Top Ten! Top Ten! Top Ten! That’s right, it’s time to tick off my favorite ten movies of all time. Because all of Blogistan has been waiting, over a month for this concluding post in this thrilling series. Hooray! I imagine that none of these titles will come as a surprise to anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time, but hey, that’s the way it goes.
10. Princess Mononoke
This was the first Hayao Miyazaki film I ever saw, and I didn’t see it until more than a year after I’d bought – and fallen in love with – the film’s score by Joe Hisaishi. Many times when I’ve loved a score before I saw the film from which it came, the film has failed to live up to the imagery my mind creates while listening to the music, but in the case of Princess Mononoke, that was no worry whatsoever. I was astonished at the depth and scope of Miyazaki’s visuals: mountain ranges shrouded in mist, cloud-filled skies, wild boars possessed by demons, forest gods, and most charmingly, the forest sprites with the heads that wind like watches. (You have to see them to understand.) The story is a parable about environmental destruction, but it’s neither heavy-handed nor simplistic in its thrust. The film’s love story is touching and mature. Simply put, this is, in my view, the best thing Miyazaki has done yet.
Signature moment: Ashitaka steps forward in Irontown to save San.
9. Schindler’s List
It bothers me that this film seems to have been eclipsed, in cultural esteem, by Steven Spielberg’s later, and significantly inferior, Saving Private Ryan. Maybe that’s because the latter film capitalized on the whole “Greatest Generation” craze, with its straightforward tale of American wartime heroism, but Schindler’s List is based on actual history, and it doesn’t make things nearly as black-and-white as SPR does; Oskar Schindler has no big “epiphany” moment, and his motives are driven by money. Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth creates a stunning portrayal of pure malevolence, and Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern perfectly walks the thin line between principle and practicality.
I watched the film again a couple of months ago, and I was amazed anew by its craft. The introduction of Oskar Schindler is a good example: he first appears in a series of shots as he’s getting dressed to go to an exclusive nightclub, choosing his best suit and tie and cufflinks and filling his wallet with money. A tracking shot follows him as he approachs the maitre d’ and bribes his way to a table, and we don’t see his face until he has been seated. Before Schindler ever says a word, before we ever even see his eyes, we know that he’s an opportunist who will brashly bribe his way through life.
The film is sometimes criticized for being occasionally too manipulative, but with the three-hour running time, I’ve always found those elements less than bothersome. Schindler’s List is, thus far, the crown jewel of Steven Spielberg’s career.
Signature moment: When Schindler is making the final arrangements to get “his Jews” away from Amon Goeth, it basically amounts to him “buying” each individual Jew. Goeth knows that Schindler is losing money on the deal, but he so reveres Schindler as a businessman that he convinces himself that somehow Schindler is making huge money on the deal. The scene wouldn’t work if not for the meticulous way the two characters are created throughout the film.
8. The Shawshank Redemption
I’ve always wondered how it is that word-of-mouth basically drove this movie to classic status once it hit home video, but did nothing at all for the movie when it was in the theaters. (Shawshank was a box-office flop.) I didn’t see it in the theaters, either; I knew nothing at all about it, and the title didn’t make a ton of sense, either. There was no word of mouth about the movie at all; I don’t even recall any significant critical buzz surrounding the movie at the time of release.
So when I rented it one Saturday night in 1995 or thereabouts, all I knew was that it was set in a prison and was said to be pretty uplifting. When it opened with the immediate aftermath and trial of Andy Dufresne for violent murder, I figured the film would be a “Did he do it or not?” kind of thing, but it wasn’t. Then I figured it was a prison escape type of thing, but it wasn’t. (At least not at first.) Every time I thought I had the movie pegged, it went into another direction entirely. Villains become good guys and become villains again. The film’s final act is among the most satisfying I can remember in a movie; I still remember the sheer sense of delight I felt in watching it all unfold, in seeing how Andy pulled it off, and realizing how Frank Darabont hid all of the key details in plain sight (the way the possibility of Andy tunneling out of his cell with the rock hammer is ridiculed at first only to be later revealed as exactly what he did, for instance). Add to this a terrific score by Thomas Newman (the “Stoic Theme” is a miniature masterpiece, and the final fifteen minutes or so of the score is as magical a piece of tone-painting as you’ll ever hear, right down to the piano chords depicting the lapping waves of the Pacific), and it’s just a truly great film.
