Warning: Film geek post. I’m doing this even though I know that probably only Daniel will want to read it, and probably not to the end.
The American Film Institute recently released its list of the 100 greatest American films of all time. The first thing really surprising to me about the list was the lack of documentaries. It’s absurd to believe that documentarians like Albert and David Maysles, Errol Morris and Barbara Kopple, just to name a few who have been nominated for Academy Awards, are not among America’s greatest filmmakers. There are seven documentaries on my own list of favorites below.
The second surprising thing is how often Steven Spielberg makes it on the list – five fucking times! – for such pap as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and the feel-good Holocaust movie Schindler’s List. I like Close Encounters of the Third Kind quite a bit, but the only other Speilberg movies I can stomach are the ones that are the least Spielbergian – A.I., basically a posthumous collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, and Minority Report, perhaps a posthumous collaboration with Philip K. Dick. Besides which, it’s simply stupid to put E.T., only superficially science fiction, over Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, probably the greatest American science fiction movie ever. It is nice to see that its critical reputation has increased recently.
But the AFI is not about being surprising. I don’t think it’s really about promoting great filmmaking either. It’s certainly not about getting anyone to see a movie they might never have head of before. Compiling such a list is basically about preserving and cementing a canon, and the careers of American film promotions managers – I mean, critics. Yawn. If this list is the best that America can offer then I think it’s time to look elsewhere for inspiration.
I could argue with just about every film on this list; but, how boring would that be? Better to suggest alternatives. The original Star Wars is on the list at #15 but I think the last entry in the series, Revenge of the Sith, is Lucas’ most mature and affecting iteration of his long-running space opera.
I’m not a Scorsese fan at all, but leaving out The King of Comedy is just sad. But again, I guess that film is the least Scorsesian in his oeuvre.
Citizen Kane, again, predictably, tops the list. It’s one of those movies I’ve studied in film school, have admired and marveled at; but, I’m just not moved by it. I far prefer Welles’ twisted and masterful Touch of Evil, despite Charlton Heston’s brown-face. F for Fake, The Magnificent Ambersons,Othello, Chimes at Midnight, Lady from Shanghai – I like them all better thanKane.
As for Coppola, I prefer the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now to the film itself. Hearts of Darkness is at least more honest and about a billion times less pretentious. I also admit to enjoying a sick love affair with his equally pretentious but a lot more fun and artful, Dracula.
I wouldn’t deign to argue with the inclusion of any Alfred Hitchcock movieand it’s nice to see Vertigo in the top ten, But beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’d take out North by Northwest, keep Psycho if we must, and put in Rope or even, Strangers on a Train. Rear Window gets to stay.
A few movies that I really hate made the list. The only movie I detest more than the sentimental and dishonest Forrest Gump is Frisk, a dully literal interpretation of Dennis Cooper’s eponymous novel; but that’s not saying very much. It had no chance of being on this list anyway.
I also have a sore spot for Joel and Ethan Coen movies and their Fargopissed me off more than any movie on AFI’s list. Misanthropy and class snobbery oozes from every frame of just about all their movies, but this one, universally lauded, surpasses all the rest.
Oh, and I think Tarantino is a tasteless charlatan – talented, effective, fearless – but still a charlatan. I realize most disagree with me.
Okay, and Platoon, but not Full Metal Jacket? Please, bitches.
I can’t pretend to have seen every movie to be able to definitively claim to know the 100 “best” nor do I claim “greatness” for any of the movies below. They all mean something to me, however and, if you take a look at any of them you might not have seen, I can almost guarantee you’ll be surprised. I saw no reason to restrict myself to only American movies.
Homo Superior’s Favorite Films, in no particular order
Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and The House of Mirth.
Directed by Terence Davies
One of the U.K.’s great directors, still shamefully under-appreciated. Is it possible, according to IMDB, that he hasn’t made a feature since 2000′sHouse of Mirth? Horrible.
