The last episode of The B-Movies Podcast right here in the hallowed pages of CraveOnline was, perhaps appropriately, our longest to date. True, it was only by about 30 seconds, but that still counts. William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I were a bit frothy and over-the-moon, as this last episode gave us a change to rant, panicked, about some of the best movies ever made. This is when you’ll see a critic at their happiest. Not just when they get to defend maligned favorites of theirs, and certainly not when they’re tearing down established classics (although I’m sure many amateur critics achieve an unsavory sexual satisfaction over that prospect), but when they finally get to look up at the towering classics of the medium’s history, and ooh ‘n’ ahh over the crown jewels.
So many great films were discussed. We covered oblique foreign classics like Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the virtues of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but also took some time to discuss why genre flicks like The Tingler and Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn can be considered some of the greatest films of all time.
All our discussions were, to reiterate, inspired by the release of the Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll which is conducted only once every ten years. I think we all know that this poll is a classy way of allowing high-minded critics, respected film writers, and all manner of long-working directors to muse on their selected art form, and really put their nose to the grindstone, choosing a definitive ten that are “the best.” It does also have a mild sheen of trying to make film criticism into something somewhat scientific, but choosing the best film ever made is hardly a scientific endeavor by any means. So relax. Even if Vertigo is not, in your opinion, the “Best Film of All Time,” I think we can all agree that its presence at the top of the list is a clear indicator that the film is at the very least worth your attention.
We said this several times throughout the episode, but I think it bears repeating here. These lists, despite the authority and professional clout they carry, and the air of actual definitive evidence, should perhaps be seen by non-professionals as an elaborate and authoritative list of recommendations. I’m willing to bet that the average teenager or even twentysomething student, provided they’re not attending film school, has likely not seen all the films in the BFI top ten (even Bibbs had to catch up to Tokyo Story, a film I’d love to see him review), and in some cases, has perhaps not heard of a few of them.
And yes, while many classics can feel less like entertainments and more like homework, I would say that each of the films on that top ten list are worthy of your scrutiny. Yes, even 8 ½, even though I’m not so fond of that one. This is your chance to explore the upper echelons of the art form. Choose one or two that sound interesting, and watch them on a lazy Sunday afternoon. You’ll be glad you did.
Some words of practical advice for the interested, yet perhaps uninitiated would-be classics buff who are interested in dissecting the BFI top ten:
Vertigo is tough going the first time, and seems arch to the casual viewer. Indeed, it wasn’t until the second time I saw it that I began to see how grand and complex it is. And while you may dig the awesome visuals and weirdo psychosexual elements, I think the first-timer may be a little ground down by the odd story. I would recommend you see Rear Window first. Then Psycho. Then you’ll be able to dig Vertigo a little more.
You know this film, you know the story, and you know the reputation. As I said above, a great film can feel like work. A good film, you can toss off in an evening. But a GREAT film? That requires concentration. Here’s my advice on the Kane phobic: Don’t try to love it. Think of it as just another movie. Just follow the story. I think you may find yourself loving it anyway.
Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 domestic drama is one that only people who are intimately familiar with the film form seem to truly appreciate. Ozu, in my mind, lives at the end of a long road, along with Robert Bresson, as one of the final stops in your exploration of great movies. For the average viewer, the pace of Tokyo Story will seem slow, and the events will seem insignificant. One piece of advice: Watch this film ninth in your top ten. Another piece: Watch your family’s last thanksgiving video first. Your own familiar angst may help you see what Ozu was getting at.
The Rules of the Game
Jean Renoir’s 1939 soap opera is grand and theatrical. I would recommend listening to some Vivaldi first. And then look at the film as if it were a really arch comedy. Maybe watch Robert Altman’s Gosford Park first. Or an episode of Downton Abbey.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
1927. That was a long time ago. As we said on the show, silent films are a tough sell to teenagers raised on noise. I would just use this opportunity to remind you that many silent films are less about the kind of “realistic” melodramatics that most Hollywood films tend to leak copiously, and more about an over-the-top form of operatics. Open your mind to the larger form of drama on display. You’ll see how loving and tragic and ultimately hopeful this film is.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Just see this one. Period. You know Kubrick. You kow the film. No more excuses. Watch it. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you hate it, well, you are wrong. Better advice: If you can, see it in a theater, on a big, big screen. Suddenly, the cosmos will seem even larger.
As we said on the show, John Ford’s 1956 entropy western is perhaps the most “conventional” of the bunch, following, as it does, recognizable characters, and having a more conventionally melodramatic story. It’s a bit dour, but it’s likely the most accessible of the films on this list. Watch this one first.
