Sunday, August 19, 2012

My own stab at this whole Sight and Sound thing


Thought I would jump on the whole “if I had a ballot” thing making its way through the blogosphere. This is in no way a definitive list; I still have so much to see and so much to learn about film. This is a reflection of how I feel now in 2012. I hope you enjoy.

About this list: these are the films that make me happy. In essence, this falls more into the “favorites” kind of list rather than “the best” (isn’t that always the inner-debate with lists like these?). I tried to pin down the films that have shaped how I watch and think about movies, and (most importantly) how I think about life; I've opted for these kinds of films over more obvious, erudite selections. 


So, with that being said, let’s get this out of the way: there will be no Godard, Buñuel, Bergman (which was hard because has had made me think differently about so many things), Bertolucci, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Griffith, Keaton, Chaplin, Scorsese, Coppola, Tarr, Rivette, Fassbinder, Visconti, et al on this list. You know, if you had asked me a few years ago, you probably would have seen a lot of those directors on this list. However, as I got to thinking about doing a top ten list in light of the recent Sight and Sound poll on the greatest films of all time, I wanted to make sure that it reflected what I loved about the cinema, not what I merely admire about it (although the two, when we’re talking really great films, are almost always linked). So, with this list there will be some wacky selections, no doubt, but they represent what I truly love about film.

This is all very subjective, and if you were to ask me to do this one month from now, I may put a lot of those aforementioned filmmakers on this list. Hell, one month I may feel like doing nothing but contemporary films and one month nothing but silent films (it was hard not putting anything by Griffith or von Stroheim on the list) and another month I may feel like doing nothing but foreign films. I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: these things are always fluid, so I’m just trying to be honest with my selections and how they reflect my mood now.

I could have created a list that was more in-step with my aesthete tastes, but I didn’t want this list to contain films that I felt obligated to list as “the best.” Those kinds of lists very rarely read, to me, as something that is personal to the experience of film – they read more like people creating lists for a scholarly text. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but those aren’t the types of lists I gravitate towards (it works the other way, too. I don’t gravitate towards the lists that read as being esoteric for the sake of being esoteric).

Here’s another way to think about it: these lists are fun because they don’t (and shouldn’t) represent the canon – the be-all-end-all of great cinema – instead, I prefer to look at these lists as parts to the whole of a much larger mosaic. So even though there is some natural overlap between the Vertigo’s and The Citizen Kane’s, I love these lists for their subjectivity – their diversity – and that I can look at all of them as a part of a whole. That, my friends, is what makes cinema so great.

And because I can’t resist doing a top 50, here are 40 more movies (in alphabetical order) I thought about putting in my top ten; of course, I could easily come up with 40 more. There are some doozies in here: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Blazing Saddles, Blue Velvet, Bringing up Baby, Broken Blossoms, Casino, Cries and Whispers, Dr. Strangelove, Don’t Look Now, Fearless, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Greed, Halloween, Inglourious Basterds, La Dolce Vita, Late Spring, Le Fils (The Son), Magnolia, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Monsieur Verdoux, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, Once Upon a Time in America, Raging Bull, Ran, Rebel Without a Cause, The Rules of the Game, Sherlock Jr., Stranger than Paradise, Sunrise, Through a Glass Darkly, Tokyo Story, Tommy, Top Secret!, Touch of Evil, Vampyr, Vertigo, The Wedding March.

And to be quite honest with you, those 40 movies right there (as I was typing this sentence I thought of about 20 more titles to add to the list), they just came off the top of my head. So, yes, this whole thing is arbitrary and subjective, but that’s why they’re so fun and (yes) valuable: because we need “pretty basic” lists like the ones we get with Sight and Sound, but we also need the wacky shit-stirrers like Michael Mann who puts Avatar and Biutiful on his list (I mean, come on, I was going to put Tommy on my list!). Why? Because that’s what he likes, and I like reading about why people love the movies they love. So, without further ado, on with the list! 



10. The Shawshank Redemption – 1994, d. Frank Darabont

The first film to no doubt cause controversy on my list, Frank Darabont’s first film as director is also his best. The film’s languid pace and heavy-on-the-melodrama approach is off-putting to some, but I find it the perfect experience to come back to time and time again. Another reason I love this film so much is because I show it every year to my students, and I love watching their reactions while they watch it. They aren’t turned off by the pacing of the film at all, and I always have great conversations with them when the film is over. It’s cliché now, but this was the first film to use the “Morgan Freeman as Narrator” trope, and it works so well (like we’re in the company of an old friend telling us a story) as Freeman’s voice (as Red) ushers the viewer through multiple decades as he and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) become friends inside the walls of Shawshank prison.

