Hello darkness, my old friend. You’ve come to talk with me again… And to have a butcher’s at part 3 of my list of The 100 Greatest Films Ever Made!
20. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Isn’t it amazing that no one thought to set a horror film on Halloween before, erm, Halloween came along? But then, few horror films are quite as amazing as Halloween. John Carpenter’s third film, and first foray into the horror genre, was one of the first films (along with Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmas) to splice the taut suspense of old school masters like Hitchcock and Powell with the lurid panache of the Euro crowd, particularly Argento and Bava. This resulted, of course, in the birth of the slasher film, but it’s interesting to note that, while many of it’s contemporaries rely heavily on gaudy displays of gore, Halloween is surprisingly short on blood, with it’s power to scare deriving mainly from the creeping tension that Carpenter ingeniuosly creates. The story is the last word on “lunatic escapes from the asylum” style fare, as the now-grown Michael Myers returns to the town in which he murdererd his elder sister many years ago (on Halloween, natch) to wreak similar havoc on the present day teenage populace. Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance, as plucky teenage heroine and evil-thwarting, Van Helsing-esque psychologist respectively, are a horror dream ticket, both of whom give performances worthy of Carpenter’s highly influential direction. Absolutely one of the finest horror films ever made.
19. Cul-de-Sac (Roman Polanski, 1966)
It’s that man Pleasance again, this time utilising his other screen persona, that of the fey, waspish British eccentric, in Roman Polanski’s most underrated masterpiece. Cul-de-Sac sees the controversial Polish auteur cramming all of his characteristic themes and concerns (repressed sexuality, alienation, paranoia, identity crisis, exploitation) into the environs of a creepy, English castle. This grand residence is both home to a fey, waspish British eccentric (guess who plays him?) and his mean-spirited, promiscuous wife (played by Francoise Dorleac, Catherine Deneuve’s sister, who was tragically killed in a car accident the following year), as well as being the arena in which their frequent, catty and sadistic arguments take place. Into this perverse domestic scene staggers Lionel Stander (most famous for his catchphrase “It was MOIDER!!!” in TV’s Hart to Hart) as a criminal-on-the-run, carrying a wounded colleague, and looking for a place to lay low. This heated hostage situation sparks off a series of interlocking personal conflicts as each of the three main protagonists continually switch allegiances and seek to seize his or her chance to take the upper hand, or in the case of the unhappily married couple, settle an old score. Brimming with cruel drama, strange tension and gleeful gallow’s humour, I have no idea why Cul-de-Sac isn’t as highly-regarded as Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby, but it really does deserve to be. Like that latter film, it also boasts an incredible score from Polanski’s composer of choice, Krzysztof Komeda (who, like Dorleac, would die prematurely a short time after Cul-de-Sac’s release). If you’ve not seen Cul-de-Sac, you really ought to pay it a visit sometime. You won’t regret dropping by!
18. Il sorpasso (Dino Risi, 1962)
Quite a few of the films on this list are rather hard to come by, even in this age of multi-region DVDs and online superstores, such as Amazon. No film in my top 100, however, is as hard to see as Il sorpasso, which (as far as I’m aware) has NEVER been made commercially available in the UK or the US. Despite this injust embargo, the reputation of this wonderful road movie continues to grow, helped along by Dennis Hopper’s championing of it as the inspiration for Easy Rider. Everybody deserves to see Il sorpasso, the simple, but beautifully insightful, tale of socially inept young student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who finds himself playfully abducted by wild and reckless 40-something rolling stone Bruno (Vittorio Gassman), and taken on an eye-opening road trip along the Tuscan coast. Dino Risi is one of the most overlooked of the plethora of highly talented Italian directors of the 50s and 60s, and this is his finest moment. Hopefully, some day soon he will be given his due, and it will be possible to easily get hold of, not just Il sorpasso, but every one of his hilarious, spirited films.
17. Jules et Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962)
It’s not uncommon for us film fans to find ourselves in the act of defending a film we feel is being unfairly derided or maligned. It is not quite as common, however, to have to state the case for a film which you feel, while being rightfully lauded, is also being horribly misunderstood. This is a line I feel I have to take with Jules et Jim. At some point in 2002, I was finally strong-armed into watching Amelie. As I had suspected all along, this vogue foreign sleeper hit was little more than a treacley mess, and in amongst it’s vapid vignettes, I took particular umbrage with a scene in which the flighty dweeb of the title goes to the cinema to watch Jules et Jim, which we then see her burbling and giggling at. This serves to support the widely held belief that Truffaut’s film is a purely sentimental hymn to romance, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, Jules et Jim IS a very beautiful and evocative film (it probably wouldn’t be quite so universally loved otherwise), but the truth is that it is also a very dark and pessimistic film, the overriding message of which is this; frivolous and free-spirited romance, if left unchecked, will ultimately end in tragedy. Rant over. If you’ve not seen Jules et Jim, the tale of a menage a trois of the heart between three friends around the time of the First World War, then please do so, and get the whole beautifully bittersweet picture for yourself.
16. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
One year after The Godfather was released, Martin Scorsese gave the world his own family-based crime drama that, although being on a much smaller-scale, would prove to be equally influential. The ”Mean Streets” of the title are a reference the locales of Little Italy, the scene of Scorsese’s own youth, where we meet Charlie, a small-time Mafioso, struggling with both his own Catholic guilt and the behaviour of his unruly, rambunctious cousin. That cousin is, of course, Johnny Boy played with legendary, fiery dynamism by Robert De Niro, then only on the brink of fame, who almost literally explodes onto the screen. Charlie finds his stock being lowered in the eyes of his peers thanks to his relative’s antics, and there’s also the small matter of the love affair he’s conducting with another (female) cousin, which if discovered, could cause his entire life to spiral out of control. From the iconic use of ‘Be My Baby’ during the opening montage to the inevitably tragic finale, Mean Streets is both Scorsese’s first fully-fledged masterpiece, and in many ways his defining achievement. The perfect marriage between the European art house sensibility and the thrills ‘n’ spills of American pulp cinema. Ya fuckin’ mook.
15. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Largely ignored on it’s release at the beginning of the decade, Ghost World has slowly, but surely developed a bona fide cult status in the preceding years. The reason for this is simple; it is that increasingly infrequent entity, an authentic, coming-of-age drama that pinpoints precisely the alienation and anxeities of youth, without ever getting all po-faced and precious. J.D. Salinger would be proud to call it his own. Lifted from the pages of the immensely gifted artist/writer Daniel Clowes’ long-running comic serial of the same name, Ghost World focuses on Enid, a stubborn and disenfranchised teenager, trapped in a run-of-the-mill American suburb where nothing culturally seems to belong to her, and from which there is no clear path to enlightenment. Unlike her recent spate of imitators (most notably the barely credible Juno, with her contrived sassiness and “indie” posturing), Enid is an all-too real proposistion, and as such can often be quite unlikeable. But it’s ultimately impossible not to empathise with her sense of isolation in the face of her brash, obnoxious peers, and you can’t help but feel sad when her continual mockery and sarcasm, while making her feel temporarily better, serve only to put more distance between her and those around her. Enter Seymour, a lonely, middle-aged blues buff, who Enid initially adopts as an ironic mascot, but who inadvertently sets in motion a sequence of events that will result in some serious life lessons for our confused protagonist. The continuation here of themes (not least of all the spiritual emptiness of modern America) from his earlier documentary, Crumb, would suggest that Terry Zwiggoff is something of an intelligent and perceptive auteur. Just don’t ask me how he got from Ghost World to Bad Santa. Let’s not go there.
14. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)
Along with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, Fassbinder was the leading light of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s. Arriving a decade after many other notable “New Wave’s” of European cinema (French, Czech etc.), this German movement also differed in that it really was something new; with the entire national film industry having been literally blown to smithereens less than 30 years earlier. Germany itself was rather new in the 70s, also, having reached the final stages of it’s dramatic and speedy rebuilding programme, begun in the devastated, bloody aftermath of World War II. All directors of the New German Cinema addressed their country’s dark and deeply troubling recent history, but Fassbinder investigated it more frequently, and arguably more thoroughly, than most. The Marriage of Maria Braun is the best of many great films the prolific director made about post-war Germany, and the title character herself is his greatest creation in a veritable pantheon of strong female leads, played beautifully here by Hanna Schygulla. Maria Braun waits hopefully for her German soldier husband to return home at the end of the war. Upon learning of his death, she strikes up a self-interested relationship with an American G.I. However, her clearly still alive husband does eventually make it home, and upon his return, a panicky Maria kills her new boyfriend. Her husband agrees to take the wrap for this murder, and while he’s in prison, Maria promises to work hard for their new life together upon his release. Effectively, by putting her experience of fighting to survive in war-torn Berlin to use in the boardroom, Maria Braun comes to represent the German Economic Miracle of the 1950s, a period of rapid, unexpected growth, which saw the broken, occupied nation begin to clamber back onto the world stage. But if anything, all this success makes our heroine more vulnerable to the world around her, and little does she know that the husband she is longing to be reunited with has secretly double-crossed her from his prison cell. Fassbinder’s early films bear the mark of experimental, arthouse cinema, but at some point around the mid-70s, the director began to take his cue less from Godard and more from the 50s Hollywood melodramas of his compatriot Douglas Sirk (who had fled the Nazis in the 1930s). The Marriage of Maria Braun is an unparalleled example of the melodrama at it’s dark, involving best, and along with it’s political connotations, it carries the powerful central message that a dream can only remain a dream until it becomes a reality. Completing a staggering 40 films in just over 10 years of work, Fassbinder tragically died a mere three years after this, his greatest achievement, was released.
13. Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
You know that old cliche that people rattle out about independent cinema being really boring, and primarily consisting of navel-gazing films in which not much happens? Well, that school of thought probably developed around the time that Jim Jarmusch was the reigning king of low-budget filmmaking, with his efforts being notoriously slow-paced and unshowy. But please remember, dear reader, that one man’s “boring” indie film is another’s loose, louche, low-key and deadpan delight. And I am that other man, yes I am. Besides, while it is admittedly low in car chases and exploding helicopters, quite a lot actually does happen in Stranger Than Paradise, and most of it is rather hilarious. John Lurie plays Willie, a New York hipster who just wants to wile away his days betting on the horses and engaging in small-time cardsharking with his dozey friend Eddie. Enter Eva, Willie’s petulant, but sensible, cousin from Hungary, who comes to stay with him and disrupts his deadbeat existence. Initially relieved when she moves on to Cleveland to stay with their aunt, Willie finds he is lonely, so with Eddie in tow, he does the unthinkable and leaves New York for snowy Ohio to visit young Eva and possibly enjoy a change of scenery. Stranger Than Paradise was made for peanuts, but still manages to be beautiful to look at, with it’s grainy black and white photography (by future Johnny Suede director Tom DiCillo) proving to be very influential. It is also, as already mentioned, an incredibly funny film, with Jarmusch’s desert dry dialogue delivered perfectly by the trio of leading actors. The director would later repeat the formula of teaming two cynical Americans with a foreign innocent for his next film, Down by Law, but as great as that, and a few of his other subsequent films, have been, Stranger Than Paradise remains his best.
12. Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)
The first best film ever made about the pain, misery and embarrassment of having to find work for the first time (for the second best, see Black Peter in part one)! Like the earlier mentioned Dino Risi, Ermanno Olmi is yet another supremely gifted Italian director of the late 50s/early 60s who is forever destined to be dwarfed by the giant reputations of peers such as Fellini and Visconti. Unlike Risi (who specialised mainly in frothy comedy), however, Olmi’s films can be seen to belong to the neorealist stable, the low-key, back-to-basics genre which served as the breeding ground for pretty much every Italian director of note in this period. Il Posto is very much in the neorealist style, but it’s the little flourishes of everyday magic that Olmi brings to the film that make it extra special. With the cast consisting exclusively of non-professional actors, the sad-eyed and bungling Sandro Panseri is simply astounding as the central character, Domenico, an adolescent school-leaver who goes to work in a drab and soulless office for a large corporation in Milan. If you had a truly mind-numbing and awkward experience the first time you got a job, then this is the film for you. But Olmi doesn’t merely paint a bleak picture of work, for he also never loses sight of the little things that always make life worth living. There are many touching scenes of polite, but spirited, camaraderie between the co-workers, particularly a lively New Year’s Eve party, and the ongoing, bittersweet promise of a potential office romance for Domenico. It is this evenhanded and perceptive portrayal of everyday life that makes Il Posto such a joy, and like Dino Risi, Ermanno Olmi deserves to be promoted to the same level of esteem as his more illustrious contemporaries.
