105. Angels with Dirty Faces
(Michael Curtiz, 1938, USA)
Not the most important of the Warner gangster pictures; not the purest; but damn me if this isn’t the best: the genre commonplace of the two street kids, one grown up to become a local community leader and one grown up to become a hood is at its richest and most rewarding with Pat O’Brien and a never-better James Cagney filling the two roles. That’s not even counting the always-welcome presence of Humphrey Bogart at the start of his fame as the lowlife even nastier than Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan. Under the masterfully efficient hands of Michael Curtiz, it would already be one of the tightest and most driven of all gangster pictures; but it ascends to sublimity on the strength of its final scene, when the question driving the film – can O’Brien ever redeem Cagney’s humanity? – is answered in one of the most potent moments of 1930s cinema.
104. Yi yi
(Edward Yang, 2000, Taiwan / Japan)
From my Best of the 00s: All about everyday people facing everyday problems, it’s an unusually well-observed and nuanced human story; it rises to the level of sheer art through Yang’s incredible sense of how to present the story of the Jiang family visually. Very few movies have ever used the possibilities of color to such great extent; we learn more about the characters and their emotions because of how they fit into the palette of a space then because of anything they necessarily do or say. By the same token, the static shots that overwhelmingly dominate the film, and the way that movement changes the sense of those shots, gives us a powerful sense of the relationship between the Jiangs and their environment. But formally perfect as it is (very, very perfect), the formal elements are always used in strict service to character and emotion. The fulsome humanity is what makes it a masterpiece. (Reviewed here)
(Disney Animation Studios, 1940, USA)
The great ambition of Walt Disney’s life, and the commercial bomb whose failure has sometimes been cited as the beginning of the end of Disney’s period as a home for truly artistic animation for thinking adults, this perversely uncharacteristic marriage of all the most experimental cartoons the producer’s populism could stomach with classical music ranging from the supremely easy to the (in 1940) daringly avant-garde was never, ever going to be a hit; the surprise is that history has ended up redeeming it as such an iconic classic. Though by no means a flawless whole – I’d not shed a single tear if I woke up tomorrow and found that the Beethoven sequence had never existed – there is no better place in history to appreciate on such a broad scale all that American animation is and has been capable of, from the silliest to the most exquisite. (Reviewed here)
102. Hiroshima mon amour
(Alain Resnais, 1959, France / Japan)
It’s a Resnais film about the slippery nature of memory; forgive me for repeating myself. Marrying the personal, the political, and the historical like very few films would dare – and it’s not nearly the director’s most confounding movie! – Hiroshima mon amour was the first Western movie to seriously grapple with the consequences of the A-bomb not in some abstract sense but as the very real cause of much devastation in two Japanese cities; and yet that’s not even the point of the film, nearly as much as it is about a nameless Frenchwoman who finds herself alive to sensations she had thought dead; and even then, the sensations the film’s stridently anti-narrative mix of words, sounds and images kicks up in the viewer are not necessarily what the characters experience, unless they are. What can I say, it’s hard to be specific about abstract visual poetry.
101. All About My Mother
AKA Todo sobre mi madre
(Pedro Almodóvar, 1999, Spain / France)
A jaw-dropping blend of outrageous melodrama, human emotions so fuzzy and big that they’d have been decried as lacking subtlety during the silent era, hallucinatory colors in every hue but “natural”, and a love of women in all their guises and glories, all of it anchored by Cecilia Roth’s indescribably excellent performance as a woman who experiences the worst kind of tragedy before finding peace. Of Almodóvar’s many adventures in playing with style and narrative formulas, none are ultimately so emotionally rewarding; nor do any of his earlier or subsequent explorations into the bent edges of human sexuality seem this unabashedly uplifting; nor do the rest of his multicolored fantasias seem so defiantly bright and cheerful. It is, in short, his most fun movie, and to be the most fun Almodóvar picture is to be uncommonly fun, indeed. No mean feat for a movie that opens with a teenager’s death.