The film’s dark, gloomy aesthetic is wonderfully juxtaposed with the hopeful Dufresne character (an obvious savior figure), and it all results in an ending that is one of my absolute favorite moments in any film. The wonderful narration guides us through the final moments of the film (with the classic line “I hope…”) and a reunion on the Mexican coast that is filmed in long shot as it cranes back and all we see are the two friends finally getting their shared moment of freedom. It's the perfect ending that almost never was as Darabont was trying to be faithful to Stephen King's short story for which the film is based on. In the short story, Red's final monologue is what ends the story, and this is where Darabont wanted to end his film (with Red on the bus heading to Mexico); however, the producers told him he was crazy to omit an ending where Red and Andy are reunited on the outside; that the audience had been waiting nearly two-and-a-half hours for that moment and you couldn't deprive them of it. Darabont acquiesced. Really, either decision would have been appropriate. I’m glad he caved, though, because despite its schmaltz, it’s a perfect ending. 

The Shawshank Redemption's message of hope despite enduring a life of crawling through the shit – and Andy quite literally has to crawl through shit to obtain his freedom – resonates with my students, and it continues to resonate with me despite the fact that I’ve seen the film, oh I don’t know, 30 times now. It’s a film that lingers in the soul and the mind. It’s about as perfect a mainstream drama as you’re going to get. And I’m still bitter it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Forrest Gump (the antithesis of this film in regards to how to do great, mainstream melodrama).



9. Miami Vice – 2006, d. Michael Mann

There’s nothing more cliché than an action film about two cops who go undercover and infiltrate a drug cartel; and while undercover, one of the cops will get in too deep while the other cop can only question his partners commitment to the case. Such clichés are evident in almost all of Michael Mann’s films; however, he always sidesteps the banal inevitability of said clichés by taking a fresh look at the men who lead such lives via an introspective and microscopic lens. 2006 brought Miami Vice, a film popping with beautifully filmed colors, meticulously framed skylines, and, most importantly, the type of scrupulous itemization Mann loves to perform with his crimes films (just watch the way his characters create sing-songy dialogue with insider jargon). For Mann, it isn’t so much about the action, but about the “why” that these people are driven by and how they function in the world they live in. A lot of people find Mann’s brand of “action” films boring – too much exposition and long, lingering takes on unnecessary long shots – with not enough shoot ‘em up; I find them misunderstood, refreshing takes on tired genre tropes, and Miami Vice is one of the most misunderstood of all Mann’s films.

Mann reminds me a lot of French New Wave master Jean-Pierre Melville, another director who loved the crime genre but rarely was interested in the crime itself. Like Melville, Mann loves to create action scenes that are more about the nuances instead of trumped up action clichés. His films have an uncanny ability to be simultaneously grounded in realism (the action scenes in this film, specifically the final shootout and the way the gun shots pop loudly and travel ‘round through the surround sound), scenes that are palpable in their intimacy (look at the quieter scenes between Sonny and Isabel, especially their "courting" process, and specifically their moments together in Havana), but are also poetically striking; ethereal moments that leave you in awe of their visual splendor all while watching something that seems so capital-R real.  Miami Vice may have just been released at the wrong time of the year. Mass audiences wanted something more along the lines of Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys mixed with the campy, faux-serious nature of the original television show. They wanted to see the neon blazers, ‘80s kitsch, women in bikinis, and flamingos; but instead, Mann delivers one of his best films. It’s as if Terrence Malick decided to make an action film, and I can’t help but wonder had the film been titled something different, the populace might have accepted the film for what it really is. It certainly ranks as one of his deepest, most existential looks into the subject he loves to delve into, and it stands as my favorite film Mann has made.



8. This is Spinal Tap – 1984, d. Rob Reiner

Derek Smalls: We're lucky.
David St. Hubbins: Yeah.
Derek Smalls: I mean, people should be envying us, you know.
David St. Hubbins: I envy us.
Derek Smalls: Yeah.
David St. Hubbins: I do.
Derek Smalls: Me too.

