Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
In July the BBC published a list purporting to represent the “greatest” examples of American filmmaking. I put the key word in quotes because I’m not sure what it means. The only clarification offered by the BBC: the movies on their list are great on an “emotional level.” I suppose that’s as good a definition of greatness as any.
It’s a good list. Not too egghead-y, not too populist, with most of the Big Kahunas of American film being represented. Still, there are some problems. For example, Billy Wilder claims five spots on the list. Wilder is a great filmmaker. But is he really responsible for more great movies than either John Ford or Howard Hawks? A friend suggests that Wilder’s cynicism and sharpie persona jibe with contemporary attitudes. I suspect he’s right; Wilder seems to be the go-to “classic” filmmaker for many folks under 50. But the surfeit of Wilder films is partly responsible for the absence of some real giants: King Vidor, Fritz Lang, Harold Lloyd, John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Frank Borzage, George Cukor, Douglas Fairbanks, and surely some others I’m overlooking at the moment are nowhere to be found on the BBC’s list. Still others are underrepresented. Ernst Lubitsch, who I think is one of the absolute greats, claims a measly one film, 50% of Spike Lee’s tally. Leo McCarey is present via “Duck Soup,” but I fear that’s the Marx Brothers entry before it’s the Leo McCarey one.
Anyway, since I’m a nerd and I need something to blog about, I decided to make my own list. “Hey,” I thought, “I’ll make a list that puts this BBC one to shame!”
That’s easier said than done, as I learned while toying with my choices. The numerical limit creates a problem of selection: It just isn’t possible to whittle the American cinema down to 100 titles and avoid leaving out a bunch of deserving stuff. My first cut was closer to 200, and by the time I got it down to around 120 I started feeling a sting with each strike of the proverbial blue pencil.
To compensate, I imposed rules, all of them fairly arbitrary. For instance, I decided to limit directors to three titles. Is that reasonable? I’m not sure. But without a limit, guys like Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, and Hitchcock would dominate the list, and prevent it from being as eclectic as I initially envisioned. And variety is important, right? The list, it seems to me, should encompass all (or most) of what I see as being great about American movies. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I also decided that I wouldn’t include anything I didn’t like. In other words, I would make no selections based solely on factors like historical importance, reputation, and political correctness. Of course, this adds a degree of subjectivity to my list. But is objectivity even possible in such an undertaking? After all, there are no carved-in-stone criteria for greatness, or even okayness. So why bother feigning objectivity? It’s my list, and it reflects my tastes. How could it be otherwise?
Ultimately, any list of this kind ends up saying more about itself — about the process of compiling it — than its purported topic. I’m okay with that.
Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
One A.M. (Chaplin, 1916)
True Heart Susie (Griffith, 1919)
Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919)
One Week (Cline, 1920)
Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922)
Why Worry? (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1923)
The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (Lubitsch, 1925)
The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925)
Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)
The General (Bruckman, 1927)
The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)
The Iron Mask (Dwan, 1929)
Morocco (Sternberg, 1930)
Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian, 1932)
The Old Dark House (Whale, 1932)
Trouble In Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932)
Red Dust (Fleming, 1932)
Me and My Gal (Walsh, 1932)
A Man’s Castle (Borzage, 1933)
Duck Soup (McCarey, 1933)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Capra, 1933)
It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934)
Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935)
Dodsworth (Wyler, 1936)
The Awful Truth (McCarey, 1937)
Holiday (Cukor, 1938)
Gunga Din (Stevens, 1939)
Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)
His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940)
Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941)
Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, 1944)
To Have and Have Not (Hawks, 1944)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Kazan, 1945)
Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946)
Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Daisy Kenyon (Preminger, 1947)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948)
Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948)
The Reckless Moment (Ophuls, 1949)
Intruder In the Dust (Brown, 1949)
Wagon Master (Ford, 1950)
Winchester ’73 (Mann, 1950)
Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1952)
The Big Heat (Lang, 1953)
The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953)
The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)
The Killing (Kubrick, 1956)
Seven Men from Now (Boetticher, 1956)
Men In War (Mann, 1957)
Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
Day of the Outlaw (De Toth, 1959)
Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959)
The Sundowners (Zinneman, 1960)
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
The Nutty Professor (Lewis, 1963)
Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1967)
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Mazursky, 1969)
Putney Swope (Downey, 1969)
Hi, Mom! (De Palma, 1970)
Born to Win (Passer, 1971)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971)
Cabaret (Fosse, 1972)
The Godfather, Parts I & II (Coppola, 1972/1974)
Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973)
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Shampoo (Ashby, 1975)
Nashville (Altman, 1975)
Next Stop, Greenwich Village (Mazursky, 1976)
Citizens Band (Demme, 1977)
Always for Pleasure (Blank, 1978)
The Black Stallion (Ballard, 1979)
The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Shoot the Moon (Parker, 1982)
The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983)
Heartbreakers (Roth, 1984)
To Live and Die in L.A. (Friedkin, 1985)
Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
Let’s Get Lost (Weber, 1988)
Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988)
Near Death (Wiseman, 1989)
Where the Heart Is (Boorman, 1990)
Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993)
Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi, 1993)
Vanya on 42nd Street (Malle, 1994)
Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995)
The Matrix (Wachowski/Wachowski, 1999)
Three Kings (Russell, 1999)
Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000)
Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001)
Training Day (Fuqua, 2001)
Apocalypto (Gibson, 2006)
Crank: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor, 2009)
Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)
- There are 101 movies rather than 100 because I wanted to include “Chimes at Midnight.” “Chimes” was made by an American yet is not a product of the American film industry — or of any country’s film industry. So it’s 100 American movies plus “Chimes.”