Signature moment: Morgan Freeman’s final voiceover, one of the finest closing lines in movie history. (I do think that the film should have rolled the credits as Red’s bus disappeared down the road, and not actually shown the beach in Mexico. It doesn’t matter if Red finds Andy, because the whole point is that Red has learned again to hope. But as flaws in movies go, this one is totally forgiveable.)
7. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
It may seem weird that I’m putting this as high as I am, but really, the James Bond films are pretty iconic at this point, and this is simply the best of them. The story of how Sean Connery left the series after You Only Live Twice, and was then replaced by this neophyte actor, George Lazenby, who got the part by buying a suit in the brand that Connery liked and asking his barber for a “James Bond haircut” before his audition, is well-known, as is Lazenby’s unfortunate heeding of bad advice from his agent that resulted in him being dumped from the series after this one appearance. Lazenby’s performance as Bond is often criticized, but not by me; in my ears, only a couple of his line-readings sound stiff, and these come early in the film. I don’t know in what sequence the film was shot, but I swear you can see Lazenby’s confidence grow as the film goes on. I reject the notion that this film would have been better with Connery as Bond; in fact, I’m not sure that Connery could have pulled off the scene with Diana Rigg in the barn as well as Lazenby did.
And ahh, Diana Rigg, the most beautiful and capable of all the Bond girls. (I really don’t like the phrase “Bond girls”, and only use it here as shorthand.) Rigg’s Tracy Vicenzo is a full partner to Bond, a heroine pretty much unmatched and only a few times approached in all the other films. I think that Rigg’s task in this film was even harder than Lazenby’s, in a way; she had to play the one woman who captures Bond’s heart. She has to stand above every other Bond girl, and become a true Bond heroine.
I also like the film’s unconventional storyline, which is actually quite faithful to Ian Fleming’s book. There’s no briefing scene in M’s office, only a couple of bitter confrontations pertaining to Bond’s quest to capture or kill Blofeld. There’s even a rather cheesy, but forgiveable, love montage with Louis Armstrong crooning “We Have All the Time In the World” (my favorite Bond song) in the background. And there’s a nicely epic story, with the best ski chases of the entire Bond series. (Blofeld’s “All right, we’ll head him off at the precipice” is one of my favorite lines in any movie, ever.) And I like Telly Savalas’s understated malevolence as Blofeld much more than Donald Pleasance’s whiny mania from YOLT (the basis for Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers flicks).
And yeah, the score. John Barry never wrote finer music for the Bond series. Not even in Goldfinger.
Signature moment: Bond returns Draco’s dowry. “Her price is above rubies…or even your million pounds.”
6. The Lord of the Rings
Yes, I separated out each of the Star Wars films for this series, because while together they tell a single story, they each have a distinct rhythm and feel. Not so the Lord of the Rings movies; this is truly best thought of as a single movie divided into three parts, which is also the way the LOTR books are thought of, as well. Now, it’s not quite the case that the movies simply start and then stop at some point three or four hours later (depending on which version you’re watching); Peter Jackson found a way to end The Two Towers on a satisfying note and gave The Return of the King a suitable starting point as well. But these films really do form a very tight, singular unit.