Alongside “The Simpsons,” “Police Squad,” Airplane, Blazing Saddles, and Top Secret!, This is Spinal Tap is one of the first comedies where I can vividly remember the jokes, rewinding the tape to hear the jokes again (because I was laughing so hard I usually missed them the first time), memorizing the jokes, and also finding myself exhausted from the torrent of jokes (the sheer volume of jokes in a film like Top Secret! for example still amazes me) that just keep on hitting you for the film's entire 82 minute runtime. In fact, it’s safe to say this famous mockumentary is the movie that taught me what was funny. It’s also one of the most influential comedies ever made. What's so amazing about this film is that it doesn't age even though they are riffing on ‘80s metal bands, the joke still fits for whatever is popular at the time you are watching. Just insert generic crappy music band into the title and you have their story. It's a perfect comedy – one that always makes me laugh due to its hilarious ad libs and asides and hysterical musical numbers (“Sex Farm” and “Cups and Cakes” being my personal favorites). No matter how many times I’ve seen the film, no matter how many times I quote it randomly throughout my day (I often find myself saying “these go to 11”), and no matter how often I watch the film with others that have seen it as many times as I have, it never fails to elicit genuine, hearty laughs. That's the sign of a great comedy. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, who play the band members of Spinal Tap, do such a tremendous job of making you care about these losers that you can't help but laugh when all the unfortunate events unfold.  

The broad jokes (I will always laugh at Shearer as the bass-player Derek Smalls, my personal favorite character, getting stuck in that pod, or the scene where the band get lost on their way from the dressing room to the stage) work just as well as the more deeply rooted satire of the music industry (specifically the Metal genre). Whether it’s the two word review for “Shark Sandwich,” their rendition of “Stonehenge” and the botched model design of the famous rock formations, Nigel complaining about the band’s sandwich platter, the band getting second billing to “Puppet Show,” Derek suggesting they play “Jazz Odyssey” (complete with audience member giving them the thumbs down), or the line “none more black,” the film never ceases to elicit a smile from me. It's about as perfect a satire as will ever be made.

If you’re wondering why I chose the quote I did above, I don’t have a great answer for you other than it makes me smile. 



7. Chinatown – 1974, d. Roman Polanski

Loneliness is at the heart of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. At one point, Detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is asked, “Are you alone?” by a voice on the phone; “aren’t we all?” he replies. Chinatown is a film noir in the traditional sense (the nostalgic opening credit sequence reminds you of that fact) with its private eye, femme fatale, hidden truths, and shadow lands; however, Polanski takes these classic noir tropes and plays with them. We see Polanski using lighting, colors, and the vastness of what once was Los Angeles to show that he too is aware of the influence of noir on his film. His framing of shots is a call back to those classic noir films, especially Touch of Evil, and how each shot is framed to give one the sense of claustrophobia.

This is claustrophobic tone is juxtaposed with the widescreen cinematography of the landscape of Los Angeles: “L.A. is a small town,” Gittes says at one point, and Chinatown is very much concerned with the process by which Los Angeles was transformed from desert community to giant metropolis. Claustrophobia is a hallmark of any classic film noir. Polanski and his cinematographer John Alonzo are embracing the widescreen format, unlike earlier noir that was pushed to the side (marginalized on small TV screens much like the protagonists of many noir films were marginalized individuals) for bigger epics and cinemascope, Chinatown is using the widescreen to comment on the vastness that once was L.A. It creates a landscape that reminds the viewer of something out of Camus, an existential void where Gittes pans across the desert community, from Los Angeles until the Pacific, pondering his loneliness. The film creates an almost unbearable tension between the width of its frame and the ways in which the camera seems to be bearing down on the characters and their environment. Chinatown has an ending that is brutal – a nihilistic punch to the gut – but necessary for Gittes as he realizes that he truly is alone in this world; that his keen sense about things (I love that Polanski has some fun with the idea that a Tec’s biggest figurative asset in terms of sense is their nose, so he goes ahead and renders Gittes’ useless by having it nearly sliced off) is moot in a world where the little guy is helpless – no matter what evil is being committed – against the captains of industry. It’s the pinnacle of the neo-noir subgenre. Despite the film’s nihilism and existential tone (and ending...I can't recall a more mainstream movie ending on such a note), it’s one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve ever seen.