Hairspray and Female Trouble
Directed by John Waters
I love all John Waters movies and I highly recommend watching any John Waters DVD with the director’s commentary on. Maybe even funnier than the movies themselves.
Maboroshi no hikari
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
A beautiful film with a meditative pace. About grief and moving on.
Directed by Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda
Funny and scary Czech documentary about a hoax played on the gullible consumers of Prague. Shot by film students, but honest and accomplished.
Directed by Stan Brakhage
4 minutes of “found foilage.” Silent yet exuberant. Some wonderful stillstaken from several of Brakhage’s films can be found here. Brakhage was one of America’s greatest filmmakers, even if you’ve never heard of him.Watch some of his movies on Google Video.
Meshes of the Afternoon
Directed by Maya Deren
This seminal B&W experimental film is presented here, in two parts, on YouTube.
Pas de Deux
Directed by Norman McClaren
Watch this gorgeous and elegaic short B&W film here but choose its original size.
Directed by James Bidgood
Wild and imaginatively erotic, as well as over-the-top and silly, this film and Bidgood’s photography, have been extensively ripped off, er, that is, extended and refined, by Pierre & Gilles.
The complete short films of Sadie Benning
Chicago dyke, salt of the earth. Shot with a Fisher Price toy camera.
The complete shorts films of Kenneth Anger.
I like Fireworks, made when Anger was 17 and full of cum and imagination, and Invocation of my Demon Brother, maybe, the best.
Un Chant d’Amour
Directed by Jean Genet
What Time Is It There?
Directed by Ming-liang Tsai
Directed by Ulrich Seidl
The state of the EU, right now.
Ghost World, Bad Santa and Crumb
Directed by Terry Zwigoff.
The funny and poignant Ghost World was Zwigoff’s big hit, but Crumb, about the underground comics artist, is one of the best documentaries ever, if also sometimes painful to watch, and for my money, the dialogue in Bad Santa is a lot funnier, not to mention vulgar, despite the Hollywoodized ending, than Ghost World‘s
Boys Don’t Cry
Directed by Kimberly Pierce
Despite some playing around with the facts, this is still a powerful film, containing a performance by Hilary Swank deserving of its Oscar.
1999 was the year when independent film changed Hollywood, for good or for bad. David O. Russel’s stylistically brash and politically daring movie – has Hollywood ever made another film about the ramifications of the first Gulf War? – was part of the good. This is one of the few instances in which I can stand, and actually admire, George Clooney.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Directed by Chantal Akerman.
A grueling and unforgettable 198 minutes. I’ve forced a couple of my female, non-film geek friends to watch this masterpiece from 1976; every woman to a one could not stop talking about it afterwards.
French title, Presque rien
Directed by Sébastien Lifshitz
Not a coming-out story, but rather a coming-in story. Lots of details left out, making it somewhat mysterious. Starring a gorgeous Stéphane Rideau, a big star in his native France.
Pump Up the Volume and Over the Edge
The first is a crowd-pleasing, conventionally structured but refreshing and politically provocative youth movie starring a young Christian Slater. The second is a rarely-seen and quite radical youth movie starring a very young and taciturn Matt Dillon in his first feature role.
Salt of the Earth
Directed by Herbert J. Biberman
The only American movie to proudly proclaim it was made by Communists – members of the infamous Hollywood Ten. Beautifully shot and, in terms of content, way ahead of its time.
The 40-Year Old Virgin
Thank You For Smoking
All more-or-less conventional American comedies but I love them. None of them are stupid, although two on the list pretend to be, and Dick, starring the effervescent Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, is both smart, topical and funny, not a combination you’re supposed to cultivate in America.
Voices from the Front
Written and directed by Frameline.
