MY TOP TEN FILMS
by Christopher S. Long
(This is a re-post and slight re-working of a top ten list I wrote for another site that shall remain nameless. It's been a few years, but I don't think I'd really change my top ten much at all. I kinda like this piece. Hope you do too.)
One obvious common thread in this list is that the films don't feature a lot of what the kids tend to think of as acting in the traditional sense. From the models of Bresson to the somnambulists of Marienbad to the great Bruno S., there's not a whole lot of method in this madness, and they're a pretty buttoned-down bunch overall. This wasn't my intention, but it also won't surprise any of my friends who have long since tired of my complaints about “big” acting. Of course, Jack Nicholson's extra foot pounds of energy per second per second raise the average for everyone else; I'm not so foolish as to be consistent.
Four mid-century French-language films, two Kubricks, two Herzogs, and nothing before the 60s. Ten is a tiny sample and I made no effort to compose a diverse or representative selection. I might find room for a dozen Godards in my Top 100 and just as many documentaries and silent films and, yes, I am aware that not all movies are made in Europe or America. My top ten are simply my favorites, the films that have most insistently seeped off the screen and into my life.
10. DEAD MAN (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)Roger Ebert described Neil Young's heavy reverb score as the sound of “a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.” The untitled Track 11 runs over fourteen minutes, and I still vividly remember the time I pulled up to a bend at Badlands National Park and cranked this track up to max volume on my car stereo right at sunset. I timed it perfectly to end just as the upper edge of the sun's disc dipped below the distant hill-line, and for just a moment I had melted into transcendence. Keep dropping that guitar, Neil.
Each viewing convinces me that a movie I originally embraced for the warm friendship between Johnny Depp and the magnificent Gary Farmer is actually one of the bleakest indictments ever made of America and its legacy of genocide that is so all-encompassing it warps not just the scorched earth of Jarmusch's American West, but even time itself. Depp's William Blake is reliving the same traumatic loop, riding that train to Machine over and over again.
Read my full review here.
9. THE SHINING (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
I have hated movie audiences for all sorts of reasons, but never so passionately as when I had to listen to a room full of hipsters howling their ironic little brains out at the sight of Shelley Duvall freaking out on the stairs of the Overlook. Whether Kubrick tormented it out of her or not, Duvall comes as close to an authentic breakdown on screen as I've ever seen, and I guess it's too much for the young'uns who prefer the simulation over the real deal. These bastards have obviously been around for a long time seeing as Duvall was nominated for one of the inaugural Razzies.
I don't think films are particularly good at being genuinely terrifying, but “The Shining” chills at absolute zero. And I cannot think of a movie sound effect that has embedded itself as deeply into my consciousness as Danny's Big Wheel rumbling across bare floorboards, then gliding almost silently over carpets, then rumbling, gliding, rumbling as he heads to his unexpected play date.
8. PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, 1967)
It took a 70 mm print (or was it 65?) of “Playtime” at the Egyptian Theatre to make me fully appreciate the audacity of this enterprise. Tati risked his personal capital on the construction of the glistening Tativille and then refused to cash in fully on his most bankable asset, M. Hulot. Letting Hulot take a back seat in many scenes to the “no names” in the cast may partially explain the movie's commercial failure, but it was integral to his democratized vision of cinema (and perhaps society). The result is a spatial symphony flawless in its harmonies and deeply empathetic to each lovingly observed actor. The film's wellspring of bonhomie is the perfect counterpoint to my previous two selections. It's also the only movie on my list that frequently arranges large numbers of people in the frame. In the movies as in real life, I tend to avoid crowds, but with Tati as my tour guide I'm willing to step out with the masses.
7. FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, 1971)
How neglected is this Werner Herzog masterpiece? It is currently only available in Region 1 as a “Bonus Disc” on Anchor Bay's decade-old release of “Lessons of Darkness.” Nice bonus.
Herzog touched down in the desert with a science-fiction script in hand and discarded the pages by the end of day one. What he scavenged from the Sahara instead was a menagerie of people, animals, mirages, and heat-rippled panoramas that defies categorization. Call it an essay, call it poetry, call it a collage, call it a documentary if you really want to piss off the director, but “Fata Morgana” is simply unique. Many other filmmakers have directed landscapes, but Herzog's sinuous tracking shots alongside desert dunes (some painstakingly hand-sculpted by his gonzo crew) are absolutely breathtaking. And how can you beat hearing both Leonard Cohen and Blind Faith in a Herzog movie?
“Fata Morgana” has to be appreciated on a scene-by-scene basis. Perhaps my favorite is the unspeakably strange studio session at a brothel in which a goggled pimp and the madam play drums and piano, respectively, while the pimp belts out an indecipherable tune that has to be one of the most haunting sounds ever produced by a human being. Herzog has a knack for compositions that are simultaneously miserablist and sublime, and... just watch it.
