging out in a theatrical boarding house for women. It's also the tearjerker to end them all, though it only seems to be me who feels that way. Full review.
49. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
Sex and death in Texas, as dissolution sweeps an ailing town and its picture house gets ready to close. Ben Johnson gives one of my favourite performances, as that old, sad voice of reason, Sam the Lion, delivering a waterside monologue that's perhaps the best three minutes of the New Hollywood.
48. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
One of the great late silents, with Vidor interrogating the American Dream like the big leftie he was. Completely heartbreaking.
47. The Dreamlife of Angels (Erich Zonka, 1998)
Profound, poignant film about the friendship that develops – and then unravels – between two young women who meet at a factory in Lille. Ila (Élodie Bouchez) is friendly, compassionate and happy to ask for help; self-centred Maria (Natacha Régnier) throws her pride and practicality to the wind as she embarks on a self-destructive affair with an utter shit. A wise, insightful and immersive study of human relationships, and the nature of friendship, with exceptional performances from the two leads – especially the big-eyed, expressive Bouchez.
46. Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood's masterpiece: a towering dismantling of Western mythos, extraordinary in every way. I wrote one of my best pieces on it.
45. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
"I want... to die." *sob*
44. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
With Les 400 Coups (see the final part of the list!) and Star Wars, this was the movie that got me into movies, and inspired a Marlon Brando obsession that's never really gone away. I must have seen it 30 times. It's also fascinating – though troubling – from a historical perspective, as writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan's apologia for naming names to HUAC. I still know the entire taxicab scene off by heart. Try me.
43. Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)
Melville par excellence, with Belmondo at his best and a killer twist.
42. Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)
Arguably the greatest comedy film of all time, with “that kid from advertising” Alvin Roberts (Lee Tracy) commandeering his newspaper’s society section, and turning it into the filthiest gossip column in America. Tracy is my favourite male actor and was once one of the biggest stars in the world, until the Production Code outlawed his brand of comedy and he compounded matters by allegedly urinating on the Mexican Army, with the result that he was unceremoniously fired by the biggest film studio in the world. I've reviewed the film here, and written about Tracy here.
41. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)
Bergman does sex comedy - and the result is a deep, delicate, just about perfect movie, like the best of Lubitsch and Ophüls mixed with Partie de campagne. And while it's influenced everyone from New York-based Jewish songwriter Stephen Sondheim to New York-based Jewish filmmaker Woody Allen, the original remains by far the best. A lawyer, his young wife, his mistress, her lover, her lover's wife, the mistress's mother, the lawyer's son and a couple of horny servants flirt, argue and try to cop off with each other (except the mum), the whole group ultimately coming together for a sunlit weekend in the country. Beautifully written, acted and photographed, it's equal parts sentiment, melancholia, absurdism, witty badinage, and timeless, mind-expanding philosophy on the nature of love, lust and language, full of surprises, clever bon mots and rich characterisation. There's even a bit where someone falls in a puddle.
40. Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen, 1984)
Danny Rose: What'd you do, you divorced him, or got a separation, or what?
Tina Vitale: Nah, some guy shot him in the eyes.
Danny Rose: Really? He's blind?
Tina Vitale: Dead.
Danny Rose: Dead. Of course, 'cause the bullets go right through.
I don't think this is Woody's greatest film, but it's the one I return to most often: a sweet, funny, utterly charming tall tale - with hidden emotional heft - about a loveable Broadway talent agent (Woody Allen) trying to escort his best client's mistress (Mia Farrow) to a crucial show, and unwittingly incurring the wrath of the mafia. What seems at first glance a slight, minor movie holds untold pleasures, from Allen's script - stuffed with gems - to Gordon Willis's mesmerising monochrome cinematography, and an unforgettable, uncharacteristic performance from an unrecognisable Farrow, as the forceful, temperamental Tina Vitale, her late husband a juice man for the mob. "He made juice for the mob?" asks a baffled Allen.
39. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
Crouching Tiger is one of the great films of last decade, often claustrophobic in scale, but epic in its treatment of human emotion, and chock-full of magic, magnificence and good old-fashioned fucking mayhem. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful - hell, it is beautiful - and where it's going, we don't needs roads, or even floors. Much more on it here.
38. The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Éric Rohmer, 1963)
A mesmerising, intoxicating Rohmer short that's as close to a personal manifesto as you'll ever see on screen. His enduring preoccupation was where eroticism touches romance, and his view of both was heady, wise, ironic. After the false start that was the director's abysmal debut feature, the tedious, neorealist Signe du Lion, this story of a law student (Barbet Schroeder) flirting with a counter girl at a Parisian bakery (Claudine Soubrier) as he waits for his true love (Michèle Girardon) to walk past is extraordinarily affecting, honest and insightful: grubbily conspiratorial as we're asked to see everything from his jaundiced viewpoint (it's a 'moral tale' in so much as it's about personal morality), a little eerie as it ponders fate and chance, and gloriously sensual when they duck into an alleyway to talk and he starts stroking her neck. The first of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, and – at 23 minutes – the best film I've seen this year.
37. Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)
An astonishing movie that I only heard of for the first time in May; it sounded amazing, so I got a ticket to a BFI screening. It's the Orpheus myth transplanted to the Rio Carnival, with womanising guitarist Breno Mello falling in love with pure, troubled Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn). They dance, have sex, and save one another, but his feisty ex-girlfriend and Eurydice's psychotic, death-faced stalker hint at the unlikeliness of a happy ending. It's a feast for the eyes and ears, with impossibly vibrant Eastman Color cinematography showcasing Rio and its carnival (those yellows!), invigorating dance and intoxicating bossa nova music, while the story moves effortlessly from utterly joyous to blackly terrifying and then abstractly spiritual. Perhaps it runs out of steam towards the very end, but for the most part it captures Rio with a startling immediacy: its characters pulsating with passion, natural charm and an unapologetic, everyday eroticism. The story - adapted from a Brazilian play - struck me as one of those high-concept ideas that might extract a certain truth from its material by dropping it into Rio. In actuality, it's difficult to believe when watching Black Orpheus that it would or could make sense anywhere else, such is the film's complete conviction, and the virtuosic skill that Camus displays in meshing these diverse elements together, while capturing the penury, charm and beauty of the setting, and inspiring a host of pitch perfect performances. It's extraordinary.
36. The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928)
One of the high watermarks of silent cinema: a stunningly atmospheric drama ignited by a tour-de-force performance from the incomparable Lillian Gish, who plays a tormented, tortured waif driven to madness as she’s buffeted by a desert wind and by unfettered male sexual aggression. More here.
35. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
My favourite performance of all time, courtesy of the incomparable Emily Watson. I also find von Trier the most interesting director working today.
34. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)
Debra Granik's feminist masterwork is the key film of the decade so far: an unorthodox, spine-tingling thriller, a humanist fable, and a staggering study of a good person under almost intolerable pressure. In her breakout role, Jennifer Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a strong, selfless, smart-mouthed 17-year-old living with her vacant mother and two young siblings in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Once it ran with bootleg moonshine, now this here's Meth Country, and if her crystal-cooking father doesn't turn up for his court hearing, they're going to lose the house, the woods and the whole family unit. So Ree sets out in search of him, facing threats, silence and regular beatings from pinch-faced people who share a lot of the same blood that runs in her veins, and down her face. Full review here.
33. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
From the astute, literate voiceover and classic freeze-frame that launches the story, via stinging one-liners, sublime reaction faces and a litany of unimprovable set-pieces, to one of the most memorable, satisfying (and scary) endings in the history of movies, All About Eve is a landmark of Hollywood’s Golden Age: an unassailable classic with the kind of dialogue that a moviegoer dreams about. More here.
32. The Snowman (Dianne Jackson and Jimmy T. Murakami, 1982)
What Christmas Eves were invented for (as well as venerating the baby Jesus), and the first film I ever loved.