An energizing and inspiring documentary about the impact and efficacy of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The AIDS activism period of the 90s has been mysteriously erased in the gay collective memory, even though, during the short period ACT UP operated, it succeeded in changing so much about the way the government approached the AIDS crisis, and gave hundreds of gay men a reason to live. That, at least, is a truism. What’s not acknowledged very often is how much of a cultural impact ACT UP had on the public perception of gay men and lesbians, especially among the MTV generation. When I attended the first Lalapolloza in Chicago, I wore an ACT UP t-shirt. My straight buddy Dean, the most non-homophobic breederboy I’ve ever met, insisted on wearing my black ACT UP ballcap. The crowds of kids literally parted for us, mumbling “They’re gay!” as we passed. It was very strange. At first I thought we were going to get bashed; but, no, several young boys wanted to know where they could buy the shirts. ACT UP had recently staged a massive demonstration in downtown and it was suddenly not only cool, but butch, to be gay.
Jeepers Creepers 1 & 2
Directed by Victor Salva.
I love monster movies and openly gay director Victor Salva’s diptych is, erm, creepy and stylish. His scripts also provide a backdrop full of sexual, social and racial tensions. They’re a lot of fun, too.
School of Rock
Dazed and Confused
A Scanner Darkly
Directed by Richard Linklater
If I had to pick the most interesting and bold American director working right now it would have to be Linklater. I trust both his taste and his humanity.
The Shape of Things
In the Company of Men
Directed by Neil LaBute
Devastating critiques of male/female sexual dynamics, astutely directed.
A History of Violence
Directed by David Cronenburg
If I was forced to choose my favorite director, on 3 days out of the week, it would be Cronenburg.
Touch of Evil
Directed by Orson Welles
Directed by Bill Forsyth
Two small, smart and elegantly shot comedy-dramas. Christine Lahti in the former is excellent. My mom loved this movie, too.
Directed by Monte Hellman
This great lost 70s picture showed up at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this year, along with its director. A nearly mute James Taylor, billed as only The Driver, headlines this quintessential road movie which eventually becomes much more interesting than that.
The Last Picture Show
Directed by Peter Bogdonovich
Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen
Robert Dickerson, aka Benjamin Smoke, was an HIV positive indie-rock front man for the band Smoke, based in Atlanta. I saw this documentary at its premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and was blown away, by the music, by Dickerson’s gentle flamboyance and indomitability, by the filmmakers’ experimental spirit. A must-see.
The Searchers and Night of the Hunter
The first is directed by John Ford and the latter by Charles Laughton; I’ve put them together because they’re the first movies I remember falling in love with as a kid, often showing once or twice a month, it seems, on Sunday afternoons. My parents never took me to the movies. Not even once, so whatever I saw was on TV. I love these films’ visual poetry even today.Hunter scared the hell out of me when I was 10 as I’m sure it did a lot of children. I think The Searchers is America’s greatest western.
My three favorite Hitchcock movies. Rope can still be a revelation for someone who’s never seen it.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
I would be surprised if AI, one of the most affecting science fiction movies ever made, and featuring an uncanny and actually somewhat disturbing performance by Haley Joel Osment, did not make AFI’s list in the near future.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Scott’s never made another movie as great as these two but even if he didn’t, he’ll never be forgotten because of them.
Directed by James Cameron
A tense and gripping monster movie with a feminist subtext. Sigourney Weaver carries it and no one else could have played her part half as well.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
A caustic and hilarious satire masquerading as generic, if energetic, sci-fi.
Directed by Luis Buñuel
The Virgin Suicides
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
As Rosenbaum wrote, Magnolia is a wonderful mess – I particularly love how Anderson uses Aimee Mann’s pop soundtrack – and Hard Eight is a lot more focused and powerful as filmmaking than the director’s much-laudedBoogie Nights.
The Royal Tennenbaums
Directed by Wes Anderson
The Squid and the Whale
Directed by Noah Baumbach
I just caught up with this fresh and lively comedy on DVD and watched it in wonder three times back-to-back. Practically flawless.