6. The Tree of Life – 2011, d. Terrence Malick

Speaking of beautifully photographed films…just as I mentioned that Miami Vice seemed to be the culmination of what Mann was working towards for years (with films like Thief, Manhunter, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral), so too does The Tree of Life seem that way for Malick. I wrote about The Tree of Life here and here recently, so I won’t rehash too many of those thoughts, but I will say that it was a tossup between this and Inglourious Basterds for most recent film to appear on this list, and I opted for the Malick even though the two are interchangeable to me as they both speak volumes about what I love so much about movies.

It’s hard to conventionally write about a film that laughs in the face of convention. Malick strikes me as a modern day Walt Whitman, an artist who isn’t afraid to contradict himself (Like Whitman says in his opening to “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”) and make a film that not only contains multitudes, but it invites multiple readings and understandings. The Tree of Life is a film that not only tackles spiritualism and the creation of the universe, but it seeks to make sense of those giant cosmic quandaries by climbing inside the fragmented memories of our protagonist Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn). The film, for the most part, takes place in a suburb of Waco, Texas sometime during the 1950s. By juxtaposing the cosmic with the domestic, one of the main things I gleaned from The Tree of Life was that in order to understand the big stuff (and the characters, like all of Malick’s characters, whisper the big questions – “where did you go?” “How do I get back to you?” – via narration) you have to raise your recognition of the little things (think about when Thoreau studies the ants in “Walden”) that help make sense of everything. It’s incredibly optimistic, but it’s something I believe in; it’s something that I think about in order to make sense of the world I encounter on a daily basis and it’s underlined by Malick here when Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) says, essentially, that he lost sight of what was around him; that he didn’t pay close enough attention to what was truly important.

It’s only been a year, but my appreciation has only grown for Malick’s magnum opus. A film of wonder, hope, and love – just as Mrs. O’Brien’s voiceover tells us at the end of the film as the O’Brien family leaves their Texas home – that touched the deepest parts of me and moved me like no other film in recent memory. I mentioned in my second review of the film that I was, to put it simply, grateful for Malick’s vision and the journey it took for him to get that vision onto the screen. The film just made me feel grateful for film as an art form and all of the things it the medium can do to help us better navigate the waters of life. Like those great American Transcendentalist classics, The Tree of Life seeks to understand our purpose in this life beyond the utilitarian, and because of that, I feel I see the world differently after spending time with this film. There's so much here to admire: the motifs and symbols, the production design (Jack Fisk!), the music (Alexandre Desplat!!), the cinematography (naturally), and, yes, even the (much maligned) ending. This is American Cinema's slap in the face – its wake up call – to get its shit together; Malick has fired the first shot, and I can’t wait to see what American Cinema looks like post-The Tree of Life.



5. Psycho – 1960, d. Alfred Hitchcock

There could be a number of Hitchcock films to choose from for this slot: one day I feel like putting Vertigo in here and on another day I may put something like Rear Window, Notorious, or even something a little less heralded (but one of my five favorite Hitch films) like Rope or Suspicion (the scene of Cary Grant carrying the glass of milk up the stairs alone makes the it an easy top 10 Hitch). However, I felt like putting Psycho on here because I wanted something to represent the horror genre. And really, Psycho is the beginning of the horror genre as we recognize it today:  gone were the literal monsters of the Universal and Hammer films (although they were still being made) as audiences were introduced to a seemingly normal, nice looking monster whose demons were buried deep within. Hitchcock’s casting was brilliant and, I have to think, a bit cheeky: Anthony Perkins was known as something of a well-mannered, nice-looking leading man, so Hitch makes him the psychotic killer (ruining his career in the process); Janet Leigh was an even bigger star than Perkins, so Hitch goes ahead and kills her off (our main character) in the first half of the movie. By casting these two “safe” actors, audiences couldn’t have had any idea what was in store for them based on the precedence of what those actor’s names meant and the kind of films they made.

And that’s really what’s so fascinating about Psycho:  we revere the film as one of the master’s best today, but at the time the film was a grimy little number – an exploitation film essentially – that it seemed odd that the director of all those beloved 1950s thrillers with their big-time leading men and beautiful blonde leading ladies would lay his hands on something that seemed so beneath him.  The film was shot in black and white on the cheap (peanuts compared to his other films) and over a short period of time adding to the film’s exploitation feel, and it is in this hurried approach that gives the film its horror charms (and makes it feel like the first real horror film as it would come to be defined in the great horror boom of the ‘70s). Yet, the fact that it was filmed on the cheap and feels like an exploitation film does not mean the film looks cheap. It’s one of Hitch’s most beautifully constructed and shot films (the infamous shower scene is a masterpiece in editing – both in techniques like that great dissolve from the drain to Janet Leigh’s eye – and in the way that we really don’t see anything, but it’s edited in such a frenetic way that we feel like we see the knife inserting the flesh); it’s the one film of his that I never tire of going back through and watching frame by frame.  

