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Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Definitive List of the Top Ten Films of All Time

Below is the definitive list of the ten best films of all time.

This list abrogates any preceding list.

If you disagree with any of my choices for the ten best films of all time, you are wrong, and I am right. Further, you are unintelligent, and you have no taste. In fact, you are probably both a child molester and a cannibal.

Nah, not really. To be honest, I don't believe in top ten lists. We can say what movies we love and why, but there is no objective measure to determine which is better than another. I'm tired of writing about, and dealing with, heavy stuff, so I decided to focus on something I love: movies.

The Definitive List of the Top Ten Films of All Time

"Gone with the Wind" 1939 Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland. Directed by Victor Fleming. Produced by David O Selznick.

Nothing compares.

Nothing.

Whenever I watch a new movie, part of me thinks, will this affect me the way GWTW did the first time I saw it?

Making this movie almost killed David O Selznick. If it had, he would have died for a good cause.

Human effort to create lasting art is slathered over every inch of the screen. There is no way you could take in everything this movie offers you on just one viewing. Amphetamine-stoked Selznick obsessed over details that viewers would never see. GWTW is a one-of-a-kind well-oiled machine.

One of the many times I've seen GWTW in a theater was in Poland. It was a spiritual experience, as it always is. I could feel the audience's reaction. I knew they never saw the Old South. They saw Poland up on that screen. When the lights came up, people glowed, eyes full of tears, chins resolute.

GWTW has fans all over the world, in every color. Everyone who loves it see herself in it.

GWTW is only superficially about the antebellum South. GWTW is about that moment when you drop from the sheltered innocence and infinite possibility of youth into the Darwinian mixed martial arts arena that is real life. You come out punching, frantically and cluelessly – you see things coming at you, but you can't differentiate between enemies and allies, and you don't know the rules of the game. You see sensitive people you love fall by the wayside. You realize that sensitivity and decency are more like birth defects than gifts. You see that ruthless competition is the only asset. You have to betray values your mother taught you. Winning is the only thing. You win by betraying your best self and your most sacred dreams, and your victory tastes like lead in your mouth. You realize that that recurring nightmare that haunts you, the one about chasing some elusive, mysterious, yearned-for phantom, was really all about losing yourself. You frantically run to catch up to what you suddenly realize really matters, and you realize it is too late. *That's* what GWTW is about.

People get all worked up about the white supremacy in the book, and the inaccurate depiction of slavery in the film. They are so missing the point. The book is monstrously racist. It is racist in every way, not just white supremacy. Everyone is who they are because of their race or their genetics. Ashley, Scarlett's crush, is weak because of inbreeding. Ellen Robillard, Scarlett's mother, is sensitive because of aristocratic, coastal French ancestry. Gerald is a dumb, blunt Irishman; Gerald and Scarlett both love Tara because of Irish genes. Scarlett's children by her weak first two husbands are wimps, genetic failures no amount of proper parenting could fix. Bonnie is a lovable child because she carries Rhett's genes. In short, Margaret Mitchell was poisoned by the Scientific Racism, aka Eugenics, so popular in the US in the early twentieth century.

You could take a pair of scissors and snip all that racism out of GWTW and still have one of the best novels ever written.

Critics think they are saying something pointed when they say, "I could not stand Scarlett O'Hara."

Oh, come on. Scarlett spectacularly screws over every human being she is close to, including her own children, including herself. No one likes Scarlett O'Hara, including people like me who have read the book several times and seen the film more times than we can count.

What makes "Gone with the Wind" hypnotic, mesmerizing, impossible to put down, and, adjusted for inflation,
the highest grossing film ever made, is that Margaret Mitchell wrote the entire book on the edge of that razor writers respect and fear – the razor's edge of keeping a character true, and keeping a character lovable. In short, keeping a character human.

Scarlett spends the entire book on that razor's edge between doing what she must do to survive, doing what her outsize, Darwinian lizard brain tells her to do, and being a mensch. She wants to be a mensch like her mother, but she never manages it fully. Our hearts ache for her. Scarlett, we scream, Scarlett, do the right thing here! But we know she can't. If she did the right thing, she'd lose her love, she'd lose Tara, she'd watch her family starve. As many times as I've read the book, as many times as I've seen the film (I have honestly lost count on both), right up until the last page, I feel that tension, that ache, that desire to see Scarlett do the right thing.