(Steven Spielberg, 1975, USA)
They’ll tell you that it ruined everything that made the 1970s so wonderful, and they’re not wrong, though they’re perhaps forgetting that the movie which put the greatest populist in cinema history on the map is itself a quintessential example of ’70s filmmaking far more than it’s like any of its bastard children from all the barren summers since then. Forced by accident to be one of the most cunningly crafted thrillers ever, Jaws is always smart and restrained instead of leaden and exploitative, and the focus is always – always – on the journey of the men chasing the shark and not the shark itself; it’s no accident that the scene everybody remembers centers on three drunk guys swapping stories. The dirty secret of the world’s first summer blockbuster is that it’s first and foremost a tale of one man becoming his best self in the face of danger. (Reviewed here)
99. His Girl Friday
(Howard Hawks, 1940, USA)
Dialogue as a lethal weapon in this fastest-pitched of all screwball comedies, the star exhibit in the They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore Hall of Fame. Hard to believe that once upon a time, a romantic comedy starring the most heartthrobby heartthrob in all the annals of movie-stardom could be such a savage cultural satire with such a demanding joke-per-minute ratio: even with our TV-attuned viewing habits, trained to process information faster than Hawks would have dared to dream, His Girl Friday is still a breathless ride, the kind where if you let your attention flag for a minute you’re going to miss at least one A+ gag. Yet, exactly because of this take-no-prisoners attitude, it ends up one of the most satisfying and rewarding rom-coms of all time: these ex-lovers don’t make their inevitable reunification remotely easy with their sniping and backbiting, but by God, they earn it. (Reviewed here)
98. F for Fake
(Orson Welles, 1973, France / West Germany)
Near the end of a career with more downs than ups, the onetime Boy Wonder, and one of the medium’s greatest trickster gods, sprung this unclassifiable “documentary” upon an unsuspecting world, and almost four decades later we still haven’t caught up with it. Recounting some of the most noteworthy liars and fraudsters of the 20th Century, the amateur magician in Welles can’t help but play one trick after another on the audience, assembling his film like a tornado with information thrown here and there and God help you if you’re not able to keep up with it. And just when we think we’ve gotten on top of this craziest of all personal essays, Welles pulls the rug out from under us with the most impeccable sleight-of-hand that any filmmaker has ever played upon an audience. When it’s over, you can barely remember what “truth” means, just as Welles doubtlessly intended. (Reviewed here)
97. The Conversation
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1974, USA)
The best of the ’70s paranoia thrillers is that rare kind of movie where form and content are mixed to the point where you can no longer distinguish them: this itchy thriller is all about perception and perspective, of what we see and what we hear and how we interpret those things. Gene Hackman is at his absolute best as a surveillance expert who knows just a smidgen less than he thinks he knows, resulting in a number of deaths and tragedies; nor was Coppola’s command of the medium ever more precise and deliberate than it is here, constantly shifting the audience’s awareness from just a bit more than the protagonist, just a bit less, the same… it’s an exhausting film, that’s perhaps a bit more intellectual than it is felt, but virtually nothing can match the gnawing feeling of dread you get with each new revelation in the script.
96. Au hasard Balthazar
(Robert Bresson, 1966, France)
“The world in 90 minutes” was Godard’s famous judgment of Bresson’s metaphorical retelling of the life and passion of Jesus Christ in the form of a put-upon donkey; ol’ Jean-Luc wasn’t exaggerating much, either. One can never get on top of Balthazar; there always seems to be something more to the film that remains just a breath out of reach, and always a new detail that simply wasn’t there before; it’s an inexhaustible movie, one of the most aesthetically complete works of the 1960s and impossibly emotional. None of which is to deny that it’s kind of insanely miserable: Bresson wasn’t ever looking to make your day brighter, and this is certainly not a good film for animal lovers. Still, few films say so much about human suffering in the face of a capricious and arbitrary universe, and the attempt to find transcendence in the face of it all. (Reviewed here)