And what a unit it is. It’s huge and vast, a tale of war that rages across an entire Europe-sized continent, and it’s a small drama about a single hobbit and the task entrusted to him. It’s a trio of films that have quiet moments between characters one minute, and the next has us sweeping across the mountains of Middle Earth. Do I think the movies have flaws? Of course. (Here, here and here are some reactions to the movies as I posted at the time that The Two Towers and The Return of the King came out.) Ultimately, do I care? Absolutely not. I’m still in awe of these films and the way they make Middle Earth almost as real a place as Tolkien did.
Signature moment: Crikey, if ever there was a futile task, picking one moment out of this series would be it. But I guess I’ll name one anyway: Sam’s speech at the end of TTT about the old stories and how the people in them kept going when they could have given up.
5. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
It’s just such a good movie. It really, truly is. There’s only one major flaw in it (the scene where Luke’s recovering from his injuries on Hoth is, to me, as painful as the worst scenes in the Prequel Trilogy). What’s so amazing about it is the way it doesn’t just tell the same basic story of the first movie, as sequels so often do. The good guys get the stuffing knocked out of them. The big battle scene takes place in the first forty-five minutes. One character’s fate is left unresolved, and another learns a stunning secret of his past that leaves him in doubt of his future.
I don’t really have much more to say about TESB, except to note that it didn’t really become accepted as being as good as it is (although I, for one, don’t claim it as the best in the series – read on!) until after Return of the Jedi came out. Most probably think this is because ROTJ isn’t very good, although I don’t share that opinion; I think it’s because of the “middle chapter” syndrome, where the middle can’t really be appreciated for what it is until the resolution is known. But anyway, TESB rules. And the score? It’s John Williams’s finest effort, and that’s saying something. It’s one of the greatest of all film scores.
Signature moment: Yoda gives Luke his most important lesson: “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’.” The underscoring to this scene is sublime, as is the puppetry behind Yoda. Frank Oz makes us genuinely see Yoda’s frustration with his student, and his wisdom when he lowers the X-wing onto the ground and gazes calmly at Luke, as if to say, “This is what I’m telling you.”
4. Singin’ in the Rain
Almost my favorite musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain is pure joy from beginning to end, a virtual love letter from 1953 to the movies of twenty years before when the industry made the shift from the silents to the talkies. The movie is full of wit, good cheer, and sophistication. I don’t know that a better “backstage” film has ever been made.
Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, the male half of the beloved silent movie duo Lockwood and Lamont. Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, is a sultry goddess in her pictures, but in real life she is shrill, dense (“Whaddaya think I am, dumb or something?”), and just plain stupid (“Why, I make more money than…than…than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!”). She is also convinced that Lockwood is her fiancee because that’s what she reads in the fan magazines about herself, which gives Don no small amount of annoyance, until he meets a struggling actress named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) and falls in love with her after one of the most memorable “Meet cute” moments ever in a movie. Stoking all the fires throughout all this is Don Lockwood’s best friend, Cosmo Brown (), who has that honored “best friend” tradition in the movies of having all the best lines (“That means I’m out of a job! At last, I can start suffering and write that symphony!”).
A particular stroke of genius in the movie is the way all of the songs in the film (with the exception of “Make ‘Em Laugh”) come from the films of the period the movie is depicting in the first place. At first glance this probably seemed at the time like an excuse to make a movie without exerting a lot of effort to come up with new songs, but each song is folded into the nearly perfect screenplay so organically that it actually comes as a surprise to learn that the songs had been around for years before Arthur Freed ever decided to make a movie called Singin’ in the Rain in the first place.
I’m trying to think of a significant flaw in the movie, and I’m just not coming up with one. I even love the extended ballet sequence toward the picture’s end; “Broadway Melody” works better as a ballet sequence, for me, than the ballet sequence in An American in Paris (a film I’ve never much liked). This is almost my favorite musical of all time.
Signature moment: I might as well pick the obvious one. Gene Kelly’s title number, which is as perfect a bit of cinematic artifice as you’ll ever see. It was filmed on a soundstage, on a sunny afternoon, when Gene Kelly was suffering a fever.