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Ecstatic, nuanced and non-judgmental sex comedy. But you already knew that.
Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
Provocative and disturbing and masterfully constructed.
Ma Vie en Rose
Directed by Alain Berliner
This film about a little boy who likes to dress up as a girl has probably given me more pure pleasure than any other film on this list.
Directed by Paul Brickman
Slick and sexy, it’s also damn smart and has been imitated frequently. No one ever did nail the period better, though. Remember, Tom Cruise in his underwear, dancing to Bob Seger? Iconic.
My Own Private Idaho
Directed by Gus Van Sant
On the other 4 days of the week, Van Sant is my favorite American director.
My Neighbor Totoro
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Transcendent and gorgeous animated films.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Here’s what I wrote a few years ago about Todd Haynes’ masterpiece:
Judging from the laughter in the director’s commentary for the DVD version of Safe, director Todd Haynes thinks his movie is a comedy. I’m with Wes Craven — I thought it was a horror movie. Not that it can’t be both, as Craven knows too.
Still, the first time Haynes and producer Christine Vachon giggled at the dialogue, I couldn’t help but wince.
In the film’s initial run, several critics pointed out the apparent contempt that Haynes feels toward his main character. I agree only partially: it’s as much self-loathing as class critique. You only have to listen to Haynes point out which sets and locations and cars were actually his family’s to realize that. But more immediately, if you don’t feel sympathy toward some aspect of Carole White’s struggle against her “allergies to the 20th Century” then you’re only revealing your own class and ideological biases.
As someone who feels that most aspects of life in the 21st century are fundamentally broken, and who feels as much if not more alienation toward my gleefully ironic art school-educated peers as from my fractured, fundamentalist working-class-suddenly-coming-into-money childhood, I can’t find it in me to condemn Carole’s blank solipsism. I’m moved by her brave attempts to cure herself, devastated, and yeah, embarrassed, at the final camera-addressing shot where Carole tentatively attempts to profess self-love. Julianne Moore’s unwavering commitment to and respect for the character pays off powerfully here.
Ultimately, that’s the brilliance of Carole White and Safe: there’s little irony in them; it’s all in you.
Directed by Harmony Korine
Produced by Gus Van Sant, this ersatz comedy is bizarre and cruel in spots. It’s also lovely and moving in others. It’s pretty much indescribable. You have to see it to believe it.
The 400 Blows
Directed by Francois Truffaut
More than any other movie I first encountered in film school, this classic from the French New Wave director inspired my own dreams of filmmaking.
Paris is Burning
Directed by Jennie Livingston
An exuberant and affectionate documentary that’s about much more than a passing fad.
Iraq in Fragments
Directed by James Longeley
An artful and beautifully shot documentary about the state of Iraq during the occupation.
Directed by David Lynch
A mammoth experimental epic. My favorite Lynch movie by far.
To Sleep with Anger
Directed by Charles Burnett
You’ve never seen this movie directed by America’s greatest African-American director but you need to.
A Man Escaped
Au Hasard Balthazar
Directed by Robert Bresson
Directed by André Téchiné
Blending political history with affecting character studies is something the French do very well, and Téchiné is a master.
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
A devastating and profoundly moral drama about forgiveness. Left me literally shaking after my first viewing.
Without You I’m Nothing
Directed by John Boskovich
Sandra Bernhard is a real diva, and also one smart cookie, in this adaptation of her off-Broadway show, even if she thinks so, too.
The King of Comedy
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Sandra Bernhard, Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro. Scorsese’s underappreciated and decidedly weird “comedy.”
Directed by Alison Maclean
Billy Crudup as a sexy, talented junkie.
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
I find I can’t say it any better than this:
This masterpiece is simultaneously a mystical, highly poetic account of dying; a well-researched appreciation of Native American cultures; a frightening portrait of modern American violence and capitalist greed that refuses to traffic in the stylistic alibis of Hollywood; a warm, hilarious depiction of cross-cultural friendship; and a hallucinatory trip across the American wilderness.