11. A Bucket of Blood (Roger Corman, 1959)
Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich… Just a few of the notable talents that were both spotted and nurtured by Roger Corman (we could also mention James Cameron and Ron Howard, but we won’t). As far as talent-spotting goes, that’s a heck of a roll-call of discoveries, so much so that it often overshadows Corman’s own substansial achievements as a filmmaker. Frequently dubbed the “King of the B’s” (a title he disputes, as the traditional B-movie system was defunct by the time he began his career in the 50s), Roger Corman specialised in churning out cheap, effective and inventive genre films, directing a truly remarkable 49 films in 16 years. And while many of these films could be described as being somewhat lightweight, the great man never made anything that couldn’t be described as inspired, entertaining or mischievous. My personal favourite of all his many films is 1959′s A Bucket of Blood, a twisted horror-comedy that is typically low on budget (it was made for $50, 000, and shot over five days), but high on ideas. This weird and wonderful proto-slasher tells the tale of Walter Paisley (played by Corman regular Dick Miller, later to be dusted off by Joe Dante for Gremlins), a waiter at a tragically hip beatnik cafe who could just about kill for the approval of his peers. By complete chance he breaks into the art world, after accidentally stabbing his landlady’s cat to death and hiding it’s remains in moulding clay. The murdered moggy is discovered by some of the cafe regulars, and Walter is hailed as a genius. Desperate to uphold his new found status, our accidental artist turns to murdering people and embalming their cadavers in clay. With his latest work even more enthusiastically heralded by the wacked-out hipsters around him, how long before someone discovers Walter’s macabre secret? A simple, snappy and perfectly executed idea by Roger Corman, and the best example of the brilliantly bonkers work he could crank out for peanuts (more so than the much more famous The Little Shop of Horrors, in my opinion). Perhaps the greatest legacy of A Bucket of Blood is that it (along with Corman’s other work of the period) was a pioneer in combining genuinely nasty horror with a naughty sense of humour. There’s also the small matter of none other than Alfred Hitchcock being inspired by the creative success of A Bucket of Blood to try his hand at straight-up horror himself, and coming up with a little something we now know as Psycho. If that’s what Corman could do for Hitchcock, just think what he could do for you!
10. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
Many of the films on this list have had to suffer the recent indignity of being given a lazy public flogging in the guise of an insipid remake, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the latest to undergo this torture (with a certain-to-be ghastly “reimagining” of Suspiria on the way). There are exceptions (Carpenter’s The Thing, Scorsese’s Cape Fear), but remakes almost always represent the last, desperate refuge of an increasingly bloated and uninspired mainstream film industry. It’s somewhat ironic that they should look to a film as bold, brash and ingenious as Pelham to do a hackneyed copy of, because they wouldn’t have the guts to commission anything so original today. The plot centres around curmudgeonly New York Transit cop Walter Matthau as he works around the clock to foil an audacious hijack operation on the city’s subway system. Incredibly, it transpires that an entire train has been stolen by a gang of devious, colour-coded crooks (I’m guessing Tarantino is a fan) who are demanding a huge ransom in exchange for the lives of all the passengers on board. What a superb idea, eh? And The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a superb film all round. Too much of an out-and-out action film to be truly considered a product of the New Hollywood of Coppola, Scorsese et al, looking back now, Pelham is as notable for it’s authentic New York dialogue and witty characterisation as it is for it’s electrifying set-pieces and hair-raising car chases. The ever-likeable Matthau is on top form as our grumpy hero, while Robert Shaw as the cold, frighteningly intelligent leader of the hijackers is the mother of all seedy, posh British villains. Who do you get in the remake? Denzel Washington and John Travolta! Fuck the remake, and stick with the original; The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, 1974 style, is one gritty thrill ride you can’t afford not to get on.
9. Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
The films of Jean-Luc Godard aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. Whenever I find myself talking to someone who is a little uncertain whether they’ll like his stuff or not, I always tend to point them in the direction of his earlier, more crime-based efforts (Breathless, Bande a part), as opposed to his later, more off-the-wall and artier films (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Week End). Me? I like both Godards, and standing at the crossroads of these two styles is my favourite of all his films, Pierrot le fou. One of the Nouvelle Vague founder’s most famous phrases was “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end . . . but not necessarily in that order”, and the fruits of this ideal are very much on display here. Pierrot le fou seems to be three similar films cut up and made into one. We have Breathless star Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina (Godard’s then-wife) as, alternatively, an errant husband embarking on a fling with his children’s babysitter; as the leads in a musical, in which he does not love her (and amusingly refuses to sing his parts); and as the leads in a more conventional crime film, in which she does not love him, and ultimately double-crosses him. This is just my take on Pierrot le fou, however, and the beautiful thing about it (as with all classic Godard) is that there appears to be no set-in-stone “answer” to the visual and thematic onscreen puzzle. Godard’s twin objectives were always to distil the essence of pure life and to project it onto the screen as pure cinema, so perhaps it’s best to simply sit back and enjoy the vivid, kaleidoscopic results. Pierrot le fou looks stunning (cinematography by Raoul Coutard), sounds stunning (music by Antoine Duhamel), and practically every scene is a pop art treasure. As Godard’s hero Samuel Fuller says in a cameo appearance “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word… Emotion.” Pierrot le fou’s got the lot.
8. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
In a weird way La Dolce Vita can almost be seen as the Catch 22 of the film world, as not only did we not have the word “paparazzi” (adapted from the name of an unscrupulous photographer character in the film) before it appeared, but also the phrase La Dolce Vita (“the sweet life”) itself has become a handy description for the daily existence of those who lead charmed, privileged lives in sexier, sunnier climes than the rest of us. At the risk of becoming a bore, I feel the need to perform a Jules et Jim-style salvage operation on La Dolce Vita, and state the case for it as a sharp, often tragic, satire of vaucuous, hedonistic living as opposed to being the celebration of glitz and glamour that it is often referenced as in the contemporary media. A case in point is the famous Trevi Fountain sequence, in which Anita Ekberg, playing a flighty actress, takes a stroll through the hallowed Roman landmark’s waters in the small hours of the morning. This sequence is truly iconic, and has come to represent decadent glamour in all it’s glory. What is less frequently remembered from the exact same scene, however, is Marcello Mastroianni’s namesake journalist character, embarrassed and fretting over the imminent arrival of the police, desperately trying to coax his self-absorbed date out of the fountain and back on to dry land. This represents the true message at the heart of La Dolce Vita, as the great director appears to be telling us that life, by it’s very nature, can never be like it is in the movies. With this film, his masterpiece, Fellini moved away from his neorealist routes, and while never abandoning his wit and humanity, began to craft work that is infinitely more baroque and episodic. La Dolce Vita is one of the most intriguing, intelligent and visually rich films ever made, and as famous as it is already, it deserves even more attention as it remains both ravishing and relevant today.
7. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
Speaking of famous film titles, the flippant summarisation of the three central protagonists that provided a title for Sergio Leone’s most famous film is often quoted, and more often paraphrased, for comedic effect. But perhaps the most famous thing about this seminal Spaghetti Western is it’s unforgettable score by Ennio Morricone. If modern cinema is all about the marriage of sound and the moving picture, then Leone and Morricone could well be it’s greatest practitioners. Everybody (everybody!) knows this film’s bizarre and iconic main theme, a wild, wailing and utterly memorable composition that invokes vivid images, not just of the masterpiece it belongs to, but of Westerns as a glorious whole. Leone’s superb storytelling is more than a match for Morricone’s masterful music, and the way the director spools out this tale of three desperadoes on the bloody trail of stolen gold during the American Civil War is a dizzying masterclass in plot twists and turns, and big, brauva set-pieces. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an incredibly powerful and engrossing film thanks largely to it’s narrative scope and prowess, and also to it’s superb casting; perfect to a man. Clint Eastwood’s moody central turn saw him progress from star to superstar, and stalwarts Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach take turns in providing tremendous support as two very different foes. Not just good, definitely not bad, and only as ugly as it wants to be; genre cinema rarely gets better than this, and nor does cinema generally. “You son of a…” WAH-AH-WAH-AH-WAH!!!
6. Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut, 1960)
Released in between The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, Shoot the Piano Player will be forever overshadowed by those two, much more famous, films in the Truffaut canon. But while the French auteur’s second feature may at first seem more slight and superficial than it’s close siblings, upon further inspection it yields as strong and insightful an emotional core as Truffaut’s other work of the period. Gallic crooner Charles Aznavour is superbly cast as the pianist of the title, Charlie, a one-time star of the major concert halls, now reduced to tinkling the ivories in a Parisian dive-bar. Still smarting from an earlier romance that ended in tragedy, Charlie strikes up a relationship with an ambitious barmaid, and begins to believe that a return to the big time could be on the cards. His hopes for the future are thrown into jeoprady, however, after his estranged, criminal brother arrives on the scene and embroils Charlie, and his new love, in the fall-out of a heist gone wrong. Shoot the Piano Player is a typically astute look at relationships by Truffaut, and one which emphasises the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and not repeating mistakes made in the past. It is also a clever ode to Film Noir, and in it’s own quiet way, one of the most revolutionary films ever made. You see, with Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut was undoubtedly one of the first directors to inject deadpan wit and humour into crime cinema, thus paving the way for everyone from Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino to do the same. Big on sly laughs, engaging insight and smokey atmosphere, Shoot the Piano Player is a true original, and the unacknowledged masterpiece of the French New Wave.