6. EDVARD MUNCH (Peter Watkins, 1974)
I am no artist, but I am convinced that “Edvard Munch” is the greatest film ever made about the creative process, primarily depicted here as “working your ass off.” Watching Munch build layers of paint, scrape frantically at his canvas, and shift restlessly from one medium to the next allows us to witness an artist reporting for duty each day and pouring in maximum effort, rather than a visionary who waits for the great epiphany that has marked the cheap turning point in far too many artist biopics.
Peter Watkins's pseudo-documentary style is infinitely pliable, and his free-floating, semi-omniscient perspective incorporates virtually any technique necessary to add context and to bore to the heart of the matter. I could just as easily have selected his magisterial “La Commune” (2000) for the same reasons, but “Edvard Munch” was my first exposure to Watkins, a man to whom we should be building monuments (but not monoforms).
5. AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (Robert Bresson, 1966)
Tilda Swinton recently stated that the greatest performance of all-time was delivered by the title donkey(s) of this ferocious Bresson gem, and who I am to argue with the Queen? As Swinton says, this graceful, suffering, blank-eyed donkey is a “portal for the audience to project whatever they need to” and he is surely the ultimate Bressonian model. If you see nothing in Balthazar's gaze, it might be because you're looking at your own reflection. Debates over Bresson's religious beliefs will always be with us, but for me “Balthazar” joins “2001” as one of the few spiritual films for the atheist viewer. Balthazar kneeling in a field with a flock of sheep milling about him, their bells chiming a chorus ... I weep openly. So did most of the class I screened it for.
Read my full review here.
4. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, 1961)
I have as many theories about “Marienbad” as anyone else does, but I would hate for any of them to be true. Appreciate this grand and elaborate puzzle for its pieces, not for the way they snap together. On my first several tours through “Marienbad” (which is not set in Marienbad; that was last year) I grooved on the poker-faced gloom, but repeat viewings have made it clear just how playful and occasionally funny the movie is. I can't believe how long it took me to spot Hitch's cameo.
I don't know which Alain deserves the most credit (director Resnais or author Robbe-Grillet) for this mesmerizing study in gestures and surfaces, but I wish to thank them both. As well as the extraordinary actress Delphine Seyrig who has the distinction of starring in my fourth favorite film of all-time...
3. JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
...as well as my third. What can I say about the Battleship Dielman, the unsinkable vanguard of the cinematic fleet? Jeanne Dielman (Seyrig) is eternal and immutable, born to be a .gif forever peeling potatoes and breading cutlets. She is an epic figure with such a radiant presence that all the other celluloid heroes huddle in her shadow. Director Chantal Akerman transforms the domestic space into something epic. My list is populated with the most memorable sets and locations in film history: The Overlook, Tativille, the hotel in “Marienbad,” but there is no movie space I know better than Jeanne's kitchen. I can close my eyes and picture the exact positions of the chair, table, coffeepot, bottle of dishwashing detergent, and scrub brush hanging off the tile wall.
Three and a half hours of watching Jeanne do housework is nowhere near enough. “Jeanne Dielman” may be a badge of honor film to prove one's devotion to the Church of Cinema, but it needs to be stressed just how much damn fun this movie is. I cannot remember what movies were like before I saw it.
2. STROSZEK (Herzog, 1977)
I suspect that Bruno S. was a savvier actor than he is generally given credit for, but if he was “only” playing himself, then what a self! It is difficult to pick his finest moment: perhaps the moment where he holds up a home-made sculpture that he describes a schematic of his brain, his long soulful look after sharing his woes with a stranger in a diner, or his quiet contemplation of newborns in a hospital ward. I'll go with this scene where he stages an impromptu glockenspiel performance in an alleyway. Bruno S. gets my vote for greatest performance of all time (OK, so I'm arguing with Ms. Swinton just a little) and now I find myself pondering the happy possibilities of a film starring Jeanne Dielman and Bruno Stroszek... in Vegas! But I digress.
My top two films also feature what I consider to be the two greatest endings ever. I mentioned Herzog's ability to meld the miserablist with the sublime and there is no more perfect manifestation of this than the dancing chicken and his penny arcade. Herzog says it is his greatest sequence, and he is indisputably correct though also typically modest; it is simply the greatest sequence ever filmed. Armies of directors and their special effects teams have squandered billions of dollars representing the end of the world, but nobody has ever topped the Apocalyptic Chicken strutting to "Old Lost John."
1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968)
There is a narrow highway from Gunnison, CO that crawls up a mountain to the ski resort of Crested Butte. If you drive it at night, you'll see posts with reflectors on both sides of the road, helpfully situated to prevent you from plunging off a cliff. If you crank up “Jupiter and Beyond” on your car stereo, you can pretend you're plunging through the Star Gate as you whiz past each pulsating marker. If your experience is similar to mine, all that will be waiting for you on the other side is a watered down margarita and a futon in your friend's loft, but evolution's always been a crap shoot. And at 14,000 feet, it doesn't take much alcohol to feel like a Star Child. It's the ultimate trip.
I think about “2001” at some point every single day, and that's not true of any other movie. I have seen it more than fifty times, and plan to see that many times more if I get the chance. (Update: Make that more than seventy times now.)