GWTW's notorious open-ended ending is genius. Maybe she finally does, and maybe it finally pays off. I cannot tell you how many times – maybe hundreds, maybe thousands – I have put myself to sleep by rewriting the ending to GWTW so that it all works out and Scarlett finally gets to be her best self, the woman her mother Ellen wanted her to be.

I saw GWTW the first time when I was around nine. I was with my mother and her friend, and my friend.

My mother and her friend admired Scarlett O'Hara. My friend and I hated her, couldn't stand her.

"Wait till you grow up," the older women told us. "You will understand."

I had a crush on kind, sensitive, poetic Ashley. I could see nothing desirable about Rhett, a scoundrel. I wanted to be like Melanie. (I still do.) Again, "Wait till you grow up."

They were right.


"Lawrence of Arabia" 1962 Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif. Directed by David Lean. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.

No one is qualified to say that this or that film is the best film ever made. No film is the best film ever made.

One can certainly say that there is no better film than "Lawrence of Arabia."

I spend a good deal of my online time at the discussion boards of the International Movie Database. I've never seen a discussion page for a film quite like the page for "Lawrence of Arabia." On the discussion pages for most films, we fans talk about just about any given aspect of a movie, from "I met the star of this film in a coffee shop" to "Is this character meant to be gay?" to "You can see a boom mike in this scene of this movie."

On the discussion board for "Lawrence of Arabia," topic after topic is devoted to one thing: movie fans expressing awe for "Lawrence of Arabia." People show up on the discussion board just to type something that's been said a hundred times before, "This is the best film ever made." It's as if, on this board, you get snapshots of hardcore movie fans with their eyes wide open and their mouths agape.

What was the filmmakers' secret? They were intelligent, and they treated their audience as if the audience members were intelligent. That's the secret of "Lawrence of Arabia." Sure, it's heartbreakingly beautiful, and the marriage of image with music is sublime. Sure, the true story the film tells is deep and important. But there are lots of beautiful films with great soundtracks. There are lots of deep and important stories. What propels LoA into the stratosphere is its brains, and its assumption of smarts in the viewer.

I saw "Lawrence" as a kid, with my sister Antoinette, who was older, smarter, and more sophisticated. I think she was able intellectually to understand the film in a way that I could not. I didn't know nuthin about colonialism, or homosexuality, or male rape, or masochism, or what it means to be different, or a different person's craving to be normal, or Islam, or power politics, or how power corrupts: the film's themes. I was a kid. And yet, somehow, LoA communicated to me. I felt its themes as if they were a deep spiritual burden, an inescapable human legacy passed down to me in some tribal rite. In fact, they were. When I later saw the film as an adult, it's as if these sketchy, ghostlike outlines I'd been storing for decades were suddenly fleshed out.

"Lawrence of Arabia" is not just a perfect work of art. It is also a necessary lesson. Thanks to petroleum, we are in deep in the Arab world. If we could internalize the lessons LoA teaches about that involvement, we'd all be better off.



"The Best Years of Our Lives" 1946 Frederic March, Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell, Virginia Mayo. Directed by William Wyler. Produced by Sam Goldwyn. Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood.

"The Best Years of Our Lives" doesn't show up on many ten best lists. It is relatively little known. This is a shame. TBYOOL is a masterpiece. The late film critic Roger Ebert, God bless him, placed TBYOOL on his list of "
Great Movies."

I love "The Best Years of Our Lives" so much I have to ration how much I watch it. If I check out the DVD from the library, or start watching the entire film on youtube, I will watch nothing else for the next ten days. I just watch, and rewatch, TBYOOL over and over. There are a couple of scenes I cannot watch just once.

I remember seeing this film as a kid on TV. There was a scene that deeply scandalized me. Fred Derry is a traumatized WW II vet. He is sleeping at the home of his new best-friend-forever, Al Stephenson. Actually Fred just met Al. They got drunk together as a way of dealing with the trauma of returning home from war to family and friends who had no idea what they went through, and to lives they no longer understand or fit into. Al brought Fred home, and Peggy, Al's beautiful daughter, helped put Fred to bed.

In the night, Fred has a nightmare about losing his war buddy in a battle. His buddy was burned alive, though Fred tried to save him. He wakes up thrashing and screaming. Peggy wakens and rushes into the bedroom. She grasps Fred firmly and orders him, first, to wake up, and then to go back to sleep. The contrary orders seem weirdly fitting to what the vets are required to do to save their sanity. They must "wake up" – realize that the war is over – and "go back to sleep" – not think about what they've seen.