The Hours and Times
Directed by Christopher Münch
At one time, Münch was a very promising independent filmmaker. You can see why from this modest yet perfectly realized black and white short about the emotional possibilities occasioned by Brian Epstein’s holiday with John Lennon. Fictional, of course.
The Gleaners and I
Directed by Agnes Varda
This masterful and affecting documentary starts out investigating gleaners, or garbage pickers, as my mother would have called them, and becomes a wonderful essay about the disposability of life itself. The film and the filmmaker eventually arrive, not at despair, but at wonder. My favorite documentary on this list.
Living Out Loud
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Homo loves Holly Hunter and she’s never been better than in this dynamically scripted and directed dual character study, co-starring Queen Latifah and Danny Devito.
The Slaughter Rule
I know who would’ve received the Best Actor Oscar if I were passing one out the year this independent film was released: David Morse for his role as Gideon in The Slaughter Rule. Morse’s performance is so fresh that I forgot it was a performance, something much harder to do with Oscar hounds like Jack Nicholson. Of course, it helps that Morse was provided with wonderful dialogue full of idiosyncrasies and local color in a script by writers/directors Alex and Andrew J.Smith. I found some of the plot maneuvers of the film itself to be a little pat but there’s nothing pat about Morse’s inhabitation of a none-too-sympathetic character, nor indeed about the rest of the sturdy performances, including Ryan Gosling’s and Clea Duvall’s, both of whose characters are written with the same care as Morse’s. The cinematography, full of Montana landscapes, is lovely as well.
Directed by Hettie MacDonald
A wonderful coming-of-age and coming-out story set in South-East London. The film ends on such a hopeful and liberating note that you forgive the turn into fantasy. Come on, admit it, it made you cry.
The films of Derek Jarman
Jarman’s oeuvre is so far-ranging and deep, despite being fascinated with a small cluster of concerns, and have fascinated me for so many years, I found I couldn’t choose just a few. The Garden, Edward II, Wittgenstein and Jubilee would have to be near the top.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Sideways got the deserved Oscar nods, but I like this earlier comedy feature by Payne a lot more. If only for the two leads – a fucked-up and downtrodden Matthew Broderick and a manic and ambitious Reese Witherspoon. Their characters are perfect and hilarious foils for one another and almost make you forget the bitterness at the center of the movie.
Directed by Chris Smith
You’ll either laugh at or love the character at the center of this documentary about a struggling filmmaker. The degree you tolerate irony as the moral compass for your own judgments will determine whether or not you take from this film all that it offers.
The Wind Will Carry Us
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Iranian director Kirostami has quite the critical reputation at the moment; but this film’s human mystery and comedy is the only one I keep coming back to watch again.
Raising Victor Vargas
Directed by Peter Sollett
A wise and touching first feature starring one of the world’s most beautiful boys. The camera of director Sollett certainly thinks so, and you will too, at least for all the brisk and full-of-charm 90 minutes this film lasts.
Lost in America
Directed by Albert Brooks
One of America’s great comic writers and comedians. This is America’s funniest road movie.
Finally, I’ll include Rose Troche’s Go Fish, and not just because I worked on it and was an extra in it. It also happens to capture with wit and aplomb a unique and energizing moment in American indie filmmaking and also in the cultural representation of lesbians, facts that seem to have been forgotten in our post-gay world.
Although this list, far from exhaustive, was prompted by the AFI list, it’s inspired by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s alternative list. A concluding quote from him:
In the final analysis, selecting America’s 100 greatest movies has to be an ongoing effort of exploration and discovery–something that can happen only if we stop to consider what we still don’t know about and try to set up some mechanisms for educating ourselves. The saddest thing about the AFI’s list is that it proposes that we stop looking, go home, and proceed to pick more lint out of our navels for the remainder of the millennium.