One final note about Psycho: it’s arguably the only film on this list that actually reached beyond the screen and affected the way people go see movies. Because of the surprising early offing of Janet Leigh, Hitch had cardboard cutouts made for theater lobbies (he also filmed trailers that were solely based on the film’s surprising elements) imploring people to not show up late to the movie. Because of this – and Hitch’s pull – theaters were advised not to let late-comers (which was the norm at the time) into the theater. You either showed up on time for the movie, or you waited for the next showing. This is essentially the pattern of how people see movies today, and that is fascinating to me that Hitch was so good at what he did that he fashioned the idea that punctuality in regards to movie-going was essential.



4. Barry Lyndon – 1975, d. Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick – much like Welles with Citizen Kane (which we’ll get to later) – owes so much to his cinematographer John Alcott (and let us not forget the lenses provided by Carl Zeiss) that it’s impossible to talk about Barry Lyndon without mentioning the groundbreaking cinematography and how it attributes to one of the all-time great period pieces by giving it a kind of Kubrick/Alcott credit.  Many complain about the length of Lyndon and speak of it in lesser terms than his other more commercially successful films like A Clockwork Orange or Full Metal Jacket; however, I’ve always found Lyndon’s narrative to move at a much faster clip than those two films even though it is much longer (I’ve always felt that Full Metal Jacket is the most drawn out, boring of Kubrick’s films).

Even though I don’t have problems at all with the narrative, Barry Lyndon should not be viewed (or even really revered) from a narrative standpoint. Oh, there are times when I totally track with Lyndon’s story, but it is, above all else, an exercise in aesthetics. It’s a film that is all about tone and style, and it is these two things that move the film – effortlessly, despite its long running time – along. There’s a hypnotic charm about the film, and the use of special lenses to capture the natural lighting, and the beautiful music that captures the rhythms of the narrative is what makes this films such a splendid reverie. There’s really nothing quite like Barry Lyndon, and 2001 is the only other Kubrick film that comes close to matching the awe-inspiring aesthetics. My favorite thing Kubrick does in Lyndon is when he cuts to a scene and then slowly zooms out as if we were unfurling oil paintings, which is what a lot of the film looks like with its natural light and flat canvas (thanks to those giant lenses).

Perhaps my favorite summation of what makes Barry Lyndon work is from Martin Scorsese. He explains in his Personal Journey through American Cinema documentary (which is essential viewing, by the way) that Lyndon is indeed an emotional film (something I haven’t touched on in this all-too-brief summation, but the emotion is still, in my mind, aided by the aesthetics) and points to the courting scene where Barry and his future wife meet for the first time, and the way Ryan O’Neal’s movements track with the music. “Like a ballet,” Scorsese claims, and he’s right-on with that assessment: the entirety of the film plays this way, and you either give yourself over to its rhythms or you don’t. I find it to be, far and away, Kubick’s greatest, most arresting film.



3. The Third Man – 1949, d. Carol Reed

So much to admire about Carol Reed’s film: from the unforgettable musical score, to the bombed-out Vienna setting, to the beautiful lighting and cinematography, to the great performance from Alida Valli (and the way cinematographer Robert Krasker lights and frames her face), Orson Welles as Harry Lime giving a memorable speech about cuckoo clocks (along with the magnificent set piece of the ferris-wheel), and that ending. Yes, the ending to The Third Man is what stands out most for me. This is the perfect final moment – one of the all-timers – as we think the happy ending is on the horizon for Holly Martin (Joseph Cotton), a writer of pulp westerns who is investigating the disappearance of his friend, Lime, after being asked to come to Vienna to work with him. However, Holly’s actions, as ethical as they may be, during the investigation when he thinks Harry is missing and after finding out the truth behind Harry’s enterprises don’t land him the girl (there’s no way in hell this ending gets made in America). As Valli walks by in that famous shot with that famous zither score in the background, all Holly can do is smile and smoke – all alone like the pulp cowboy characters he pens for a living. I would say that this specific shot – a static camera, a singular image walking towards the screen surrounded by trees on both sides, Holly off to the left waiting causally – is one of the five best shots in film history. It’s a perfect example of a director mastering mise-en-scene.