31. The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992)
The twist. That twist. This mercurial masterpiece of ‘90s cinema has now been reduced to just one thing. Not that its twist isn’t magnificent, but it’s certainly not the film’s raison d’etre, or its reason to be celebrated. It doesn’t explain why the film continues to enrapture, enthral and grow in emotional resonance as the years pass and the viewings rack up. And, unlike most twists, it doesn’t come at the end, but at the halfway point, meaning that if you’ve avoided seeing the film because you think you know how it ends – you really don’t. Full review.
30. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)
My favourite musical, starring my favourite musical star, Fred Astaire. The immortal 'Cheek to Cheek' is unquestionably the highlight, but this slice of ineffable, irrepressible escapism is stuffed with great jokes, timeless Irving Berlin songs and irreproachable dancing.
29. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)
Garbo Laughs! And Ernst Lubitsch reminds everyone once again that he's the best director of romantic comedies in the history of movies.
28. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
One of the great films, a beguiling, bewitching, sometimes bewildering collision of Gothic horror and fairytale, a haunting, hypnotic vision of pure evil, of goodness, of redemption, of innocence lost and perhaps regained, of greed and guilt, loss, delusion, sexual obsession and puritanical perversion. It has some weak acting, wild lurches in tone and even a little Schufftan silliness, and yet also many of the most striking, magical sequences of its era, climaxing with a half-hour confrontation between good and evil that is amongst the most indelibly artistic and impossibly moving passages of pure cinema ever put onto celluloid. And just when you think it can’t get any better, silent screen icon Lillian Gish turns up, armed with the only truly worthy role of her sound career. Full write-up here.
27. Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings, 1942)
Incredible short from propagandist (and anarchist, and surrealist) Humphrey Jennings, one of my favourite filmmakers. Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and Diary for Timothy are his most well-known films, and this one contains my favourite shot in his ouevre (it's the bloke exhaling smoke through his nose while watching Flanagan and Allen), though most of his work from 1939 onwards is great, especially Spare Time and The Silent Village.
26. Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)
This is the review I wrote for the paper when it came out: "PIXAR'S latest - and greatest - is a very special piece of work, a deliriously enjoyable yarn that packs a considerable emotional wallop. It begins, gloriously, with a scrupulously detailed faux '30s newsreel, as a Lindbergh-esque aviator − Charles Muntz − returns triumphant from exploring the Venezuelan wilds only to fall from grace amidst accusations of fakery. Watching, transfixed, is Carl Fredricksen, a bespectacled, toothy wannabe adventurer. Returning home from the theatre, he stumbles across a fellow Muntz afficionado, the talkative Ellie, and a friendship blossoms. Through an exquisite, intensely moving wordless montage ('Married Life'), we see Carl and Ellie's life together, as they fall in love, marry and grow old, their dream of exploring South America dashed time and again - the savings jar smashed and raided to cover house repairs and hospital bills. Ending with Ellie's passing, this four minute sequence is a bold, breathtakingly brilliant bit of moviemaking that evokes It's a Wonderful Life and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with that exalted predecessor. Having lost his wife, and set to relinquish his home and independence, retired balloon salesman Carl (voiced by Edward Asner) does the only thing he can, affixing 20,000 balloons to his house in a bid to fly it to Paradise Falls - the lost world of Muntz's famous mission. Accidentally along for the ride is Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who's desperate to secure his "assisting the elderly" badge and has been hunting for a snipe under the porch. From then on in, all bets are off, as the film's boundless imagination and anarchic sensibility conjure up a world of neurotic talking dogs, androgynous, chocolate-gobbling birds and paranoid adventurers, whilst never forgetting that we care what happens to its damaged, appealing central duo. Hysterically funny and emotionally resonant, Up hums with invention from first frame to last and, in having the guts to tackle big subjects with honesty, subtlety and intelligence, emerges as one of the finest films of recent years."
Thanks for reading.