5. Leningrad Cowboys Go America (Aki Kaurismaki, 1989)
I do like a good road movie, that’s why there are quite a few of them on this list. My all-time favourite one is probably the single weirdest film on four wheels; a literally hair-raising, pan-continental odyssey, concerning a fictional (later to become real!) Soviet rock band and their attempts to crack the lucrative US market. Leningrad Cowboys Go America is just one of many films by the prolific Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, but it’s almost certainly his most memorable. This is thanks largely to The Leningrad Cowboys themselves, surely the strangest looking, if not sounding, musical group ever concieved. The only things sharper than their potentially hazardous Winklepicker boots and their foot-long, rhino horn quiffs, are their black suits and shades. The music makes a hell of an impression too, being a chaotic marriage between Red Army standards, American rock ‘n’ country, and Mexican mariachi. After a Siberian impresario gives them the thumbs-down, the band follow his abrasive advice (“Go to America, they’ll buy any shit there”), and attempt to impress their Cold War enemies. Setting out in a battered Cadillac, sold to them by a crooked car dealer (played by a cameoing Jim Jarmusch), the Cowboys encounter difficulties both in the new world around them (including brushes with the police), and from within their ranks, too (manager Vladimir sneakily spends all their money on booze). Much of the humour here is derived from the unlikely notion of a Soviet band touring America (this being a Finnish production, there are plenty of light-hearted swipes at the Scandinavian country’s bigger neighbour), but Kaurismaki’s film is also loaded with brilliant and surreal visual comedy, as well as showcasing the director’s predilection for uniquely dour and downbeat, yet strangely hilarious, dialogue. It’s not all about the humour, however, as Leningrad Cowboys really convinces as a road movie. In fact, in my opinion, America, as seen in motion from it’s vast and iconic highways, has never been better photographed, and the run-down, backwater locations visited along the film’s main voyage collectively form a striking portrait of the country as seen through foreign eyes. And while The Leningrad Cowboys music is unusual, to say the least, it is also riotous, catchy and the perfect soundtrack for this truly unforgettable trip.
4. Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975)
It has been nice to observe, over the last few years or so, the steady rise in stature and reputation of Dario Argento. Once exclusively considered as a subject of niche interest and cult curiousity, the Italian can now take his place alongside the likes of Romero and Carpenter as a true master of modern horror. 1977′s Suspiria has long been Argento’s most famous film, and will undoubtedly remain so, but nearly everyone who has seen Profondo Rosso will state the case for the earlier film as being his best. I certainly believe that it is, and I have just begun to notice that my favourite films by my favourite directors are normally their most transistional efforts. So it is with Profondo Rosso, a film which marked Argento’s return to the horror genre, following an unlikely detour into westerns with the scarcely seen The Five Days. The director initially made his name in the early 70s by writing and directing a series of giallos; violent and suspenseful murder mystery dramas that were extremely popular in Italy at the time. Argento’s giallos are frequently considered to be among the very best of the genre, but the director tired of working to the same format, and headed for pastures new. After this change of direction ended badly with the aforementioned The Five Days, a dismal flop, the Roman visionary deigned to return to more familiar territory, but was this time determined to take the giallo, with it’s codes and conventions, and hack it to pieces. Profondo Rosso is the breathtaking result, with one foot in Argento’s sly and higly orchestrated giallo past, and another in his electric, visually-arresting, supernatural future (typified by later films like Suspiria, Inferno and Phenomena). It is a thrilling mixture of styles that forms the rollicking masterwork of one of the most gifted directors of the last thirty-odd years, in any genre. David Hemmings (the star of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, itself a kind of proto-giallo) plays jazz teacher Marcus Daly who witnesses the horrific murder of a psychic, committed by a barely glimpsed, unknown assailant, and resolves to solve the case himself. Argento elaborates on his usual trick of placing a piece of evidence half-remembered by the main protagonist at the centre of the mystery, and Daly rakes his subconscious for clues as vigorously as he does the bizarre locales of the frighteningly rendered Italy around him. Profondo Rosso culminates in an ingenious and unsettling finale, while along the way we are treated to a series nailbiting, head-spinning sequences, including several terrifyingly staged murders, and more false turns and cryptic clues that you can shake a bloody hatchet at. No one else makes films like Dario Argento did in his prime, and no one could ever even try… Their head would surely explode from the savage, psychedelic-ness of it all. Here he is at his dizzying, demonic best, and the results will surely be burnt onto your retina forever. The last time I talked about Profondo Rosso on this website, I quoted from a Time Out review of Argento’s work, and I still can’t find a better tribute to his talents; “What horror movies seemed like when you were too young to get in to see them.” And that sums Profondo Rosso up perfectly, it’s as good as your darkest nightmares.
3. Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)
As we’ve just seen, when your own words can’t quite cut the mustard, the words of another man (or woman) just might. One of my favourite film quotes of all time is uttered by Roberto Benigni, in his thickest Italian accent, during Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law; “Ees a sad and beautiful world!” I agree with this sentiment exactly, and never has it rang more true than in Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika. As well as having a soft spot for many a director’s more transistional work, I am also often very fond of their lesser loved films generally, and find myself occassionally rating these overlooked efforts more highly than the accepted career-defining masterpieces (although Halloween, Jules et Jim, and La Dolce Vita have all made my top 20). So it is with Bergman, and while the likes of The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Fanny and Alexander will always be more famous, I think the relatively obscure Summer with Monika is the most perfect film he ever made. Unlike many of his close contemporaries (most notably that other giant of 50s international cinema, Federico Fellini), it took Ingmar Bergman several years, and many films, to finally hit his stride. While he would later become most famous for directing medieval fables (The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring) and overwrought psychodramas (The Silence, Persona), the highly esteemed Swede initially cut his teeth by directing a series of downbeat domestic dramas (his native land is the home of August Strindberg, after all). There are certainly many glimpses of his future genius in these early films (particularly 1951′s charming Summer Interlude), but it’s not until Summer with Monika that Bergman’s potential really explodes. This deceptively simple film about young love and escapism contains the director’s most beautifully realised interpretation of the world around him, as he charts the course of a fleeting love affair between two unhappy adolescents. Monika is a free spirited, yet extremely malcontented, 17-year-old girl, mistreated at home by her drunken father, and at work by her lecherous male colleagues. Enamored by the romantic worlds depicted in saccharine 50s Hollywood films, she falls for the meek and considerate Harry, whom she meets in a cafe. Her new love has his share of problems too, however, and when his father falls ill and is taken to hospital, Harry and Monika leave the oppressiveness of city life behind, and head off on an idyllic boating holiday. Out on their own, surrounded by nature, their love flourishes, and Monika falls pregnant. But before long they have to head back home, and as the pressures of modern life and impending adulthood descend on them once more, their relationship turns sour and Harry is left heartbroken and holding the baby. Summer with Monika is a truly remarkable film, a uniquely touching and true account of the painful demise of a first love. Bergman never bettered the vivid and melancholy style he perfected here, and the gorgeous waterborne footage of early 50s Stockholm is as engaging and evocative as all of the masterfully crafted drama on display throughout. A special mention must go to Bergman stock company regular Harriet Andersson, who is simply astonishing as Monika. An exceptional talent, Andersson’s performance as the unhappy teenage runaway is both charming and utterly real, and even when Monika is being sullen and cruel, she never has less than our complete understanding and sympathy. Gangly, bug-eyed Lars Ekborg, another Bergman favourite up until his premature death in 1969, is the perfect foil as kind and naive Harry. So, yes, Summer with Monika is Ingmar Bergman’s crowning achievement, if you ask me. None more sad, and none more beautiful.
2. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Of all the films regularly touted as being the greatest ever made, or at any rate, one of them, Taxi Driver, for my money, has to be the strangest. I’m not saying strangest in that it is a surprising choice, for it is clearly a masterpiece, and here I am proclaiming it as the second greatest film ever made. No, what I mean is that, despite it’s universal acceptance into the upper echelons of cinematic achievement, watching Taxi Driver nevertheless remains a resoundingly mysterious and disturbing experience. I myself have been repeatedly watching Taxi Driver at regular intervals for nearly 15 years now, and I still find it as unsettling and intense as I ever did. The first time I saw it was when it recieved it’s long-awaited UK television premiere, in the summer of 1995. Earlier that year, for reasons still only really known to herself, my mother brought me home a film book, The Films of Robert De Niro, from our local library. She knew that I was already a confirmed Quentin Tarantino fan, so I suppose she must have reckoned that I’d like Bobby too. Anyway, the film that I most liked the look, and sound, of in that book was always Taxi Driver, and I really have no idea why. It seems strange to me that, in a world that will always justifiably harbour feelings of fear and revulsion for the likes of Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman, and John Hinckley Jr. (who, as if to somehow prove a point, was himself “inspired” by Taxi Driver), that the quietly psychotic, would-be assassin Travis Bickle is such an appealing figure. As a 14-year-old I was undeniably drawn to him, and the first time I saw Taxi Driver I was completely enraptured, and remain so to this day. I suppose the somewhat obvious answer to why Bickle continues to loom so large in our collective subconscious is because the film in which he appears is so incomparably brilliant. Cinema has had no shortage of anti-heroes and unpleasant central protagonists throughout it’s history, but the subject of Taxi Driver has no equal in regards to being quite as frighteningly real and utterly, uncomfortably plausible. No, if you’re looking to find anything as credible and resonant as the dark psychology on display here, you’re best bet is to head to the library and get your hands on some Dostoevsky (you might also want to take a look at The Films of Robert De Niro). High praise indeed, and Paul Schrader’s original and uncompromising screenplay deserves a share of the plaudits. Taxi Driver’s main source of power, however, is from the sparks generated by the legendary Scorsese/De Niro partnership. Only perhaps Quentin Tarantino can claim to have had a similar success to Martin Scosese with respect to smuggling the arthouse into the mainstream. Sorry if that sounds like that annoying, bullshitty Film Four advert from a few years ago, but it’s true. Scorsese’s direction of Taxi Driver is a textbook example of film helmsmanship, with the verbose New York native using his immense visual powers to bring Travis Bickle’s hellish intrepretation of the city to life. Add to this Bernard Herrmann’s haunting, pulsating creepy jazz score, and you have a masterclass in adding sound to vision to achieve maximum, mesmerising impact. As for De Niro as Bickle, there’s probably never been an onscreen performance that so perfectly captures alienation and the slow onset of madness so convincingly, and while we may be disquieted as we watch him losing his grip on reality, we never take our eyes off him for a second. Undoubtedly the best American film of the 1970s, which makes it more or less the best American film of all time, Taxi Driver is an iconic, enigmatic, 100%-Grade-A masterpiece, and I should leave it at that before I run out of superlatives forever.
1. Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, 1965)
As I’ve already stated on the pages of this very website, Milos Forman’s 1965 comedy drama about young love in communist Czechoslovakia is my favourite film of all time. Does that necessarily make it the greatest film ever made? Well, of course not, but what do we mean when we say the greatest film ever made? I was being somewhat flippant when I decided to christen this list The 100 Greatest Films Ever Made. I don’t mean that you’ve wasted your time if you’ve been reading all this (and if you have, thank you), I simply mean to acknowledge that the idea of there being a definitive greatest film of all time is as preposterous as it is impossible. We all have our own favourite films, however, and to us (at least!) they are the greatest films ever made. We also love the films we do for reasons particular to ourselves, and sometimes the fact that a film carries with it a considerable amount of historic signifigance and/or artistic merit frankly isn’t enough to guarantee it a place at the top table of our affections. Consider Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, generally acknowledged as the most important and influential film ever made, and of course, it is very, very good. But do I enjoy watching it as much as I enjoy watching Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, say? The answer is no, and that’s why Something Wild made my top 100 and Citizen Kane didn’t, despite the fact that that might make me look a bit silly, or downright stupid, in some people’s eyes. When Channel 4 did it’s big Top 100 Films of all Time thing a few years ago, I was very taken with something Father Ted writer Graham Linehan said about Mel Brook’s The Producers, and why he is so fond of it. Basically, the hulking Irish funny man’s logic was that favourite films can be measured by however many scenes or sequences they have during which you find yourself thinking “Oh, good! It’s that bit!” Using that system, then, Loves of a Blonde is definitely my favourite film of all time, as I think “Oh, good! It’s that bit!” pretty much from start to finish. As already stated, I have banged on about it to an extensive degree on Days Are Numbers in the past, so I’d just like to say that another thing that keeps me coming back to the underrated Milos Forman’s most underrated masterpiece (that word again!) is that they just don’t make films like this anymore. Films that reflect the human experience in simple, honest, witty, poignant and true ways. They don’t make films like Summer with Monika, La Dolce Vita, or Jules et Jim anymore either! And now that I come to think of it, it’s not just insightful comedy dramas that they don’t make like they used to no more, I’ve got some genre films in here too (including three horror films, a western, and an action movie) and they don’t make them properly these days either! Sometimes I honestly think that the great films made between, say, 1953 (when Summer with Monika was released) and 2001 (the year Ghost World hit our screens) were just the product of a period of cultural renaissance, propelled along by post-war joy and prosperity. Maybe that period is over now, and people don’t make films because they love cinema, or because they have a story they want to tell, anymore. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of modern filmmakers merely make films because they want to make money and help prop up an ailing industry that is continually, dozily shirking away from facing up to an uncertain future. If that’s the case, then at least we can still be grateful that we got so many great, life-enhancing films out of that 50-odd year run, and before (and, hey, even some after). And I tell you, picking just 100 of them was a frustrating, near impossible task, but now that the dust has settled I am very proud of my list. There’s some not bad stuff on there, and if you’ve not seen some of these films, I urge you to check them out. And what better place to start could there be than Loves of a Blonde? You might not agree that it’s the greatest film ever made, but I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it.
So yeah, that marks the end of my list of The 100 Greatest Films Ever Made. Miffed there’s no Metropolis? Vexed there’s no Vertigo? Gobsmacked there’s no Goodfellas? Well, I’d like to hear from you, and find out what you’re favourite films are. You don’t have to send me your top 100 (but you can if you want!), a top 10 should suffice, and I will put them up on the website. So get scribbling, and don’t forget, that next time, the star of the show could be you!
Goodnight, and thanks again for reading!Tweet