This scene deeply scandalized me as a child. To see a young woman enter the bedroom of a man she does not know. To see an adult man, a WW II vet like my dad, reduced to crying and shouting for help. To see a woman take charge of a man, comfort him, heal him. It blew my mind.

There's a scene I watch over and over. Fred and Peggy are walking through a parking lot full of vintage 1946 model cars, bloated and boat-like. A water tower rises behind them. As Fred reaches for the car door, he suddenly kisses Peggy. I have no idea why that scene moves me so much. I've replied it repeatedly trying to figure it out. Perhaps the scene is built around Fibonacci numbers. Or perhaps it is something about the water tower.

The scene where Fred's father and stepmother read Fred's commendation letter tears my heart right out of my chest. Fred is a roughneck and a bit of a loser. He just doesn't fit in any more. He was a working class guy from the wrong side of the tracks. His only pre-war work experience was as a soda jerk. He had been a fighter pilot in World War II. Now, post-war, he is, again, a non-entity. A failure in his postwar life, he is hitchhiking out of town. After he leaves, his father and stepmother read his commendation letter. The text of the letter attests to Fred's bravery and heroism. I've never seen hidden heroism so well depicted.

The film accurately recreates the feel of a working class home on the wrong side of the tracks. Walls look flimsy; the interior is unkempt. If I remember correctly, laundry hangs in the background.

Roman Bohnen and Gladys George are perfectly cast as Fred's parents. They have a beat-up, made-mistakes, been around the block and maybe been in jail feel to them. You could take these two actors, in the clothes they are wearing in this film, and slip them down in the working class town I grew up in, and they would fit right in.

That's what gets me about TBYOOL. I feel, when I am watching it, as if I have been plunked down into real people's real lives.

"The Best Years of Our Lives" is an exquisitely beautiful film. Gregg Toland's black and white, deep focus cinematography is crisp and hyper-real. If you've ever wanted to live in the late 1940s, watch TBYOOL. You will feel as if you have.



"The Searchers" 1956 starring John Wayne, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter. Directed by John Ford. Frank Nugent screenplay.

I am a serious movie fan so I sometimes watch movies I don't want to see. I watch them as homework: "Oh, this movie gets a lot of attention, so I really ought to watch it."

"The Searchers" was one of those movies.

I don't like Westerns. I really dislike John Wayne. He's the kind of large, bland, none-too-bright, undifferentiated slab of male that was popular in midcentury America.

The library at the campus where I work had a VHS tape so one afternoon when I had some free time I popped it in to the campus machine and sat down, thinking I'd watch the first five minutes, fast forward to a few key scenes, and then take off. I'd give "The Searchers" fifteen minutes of my life.

Two hours of sitting in that uncomfortable university library chair later, my jaw was on the floor, there were tears in my eyes, and I decided that "The Searchers" really is all that.

"The Searchers" is one of those movies that worms its way into your lizard brain, far beyond the reach of language. But it also taunts and flirts with your cerebral language centers. "The Searchers" is a slam-bang adventure yarn told in widescreen, Technicolor images, and it is a morality tale as complex as any Russian novel. It begs to be written about. At any given second on the clock, there are at least one thousand film fans, somewhere on planet earth, struggling to say something new and intriguing about "The Searchers." I wish them luck. I can't do it. I can't say something newer or more authoritative than what
Martin Scorcese or Steven Spielberg have already said.

I can say this much. Recently I showed "The Searchers" to Tasha Samkough, a young Circassian American writer. Tasha writes about Circassian women in the US and cross-cultural encounters. I thought it would be provocative for her to take in some art about WASP Americans' encounters with the original others, Native Americans. "The Searchers" centers around a veritable honor killing. This is the punishment for a homegirl who goes native.

Tasha totally grokked "The Searchers." Good to know because some insist that young people today can't understand any art created before 1985 – too slow and complex for their technology-addled brains and stimulation-addicted palates. Young people today require explosions, quick cuts, and at least one Miley Cyrus atrocity against sex and aesthetics. But as we watched the "The Searchers" together, young Tasha gasped in all the right places, which pleased me.

Before showing the film to Tasha I did some research. It all began with an innocent google search: "Native Americans Captives."

I've published a scholarly book about the Holocaust. I'm no stranger to atrocity. What I read about Native American torture brought me close to vomiting, and kept me awake at night. The Native Americans did some things to their captives that I'd never read about even the Nazis doing. (Tasha, I read it for you! I hope you are grateful!)