And what to make of the film’s other famous scene? Where out of the shadows comes Harry Lime: devilish eyes and smile and all. Well, it is without question the most iconic of character introductions in all of film. Welles plays Lime like a man whose own past and intentions and actions are as ambivalent, (his speech about the cuckoo clock, again, is a masterpiece), obscured, and shadowy as the bombed-out corners of Vienna he lurks in (an acute and apt metaphor, particularly the chase in the sewers, for the practices and lifestyle Lime, and people of his ilk, partakes in). It perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of post-World War II – and the eventual “go get what’s yours, consequences be damned” mentality that pervaded modernism – giving the film the appropriate tone of pessimism that is found in the very best film noirs (a similar tone is found in Chinatown where “good intentions” don’t always equate with the happy ending audiences are accustomed to). There’s nothing else I can really say that hasn’t already been said about Reed’s film. It’s a film that continues to climb my “personal favorites” list every year (I’m actually quite shocked at the lack of love it’s getting in all these lists that are coming out) – it’s the rare film that I think is just absolutely perfect every frame of its runtime. And that score, man I love that score.



2. Citizen Kane – 1941, d. Orson Welles

I don’t know what I can really add here other than my continuous admiration for a film that perfected and fine-tuned the film vocabulary the likes of D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein helped pioneer. If you’ve ever taken a high school film class, then you’ve been introduced to Welles’ film and backstory. Given carte blanche at such a young age (and on his first film) to make whatever film he wanted, Welles created one the essential visual textbooks along with creating a narrative that stirred controversy and angered very powerful people that sought to destroy the film. The context, the behind-the-scenes stories, the aesthetics, the narrative, et al. – it’s all very well known, so there really isn’t much to add about what Citizen Kane does right. It’s one of those films that pulls me into its story every time I watch it (and I almost always forget how engrossing the film’s narrative is – one of the first to perfect the kind of “rise and fall” stories we associate these days with Scorsese), and it never ceases to amaze me how much there is to look at despite the 30+ times I’ve seen the film. There are moments in Welles’ other film that I appreciate equally (or more) than what is found in Kane (The Magnificent Ambersons, F is for Fake, and Touch of Evil spring to mind as more innovative, riskier films that always seem to be doing something interesting and daring), but then I have to remind myself just how daring Welles was with the making of Kane.  This capsule is appropriately short because just invoking the name Citizen Kane immediately conjures up all of its amazing and highly influential cinematography, editing, and performances.  It truly is the acme of American of filmmaking.



1. 8 1/2 – 1963, d. Federico Fellini

From its first surrealistic seconds of asphyxiation, synec doche, and eerie silence that hovers over the action, Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 states its thesis clearly: Fellini is cutting the umbilical cord to his neo-realist ways and introducing his postmodern, dreamlike (not to mention carnivalesque and farcical) motifs that would be found in all of Fellini's films post-La Dolce Vita. Fellini's style would venture into the baroque with films like Roma and Juliet of the Spirits; however, it was with 8 1/2 that the auteur was at his most Jungian. It is within the dream world of 8 1/2 that Fellini becomes a cartoonist (Terry Gilliam, in the Criterion DVD introduction to the film, says this, too) who mixes the absurd and dreamlike aesthetic with a narrative that is poignant and effective. Yes, the aesthetics are impressive (I believe whole heartedly that Fellini's film is just as important a visual textbook as something like Citizen Kane), but for this viewer it is the narrative that continues to impress and affect with each subsequent viewing.

Guido (Marcello Mastroianni acting a Fellini’s doppelgänger in what is one of Marcello’s greatest performances) doesn't just represent the obvious self-reflexivity of filmmaker Federico Fellini; he also represents the audience. Fellini is inviting us to partake in this explication of past memories like Guido does, and if we give ourselves to genuine contemplative moments, then we too can change and see that there is a "sweet life" to be lived. By exploring our past histories (like Guido), we can uncover newfound truths about ourselves we never knew; opening up parts of our anima, our soul or driving force, we never thought were possible. And isn't that the most wonderful and ultimate goal for all film, to move us and provide us with those moments of reflection? Shouldn't films seek to resonate with us so deeply and on such a personal level that it becomes almost a religious text for us? This is the power of Fellini's 8 1/2. Like a good epistle or contemplative prayer by the great Thomas Merton, I can return to 8 1/2 numerous times because both its aesthetics and its narrative put me in a deep state of contemplation. The very best films open up new worlds, get me to ask new questions, and put me in a state of reverie that opens me up to personal discovery and epiphanies; 8 1/2 will always be my favorite film for those reasons.