- I think the greatest decades for American movies are the ’30s and the ’20s, followed by the ’40s and the ’70s. The BBC list included five movies made prior to 1930 — which is embarrassing. I tried to correct that. I have fewer entries from the ’90s and ’00s. That’s fine. I think movies are in decline, more or less.
- Filmmakers with three titles: Griffith, Ford, Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock, Lubitsch. Seems about right to me. I had Altman with three films, but I sacrificed one in order to make room for another documentary.
- Filmmakers with two titles: Keaton, Chaplin, McCarey, Capra, Sturges, Minnelli, Mann, Mazursky, De Palma, Altman, Coppola (if you count both Godfathers), Lynch. Again, seems about right. Some might quibble with Mann, Mazursky, and De Palma. I think they’re among the greats. I wish I had found room for a second Peckinpah.
- Yes, I cheated by listing “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II” as one movie. It’s good to be the guy who makes the rules.
- Kubrick: A giant, no doubt, but I’m not a huge fan. I do love “The Killing.” If I were to pick a second title, it would be “Lolita” or “Dr. Strangelove.” Most of his later movies strike me as bizarre more than good.
- De Palma: Is De Palma’s greatness still a matter of controversy? I suspect so, at least in some quarters. I have him with two titles and could have given him three. I don’t think the two I picked — “Hi, Mom!” and “Carlito’s Way” — are necessarily his best, but they do represent his range. And the list needed the variety offered by the grubby avant-gardism of “Hi, Mom!” and the meat-and-potatoes gloss of “Carlito’s Way.”
- Scorsese: “Mean Streets” is my favorite Scorsese, and that’s the one I chose. I dislike “Raging Bull.” “Goodfellas” is hilarious, flashy, and memorable, but I see it as a dumdum joke taken way too far. (Yes, that’s part of the point, but do I have to watch all of it?) I love “Taxi Driver,” but I nixed it in favor of “Putney Swope.”
- Fincher, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson: Talented guys, but I haven’t loved any of their movies, and I’ve been annoyed by several. I’ve been meaning to revisit “Fight Club.”
- Tarantino: I suppose the list might have included “Pulp Fiction” or “Jackie Brown,” both of which I like. “Kill Bill” and “Basterds” are like diarrhea: just when you think they’re finished, here comes more. “Django” I disliked. Ultimately, I don’t regret QT’s absence.
- Sirk: I’m hip to Douglas Sirk. Just not to the extent that your college professor is. I had a John Stahl movie on the list for a while, but I ended up cutting it. I like Stahl more than Sirk.
- Coens: They’re among the most proficient and distinctive filmmakers of their generation, yet I’m just not that enthusiastic about movies like “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” I tend to enjoy their wild comedies best. I suppose I might have included “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski.”
- Woody Allen: I am somewhat bugged by the lack of Allen movies. I like a bunch of Allen, albeit in a reserved sort of way. Perhaps that reservedness is what prevented me from including him.
- Malick: Maybe you can include him on your list?
- Yeah, there are a lot of white guys. Look, I’ve enjoyed aspects of Spike Lee’s work, but he’s not my idea of a great filmmaker, or even a particularly good one. Charles Burnett is my idea of a bore. I’m happy to have Antoine Fuqua’s galvanizing “Training Day” on the list. On the other hand, I regret not finding room for Carl Franklin’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “One False Move.” (Why does no one talk about Franklin?)
- As for women . . . Has there been a great female American filmmaker? I ask this in earnest, and I asked myself the same question while compiling the list. I think we can all appreciate the talents (and chutzpah) of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino — and still admit they’re not among our greatest filmmakers. I suppose the best contemporary candidate is Kathryn Bigelow. I like her a lot, my favorite of hers being “Point Break.” It’s a terrific action movie, but “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Die Hard” are, I think, better. Serious question: Does the Lana Wachowski who co-directed “The Matrix” count as a female filmmaker? UPDATE: I just realized I forgot Elaine May. I think she’s pretty great.
- I get it: You think I’m nuts for including the “Crank” sequel and “Apocalypto.” I take “Crank: High Voltage” to be an avant-garde sketch comedy in the vein of “One Week,” “Putney Swope,” and “Hi, Mom!” It’s wild, fearless, and totally of its moment. As for “Apocalypto” . . . well, Mel Gibson might be crazy, but “Apocalypto” is, for me, a singular experience — immediate, fierce, rueful, and wise.
- Many people probably haven’t seen (or even heard of ) “Born to Win,” “Heartbreakers,” “Shoot the Moon,” “Citizens Band,” “Where the Heart Is,” and some others. I think making “reach” selections like these is part of the fun of messing with a list of this type. Who wants a list comprised of “Casablanca”-style classics? Besides, I love all of these movies.
- Some of the movies I regret not finding room for: “Taxi Driver,” “Something Wild,” “The Long Goodbye,” “California Split,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “High School,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Straw Dogs,” “Ride the High Country,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Merry Widow,” ” The Palm Beach Story,” “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “King Kong,” “Show Boat,” “Caught,” “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “Gentleman Jim,” “Enemies: A Love Story,” “Ruggles of Red Gap,” “E.T: The Extraterrestrial,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Candy Man,” “Airplane!,” “The Navigator,” bunches of Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and De Palma, something from William Wellman, something starring Mary Pickford, something starring Greta Garbo, something starring Jimmy Cagney, something starring Bette Davis. (The absence of Cagney, Wellman, and Davis makes me realize — and regret — that the Warner Brothers films of the early ’30s are not represented. But fuck it, I’m not going back and making changes now.)
Well, wasn’t that obnoxiously self-involved?