John Ford does not graphically depict these Native American tortures of captives in "The Searchers." He did what filmmakers did under The Hays Production Code. He looked away. He had his characters see, and then look away. Ethan sees what the Indians did to Martha and to Lucy. He is driven all but mad by what he sees. We never learn in words what Ethan saw. He refuses to tell us, "What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more."

We witness Ethan's obsessive hate. We register the torture in our guts, not in our minds. Between 1930 and 1968, The Hays Production Code directed what Hollywood films could, and could not depict onscreen. Counterintuitively, the Hays Code's prudish demands made for powerful filmmaking. It was a more powerful movie-watching experience for me to imagine what Ethan saw, rather than to have the filmmaker spell it out for me.

Ethan hates the Comanche. His hate is very real. Like real hate, it is intimate. He knows the Comanche. He uses what he knows about them to hurt them.
 

Ethan and his party find a dead Comanche. Ethan shoots out the corpse's eyes. The Reverend traveling with Ethan asks why he bothered to shoot out the eyes of a corpse.

Reverend Clayton: What good did that do ya?

Ethan: By what you preach, none. But what that Comanche believes, ain't got no eyes, he can't enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.

I never thought I'd see a depiction of obsessive hate so sharp and so accurate in a blockbuster American film made in the 1950s.

"Racist." Film critics label Ethan "racist." By extension, all Americans who fought Indians are labeled "Racist."

Racist? If someone did to my family what the Comanche did to their captives? I'd nuke the bastards. I'd resurrect them and then torture them and then nuke them again. At least in my imagination.

Here's the second creepy thing I encountered while researching Native American torture practices.

The websites providing this key information were often white supremacist websites. The information was accurate; their sources were often university press books one could access and crosscheck via google books.

But it's creepy that conventional websites, not run by crazed hate mongers, were not the ones providing this info.

It's important information. No ethnicity is free from atrocity. No ethnicity should be demonized, and no ethnicity should be romanticized. And we shouldn't have to get American history from white supremacist websites.

I was haunted for days by the accounts of Native American torture practices. Finally I got it – the Comanche were nomads. They did not have stable institutions. They did not have courts of law or prisons. They did not have public relations or modern communications. They could not build a Great Wall around their territory – the hunting grounds where they pursued the buffalo that provided their every need. Hideously torturing captives was their method of announcing in a way certain to be heard: "Stay off our hunting grounds." Alas, it did not work. The Comanches surrendered in 1875. Their leader was Quanah Parker, son of Cynthia Ann Parker, a captive whose saga inspired "The Searchers." By 1890, there were 750 buffalo left. There had been sixty million.



"The Son of the Sheik" 1926 Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Banky. Directed and Produced by George Fitzmaurice. Inspired by Edith Hull.

Sex. Period. That's it.

A big part of the appeal of movies is sex. Usually that sex is for men. The other day a facebook friend posted a picture of Brigitte Bardot. One of his woman friends wrote, "I am focusing on my deficiencies." Of course she was. All women do. That's what we get from Marilyn Monroe, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johanson: A chance to think about everything men don't like about us.

Rudolph Valentino was unique. He was candy for us. Valentino was the one male star whose entire career was built around his ability to erotically satisfy women.

And satisfy he did. Sex drips from Valentino's every pore.

"The Son of the Sheik" is not a great movie. But Valentino is in it, and he is great, and unique. TSOTS is a rape fantasy. It's inspired by the book by Edith Hull. Hull wrote the original "The Sheik," also a rape fantasy. Published in 1919, it is still in print. I've read experts of
the book online and it does nothing for me. I find it kind of sad, but who am I to judge.

For me, it's Valentino, the irreplaceable Valentino, who makes "Son of the Sheik" an essential film.

***

The next five films in my top ten will appear soon.

3 comments:

  1. Enjoyed the list. Especially your words about The Searchers, my favorite movie. You may be interested in reading The Searchers: The Making of an Ameican Legend. The book has much about the actual case that the film was based on as well as information about Alan May, who wrote the novel, and John Ford and Wayne. What was most surprising to me was the brutality of the Native Americans in their war with the Texans that became the background for the film. Torture, rape, killing of women and children. For a guy growing up in the pro native american 60s, this came as a shocker. Here's a link to the book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Searchers-Making-American-Legend/dp/1608191052

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  2. I've never seen THE SON OF THE SHEIK, but I think now I must. Thank you for your wonderful summaries ~ very enjoyable!

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    1. Teri thank you for reading and enjoying! :-)

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