Final list:

  1. 8 1/2
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. The Third Man
  4. Psycho
  5. Barry Lyndon
  6. The Tree of Life
  7. Chinatown
  8. This is Spinal Tap
  9. Miami Vice
  10. The Shawshank Redemption

9 comments

  1. I call shenanigans.
    My own list with my explanations are at my blog (a bit lower on the page).
    Nah, but I'm just teasing because of the IB exclusion.

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    1. It was so close to being included. Mallick bumped it, though. Had to do it. Hehe.

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  2. Awesome list! With all the hype surrounding Vertigo as of late, I'm happy to see someone step up and throw Psycho into a top 10 [my fav movie]. Also interesting selection with Barry Lyndon; its a totally underrated/appreciated movie in my opinion.

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    1. Thanks, Gregory. Hitchcock is almost unfair in a list like this because I could easily find 10 titles to fill up a spot on this list; I just felt like going with PSYCHO because I love the horror genre and wanted it represented on this list. I still am thrilled by it despite numerous viewings...and the same thing goes for BARRY LYNDON. That film never ceases to amaze me. I also didn't realize how shocking it would be for me to place it on this list, but a lot of people seem to be leaning towards other Kubrick's for their lists. I was close to putting 2001 or EYES WIDE SHUT (which I have come to greatly admire) on the list instead, but I just couldn't do it. LYNDON is too perfect.

      Thanks for checking this thing out!

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  3. Kevin, a few comments on this extraordinary list:

    -Nice Whitman quote in relation to Malick. What I love about Tree of Life, and what I think is misunderstood about it, is this quality of self-aware contradiction. Malick tosses some profound rubrics for living up in the air and sees how they hold up to tragedy. Some fall, some sustain. I see the film as essentially exploratory rather than definitive.

    -I agree with you that Barry Lyndon is one of Kubrick's very best works. It took me a long time to actually see it, but its hypnotic rhythms were so powerful that they nudged some of his other big films out of my highest esteem. What can I say? Kubrick's just incredible.

    -I love your blurb on 8 1/2, especially the end of the second paragraph. You really get at what's so special about our favorite movies, why they have such an enduring impact and live inside of our brains. For me, Fellini's Amarcord sends me into that unique state of reverie more than of 8 1/2, but it's a remarkable film regardless.

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    1. Thanks, Carson!

      I'm glad you like the Whitman quote; it was swimming through my mind all throughout my initial viewing of the film and the subsequent long walk I had to take after said viewing. Whitman and Malick just seem like a natural pairing.

      I remember your essay on LYNDON and your thoughts on the film. It was great stuff. It's one of those rare films that just hypnotizes me every time I watch it (or happen it upon in cable). It's so easy to give yourself over to its rhythms that the runtime doesn't even become a thing to consider. Kubrick is indeed incredible, never more apparent then what he gives us with LYNDON and the pioneering way in which he shot/lit the film (and, not to mention, his follow up THE SHINING and it's brilliant use of Steady Cam...quite the back-to-back films, there).

      In regards to the Fellini: thank you. I pulled that from an essay I wrote about a year ago on the film. I love AMARCORD, too, as I much prefer it and other later Fellini's to his Neo-Realist work.

      Thanks for checking this out, Carson.

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  4. Some wonderful writing here, and I can't fault any of your choices even if they weren't mine. I'm glad you found room for a comedy, a genre that's always the least respected even though, I would argue, it's the most difficult to pull off. And you make me feel guilty for not including The Third Man, which does seem to have fallen off our collective radar, not sure why. Have you ever seen it in a theater? It's playing here in Bloomington at the IU Cinema in November. Oregon's close to Indiana, right?

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    1. I've kind of seen it in ta theater...I saw it when I was in college at the little screening room that film classes use at my university. I haven't had the opportunity to see it in a "real" theater, though. Let me look up flights...hehe. Actually, Salem does have a historical theater that often shows classic films. I should check the calendar for this next season as I seem to remember them playing it a few years back.

      Thanks for the comment, Craig!

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  5. Very nice, thanks for the information.

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