Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dust Forms Words 100 Must-See Movies: 1 to 10

So: it all began on Facebook. Lee T took it upon herself to draw my attention to Time Magazine's 2005 list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. I commented upon some notable omissions and dubious inclusions in the list, and Lee challenged me to do my own list of 100.

And I have. This is the start of it.

Please note: this is not the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. I cannot make that list. Although I have seen a great many movies, there is an even larger number that I have missed, including films that for all I know may be theatrical giants.

It is also a biased list. I was born in the latter part of the 20th Century, in Australia, and I am therefore naturally more focused on movies which are recent and which are Western. I have a high tolerance for genre pics, I prefer drama to comedy, and I'm male.

Despite all that, I'm prepared to guarantee that each of these films is worth seeing. I'm also happy to say that if I could have only seen 100 films in my life, these are the ones I'd choose.

Now, in no particular order, the first ten.

1: The Sting (1973)
The Sting stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman as 1930s con artists out for revenge on a gang boss after the murder of a friend. Riveting performances from the leads and a Scott Joplin ragtime score make for a dramatic, fun and uplifting movie.

The script moves through a series of self-contained miniature cons before building to the big finale, and part of the movie's success is that each of these set-pieces is individually strong and contains a complete three-act structure. George Roy Hill took home the Best Director Oscar for this movie, beating out William Friedkin's The Exorcist.

2: Poltergeist (1982)
The late 1970s were an important turning point for horror, as cinemas moved away from creature-features and into the burgenoing subgenre of the slasher flick. But even as franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th were delivering low-budget scares in down-to-earth settings, audiences were rediscovering science-fiction with the likes of Star Wars and Blade Runner. It was only natural that in the 80s horror would return to high budgets and cutting edge special effects.

Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated ghost story Poltergeist set the stage for the next decade of horror. Where slasher flicks had subtexts decrying sex, drinking, and modern youth, Poltergeist brought the horror into the centre of an apparenty innocent nuclear family. Memorable elements include ghosts communicating to a young girl via television static, the subsequent transformation of that girl into a disembodied voice calling for help from the walls, and the gruesome finale in a swimming pool filled with skeletons.

3: Clerks (1994)
Kevin Smith eventually became the perpetrator of a string of offbeat, immature and occasionally hilarious comedies, but the one that started it all was Clerks in 1994. Filmed in black and white on a budget of $27,000, it tells the story of two disaffected convenience store clerks named Dante and Randal, and their activities over the course of one day at their workplace.

Although Smith was rewarded for his success as a director with subsequent projects and larger budgets, Clerks retains a clarity and edginess that he never managed to find again. If you're only going to watch one Kevin Smith film, this is definitely the one.

4: American Beauty (1999)
Kevin Spacey is a hell of an actor, and since I can't recommend The Usual Suspects, which it appears I am totally alone on this Earth in despising, American Beauty is definitely his signature performance. Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a man suffering from a mid-life crisis, and the movie tells the tale of Lester's attempts to regain control over a life he feels has gone astray, including his experiments with marijuana, his lust for his daughter's cheerleader friend, and his conflicts with his obsessive-compulsive wife.

Given the subject matter the film could have easily descended into stereotype and cliche, but all of the movie's decidedly strange characters are handled in a movingly human way. American Beauty manages to be both fast-paced and introspective, quirky yet real. Absolutely one of the best movies ever made and a must see no matter what your cinematic tastes.

5: Birth of a Nation (1915)
The silent black-and-white Birth of a Nation is an interesting film on several levels. Not only does it glorify the Ku Klux Klan and depict the supposed savagery and evil of the black man, but it was a massive commercial success, taking profits to the tune of a then-staggering $10 million.

Despite its controversial subject matter, Birth of a Nation is compelling viewing, and displays a cinematic craftmanship unparallelled in its time. It can also be seen as the birth of the feature film, juxtaposing financial profit with an uncharacteristically long running-time of 190 minutes.

6: The Killing (1956)
Stanley Kubrick made a very large number of excellent films, along with some very apalling ones, but his earliest are some of his best. The Killing can be seen as Kubrick's first "real" film after his experimental and student efforts and tells the story of a complex heist at a racetrack. The gang of criminal protagonists turn in strong performances, notably Elisha Cook Jr as George Peatty and Marie Windsor as his shrewish wife, and the film is well-paced and packed with suspense.

The Killing broke new ground in the 50s by having a non-sequential narrative, cutting back and forth across time as the story followed certain characters. This was a technique that distributor United Artists loathed, going so far as to say that the film was "unwatchable", but Kubrick fought successfully to retain his vision, making for one of the greatest crime films of all time.

7: Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko is the first feature film from director Richard Kelly and stars Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role. (His sister Maggie Gyllenhaal also appears.) It tells the story of Donnie, a disturbed teenager who begins to believe that he has been caught up in extraordinary events after a jet engine falls from the sky and crushes his bedroom.

The film did apallingly during its limited cinematic release but subsequently gained a strong cult following. The film's ominous atmosphere, ambiguous plotline, and haunting imagery (including the well-known anthropomorphic rabbbit) combine to create a memorable experience that you'll want to re-visit again and again.

8: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Director John Hughes is almost synonymous with the 80s. Between 1984 and 1991 he directed eight movies, of which undoubtedly the strongest are The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

In Ferris Bueller's Day Off Matthew Broderick dominates as the egocentric fast-talking title character but is still almost upstaged by an excellent performance from Alan Ruck as Ferris' friend Cameron. In typical John Hughes style the film on its face is a light-hearted comedy while the real character development is happening quietly beneath the surface. Ferris regularly breaks the fourth wall with well-written and sharply delivered monologues which never fail to amuse. Like much of Hughes' early work it succeeds in speaking directly to a young audience without becoming patronising or preachy.

9: Crash (2004)
Crash is the movie that won Matt Dillon an Oscar, and if that doesn't convince you that there's something a little bit special in this film then it's hard to say what would. It tells the tale of a group of Los Angeles residents whose lives are entangled over the course of 36 hours by racial tension and violence. Drawing from an ensemble cast of largely B-grade actors, including the likes of Ryan Phillipe, Sandra Bullock and Thandie Newton, the film paints a controversial, often shocking, but powerfully moving tale of modern America.

With so many characters appearing in Crash, each actor really only has one or two scenes to sell their character to the audience, and with the aid of a fantastic script this focus enables the cast to produce some terrific performances. It's ultimately a love-it-or-hate-it movie but regardless of your experience it's a film you'll want to remember and discuss.

10: Taxi Driver (1976)
Although not his first film, Taxi Driver is really the movie that launched Martin Scorsese's career as a director. It simultaneously secured the future of a young Robert de Niro, last seen by audiences in his Oscar winning role in The Godfather Part II and here playing the title role as isolated New York cabbie Travis Bickle.

From its grim opening scenes to its ultraviolent finale, Taxi Driver is a film that commands your attention. De Niro is unforgettable as Bickle, and is supported by deeply disturbing performances from a 13-year-old Jodie Foster playing a child prostitute and Harvey Keitel as her pimp. Taxi Driver represents some of Scorsese's best and most accessible work.


Lee said...

It is exciting that I have instigated something. I will be following this and the remaining 90 keenly.. with an open mind and a nothing hand you may say.

Greg Tannahill said...

As I write this I've got 40 more to go. I need to get 'em done quickly so I can get back to blogging game news, but I'm enjoying the exercise so far.