Man with a Movie Camera
Okay, this one is hugely oblique, and way hard to get through, even for many wizened film critics. My advice, then, is this: Turn the sound off, and listen to different music. Silent films were, back in the 1920s, typically accompanied by live musicians, and often didn’t have a set score. Choose a record from your collection that has no lyrics, and play it with Man with a Movie Camera. Your own music might keep you watching more closely.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1927 film is such a heartbreaking film, I’d say it needs little alteration. My only advice would be to do a bit of reading on Joan of Arc herself. As it stands, the film is pretty solid.
On 8 ½. Like Vertigo, it will help if you know something about the filmmaker himself going in. Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is, without argument, one of the more self-indulgent films ever made. It’s all about the filmmaker’s personal sexual foibles, memories, and circus subconscious. I would recommend you watch Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria first. Then his masterpiece La Dolce Vita. If that seems too hard, at least do some reading on Fellini. Then you may be prepared to look into his brain.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
I remember a commercial for school supplies many years ago, in which parents glide through the aisles of a Staples or something, dancing as they pile notebooks and calculators into a shopping cart as their kids, defeated, trudged after them in solemn procession. It was set to the strains of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” implying that to parents, getting rid of their children for 8-9 hours a day was cause for celebration. Insulting to children? You bet. Baffling to me, a boy whose parents were each educators and therefore dreaded September more than I did? Definitely. Something I think of every time the Sight and Sound poll comes in? Oh, hellz yeah.
This is the most wonderful time of the decade for me. And yes, I am a pathetic geek of a man, thank you for asking. When you look at the history of filmmaking as a whole, brief though it is, this sort of collective analysis of where we’ve been, what should be celebrated and what films retain their influence decades after their release is a great demarcation for critics and casual enthusiasts alike. Sure, many films remain rooted in place on the list, but the deposing of Citizen Kane from the #1 slot something to seriously consider. Have fifty years of being told, usually in no uncertain terms, that Orson Welles’ first film was “the best film ever made” caused a degree of backlash, or at least encouraged many to look elsewhere for greatness? Has Alfred Hitchcock perhaps aged better than any other director? Do people still have an unabashed sexual crush on Kim Novak? All possibilities to consider.
We focused on Sight and Sound’s top ten in this week’s B-Movies Podcast, but consider the differences between 2012’s “Top 50” and 2002’s: Orson Welles’ second-most acclaimed film, Touch of Evil, has dropped off the list altogether. The same goes for Fritz Lang’s M, an iconic early talkie featuring cinema’s most compelling child murderer and required viewing in every film school worldwide. What films have these other films no longer considered “The Best” by consensus made room for? Wong Kar-Wai’s passionate ode to dispassion In the Mood for Love and David Lynch’s television pilot-turned-indie sensation Mulholland Dr. both found places on the Top 50, and were the only films from since the turn of the (most recent century) to do so. Are they really the best films we’ve had to offer in the last twelve years? Will next decade’s poll include The Dark Knight or Wall-E, and if so, what classics are we going to have to sacrifice to make room for them?
So that’s food for thought. Witney has also provided food for thought as you make your way through this decade’s Top Ten, all films which – even though I rather dislike numbers 9 and 10 – you should try to watch if you claim to love motion pictures. I’ve decided to take a slightly different road in my half of B-Movies Extended, and suggest some recent double features for you to watch before or after some of these classics, many of which might be a little daunting to the casual moviegoer. My hope is that by juxtaposing these features, you’ll be able to see more clearly their ongoing influence. It didn’t make the list, but for example, watching Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, about a team of Russian cartographers who learn valuable lessons from a reclusive and diminutive master survivalist, before The Empire Strikes Back, you’ll get a good idea of how even the most mainstream of pop culture entertainments have their roots in art house filmmaking of yesteryear. Seriously, Yoda would not have been the Yoda you love without Dersu Uzala. Check it out if you can.
But now, the Top Ten.
Vertigo and Mulholland Dr.
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of obsession, specifically projection of desire and narrative onto a blank slate, has been referenced constantly in the decades that followed. Some films go so far as to just plain show whole scenes from the film, like in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. But recently, the film that seems to evoke the psychosexual thrills and daring narrative vision of Vertigo most effectively is Mulholland Dr., David Lynch’s eerie thriller about a young woman (Naomi Watts) who comes to Hollywood and becomes embroiled in a mystery with a voluptuous amnesiac (Laura Harring). The answers aren’t so much clear and clearly disturbing, and the finale is as deep a descent into tragedy and madness as anything in Hitchcock’s celebrated oeuvre. Comparably unconventional and equally unsettling for its time.