3. My Fair Lady
This actually is my favorite musical of all time. There isn’t a single frame of this movie that I don’t love dearly, right from the opening credits with that gorgeous Edwardian script font slowly fading in and out over a sequence of shots of beautiful arrangements of flowers.
Most of the script springs directly from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, with musical numbers inserted into the proceedings by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. And what a job they do with those songs! If Singin’ in the Rain perfectly employed pre-existing songs in its story, My Fair Lady does the exact reverse: it perfectly incorporates new songs into a pre-existing story, a task made all the harder by the fact that the pre-existing story was written by one of the greatest playwrights of all time. All of the songs fit so seamlessly into Shaw’s original script that it’s almost as if Shaw wrote the songs himself.
Story-wise, the tale of My Fair Lady is one of the most familiar stories in our lexicon: Cockney girl and flower-seller Eliza Doolittle goes to Professor Henry Higgins in hopes of learning to speak in a more refined way, the assumption being that social status is largely defined by the way one speaks instead of the other way around. Higgins is a taskmaster, cruel even, but Eliza gradually falls for him and he for her as she realizes that his harshness is a front and as he realizes how intelligent she actually is. Most wonderfully is the way the film allows its characters to behave as if they actually are intelligent. These aren’t characters whom we’re told are smart going through a bunch of machinations of plot; these are characters who are smart whose smart actions drive the plot forward.
A lesser movie would have the scene at the Embassy Ball at the end of the story; here it happens halfway through, with the most emotional moments to come after.
And, of course, those songs, so full of amazing wordplay; here we have Lerner and Loewe at their very best. “I Could Have Danced All Night” makes me melt every time I hear it; “Why Can’t the English?” and “I’m an Ordinary Man” showcase Henry Higgins at his most arrogant and narcissistic; “On the Street Where You Live” is just gorgeous (never mind that Freddy’s basically pledging to stalk Eliza in that song); and of course, the witty showstoppers “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me To the Church On Time”.
The ultimate compliment I can pay My Fair Lady is that it’s nearly three hours long, and every time I watch it, I feel like it’s over in twenty minutes. Oh, and yeah, I really really really really love Audrey Hepburn.
Signature moment: The morning scene outside Covent Garden, with people freezing in place while others move into position before the whole place becomes a thriving bustle. Visually, My Fair Lady is amazing.
Don’t try to figure out just why General de Gaulle’s signature on the letters of transit would be of any authority in a territory governed by France’s Vichy government. Other than that, well, I can’t pick out a flaw in Casablanca. The dialogue is great, the film’s look is great, the music (by Max Steiner, who hated “As Time Goes By” and very nearly got the song axed from the film) is great, the acting is great. The movie has intrigue, humor, noble sacrifices, a love story, a bitter man who returns to the side of good, a cynical police officer who also returns to the side of good. Oh, and Ingrid Bergman doing my favorite closeup of all time (when she remembers her relationship with Rick as she listens to Sam playing “As Time Goes By”).
I think that I’ll just leave it at that. What a great, great movie.
Signature moment: The first scene between Rick and Louis, which is chock full of amazing dialogue. “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”
And my favorite movie of all time? Can it really be any surprise at all?
1. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
No matter how many times I see it, I am always drawn into its story: its mythic structure, its excitement. I used to try and watch it “objectively” once in a while, to try to see the oft-cited massive faults in its pacing and its acting and its dialogue, but frankly, I never get far into the film (maybe five minutes in, tops) before I’m right back in that galaxy far, far away myself. I very much doubt that a movie will ever come along that means as much to me as the original Star Wars.
Signature moment: When Luke listens to Obi Wan and turns off his targeting computer. My heart still races every time I watch that part of the final battle. Each and every time.
And there they are, folks: the Jaquandor 100. (But I probably need to come up with some Honorable Mentions: movies that I’d forgotten about and thus didn’t include, or movies that came this close to making the 100. We’ll save that for a future “addendum” post.)