Citizen Kane and Fight Club
Finding a film that deserves mention alongside Citizen Kane is no easy task. Orson Welles’ first film was so revolutionary that most modern cinema owes it a debt in one way or another. I finally decided that the only motion picture that deserves the same amount of credit had to take just as many narrative risks and utilize every modern technique at its disposal in service of a deeply meaningful narrative all its own. So yes, feel free to debate me if you want, but David Fincher’s Fight Club (also a box office bomb in its day, only to develop critical acclaim over time) certainly seems to qualify. The story of a similarly tragic, meteoric rise to power and a comparable indictment of the American experience – this time through a deeply cynical lens of pop culture criticism – may be more violent and unsettling than Citizen Kane, but it’s also the work of an auteur making an unexpectedly daring motion picture within a studio system that had no idea what to make of the finished product, which uses every single cinematic device possible to maximize its impact.
The Rules of the Game and “Downton Abbey”
Nobody seems to make movies like Jean Renoir, and that’s a bit sad. The layered cinematography and corkscrew-like nature of the ensemble plot seem as fresh today as they were back in 1939, so the best suggestion I can make is to compare The Rules of the Game to something that makes its “upstairs, downstairs” storyline about the fragility of old world class distinctions collapsing in a modern world palpable to modern audiences. Surprisingly, the television series “Downton Abbey,” created by Julian Fellowes (whose screenplay Gosford Park owes a similar debt to Renoir’s classic film), has developed an enormous cult following in a culture typically obsessed with more outlandish or at least grander entertainments. If you can get wrapped up in “Downton Abbey,” you’ll be fully equipped to appreciate that Jean Renoir did it first, and with more spectacular style, 70 years earlier.
2001: A Space Odyssey and Prometheus
It’s a little hard for me to believe that some audiences might not get enraptured in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable mindscrew of new age philosophy and artificially intelligent terror, but if you qualify then I invite you to compare the film to Ridley Scott’s recent prequel to Alien, the deliberately paced and contemplative Prometheus. I wasn’t terribly enraptured with this film, but the influence is obvious: Prometheus dares to answer the big questions about life, the universe and everything and ties those themes into a sci-fi thriller storyline that directly relates to the existential dilemma of its heroes. The special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey are in service of a more meaningful narrative, but if you watch them back to back you will at least see how its approach to science fiction has impacted – and continues to surpass – the more cerebral genre entries of today.
The Searchers and The Dark Knight
John Ford’s classic western stars John Wayne as a cowboy on a quest to do the right thing, but his heroic path takes an unexpected turn that raises valid questions about the nature of heroism itself. The sweeping cinematography has been aped ever since – just see anything Steven Spielberg has ever directed – but the closest corollary I can come up with for modern audiences has to be The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s rousing superhero saga that utilizes stunning widescreen cinematography to illustrate the grandness of his protagonist’s tale alongside a storyline that questions his motives at every turn. The Searchers lacks a proper villain, so The Dark Knight might stand out as a more overtly entertaining film, but the same questions are being asked on a similarly grand stage: is the hero making a real difference? Is he as dangerous in a civilized world as the so-called villains he aims to stop?
Man with a Movie Camera and Any Music Video
Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera has no narrative to speak of, it’s just a cacophony of visual imagery and trick editing that exposes the world for the chaotic engine it is when context is stripped apart. One look at the cinematic bravura on display – uncannily impressive when you the consider the technology available to Vertov at the time – and you’ll realize that practically any of the rapid-fire music videos we love, the ones that are more than dance spectacles or decline to tell a short story, owe Man with a Movie Camera an enormous debt. Madonna’s “Ray of Light” was the clearest example I could think of, but a little idle pondering should yield dozens more examples in no time.
8 1/2 and Adaptation.
Considered one of the greatest movies ever made about moviemaking, 8 1/2 rubs me the wrong way. It’s strikingly made but, to my mind, unpleasantly indulgent. Still, the film has legions of supporters in the critical community who disagree vehemently enough to put it on their list of the ten best films ever made. If you want to get a better idea of what Federico Fellini’s film represented in its day, watch it with Spike Jonze’s similarly trippy look at the troubled psychology behind the art of filmmaking, Adaptation, which recounts screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s painfully neurotic difficulty adapting Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief in parallel to the adaptation itself, which is dramatically altered from scene to scene based on Kaufman’s personal experiences and whims. Just as playful, similar penetrating, and, I would argue, even more entertaining than Fellini’s masterpiece, but if nothing else it should effectively illuminate the kind of daring involved in the making of the Italian classic in the first place.