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Best Films of the Century

By Eric Beltmann

Obviously it breaks my heart to inventory the century's greatest films -- can it be there is no room for The Seventh Seal, The General, or even Strangers on a Train? -- but lists are by nature exclusionary. Snubs are inevitable.

Also necessary are certain parameters. First, I have allowed myself four selections from the silent era, and three choices from each decade thereafter. Second, my choices must be films which influenced my conception of the movies and their power to make us laugh, cry, think, feel. I have not attempted to rank these works, for there lies madness.

Twenty-five films. No doubt my choices will force you to throw down this list in outrage. Where is Gone With the Wind? Casablanca? No Chaplin, no Kurosawa, no Fellini? Many of you will search in vain for Star Wars, The Godfather, or (say it ain't so) The Waterboy. I have only one defense: Stranded on a desert island, these are the films I couldn't live without.

The Silent Era

Buster Keaton understood the camera better than his peers, and Sherlock, Jr. (1924) displays his passion for its mechanical possibilities. Keaton plays a movie projectionist who imagines himself up on the screen interacting with the characters. It is a surreal special-effects triumph, but also the first truly brilliant meditation on how the cinema is closely related to our dreams and fantasies.

Slashed by MGM to a quarter of its original length, Erich von Stroheim's intended 10-hour version of Greed (1925) is lost forever. Still, what survives contains astonishingly cynical characterizations, folded seamlessly into detailed layers of epic naturalism. The Death Valley closing finds a perfect visual metaphor for the barren psychology of avarice.

Silence also gave us heightened drama. In 1927 the renowned German director F.W. Murnau came to America to make Sunrise, about a husband contemplating illicit sex and murder. Instead of melodrama, Murnau composed a sensuous, moral fable of bright settings and emotional extremes. It's about compromised dreams, but also how joy is a state of mind.

Imprinting themselves on your brain, the harsh close-ups of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) fully convey Joan's naïve confusion: How can the Church she loves also be the organization which tortures her? Carl Theodor Dreyer's indictment of religious arrogance experiments with space, depth, and jarring visual motifs, taking place almost entirely in the foreground.

Honorable Mention: Victor Sjostrom's The Wind (1928) and Dziga Vertov's The Man With the Movie Camera (1929).

The 1930s

Jean Vigo fell ill and died, at age 29, having made a single feature film. L'Atalante (1934) concerns a barge captain who takes his new bride down the Seine. Their placid love story, about separation and reunion, contains exquisite ingredients. Among them: Vigo's sense of dreamy romantic yearning, and Michel Simon's role as a tattooed, sensitive bargehand.

There is space here for only one conversation comedy by Howard Hawks. Most memorable, perhaps, is Bringing Up Baby (1938), starring Cary Grant as an absentminded paleontologist whose life is upended by Katharine Hepburn's overbearing heiress. Their flirtatious romantic chemistry, built around dilemma, is so strong the movie feels stripped of plot.

Censored by Hitler, The Rules of the Game (1939) was restored two decades later. During a country house party centered around a fox hunt, human chaos is dramatized, ingeniously, within the severe confines of tragedy and farce. One critic wrote that director Jean Renoir "justifies cinema," which seems more true each time I think of it.

Honorable Mention: Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) and George Stevens' Gunga Din (1939).

The 1940s

Perhaps the most obvious choice on this list is Citizen Kane, Orson Welles' 1941 debut. Welles shattered the medium, inventing new techniques that are now standard and offering a thrilling filmic surprise in nearly every frame. Its story, told in a then-revolutionary flashback structure, concerns a newspaper tycoon obsessed with purchasing affection. Welles' genius was in merging his toy camera with the narrative. We know Kane so well because Welles takes us directly inside his head.

Ernst Lubitsch's nonchalant political comedy To Be or Not to Be (1942) is about a Polish theater troupe that uses its talents to scam the Nazis. Acting is, of course, glorified deception, but Lubitsch takes this idea to its most witty and serious conclusion. No one else would have dared or known to make the clumsiness of evil the movie's true comic subject.

Italian neorealism, a decade-long movement which sought visual and emotional authenticity, reached its peak in 1948 with The Bicycle Thief. Searching for his stolen bicycle, a man is driven by poverty into desperation. This is one of the first films to masterfully deal with the universal themes of abjection and alienation.

Honorable Mention: Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) and Howard Hawks' I Was a Male War Bride (1949).

The 1950s

Ugetsu (1953) is a spectral adventure story set in medieval Japan. Two peasant potters seek wealth and harbor selfish desires, leading to calamity. Your eyes will instantly hunger for more of Kenji Mizoguchi's images -- when he points his camera, it is alchemy -- but only later will you realize how skillfully the director has balanced hope and duty, violence and serenity, death and life.

Shortly after the release of Pather Panchali (1955), his debut effort, Satyajit Ray established himself as the cinema's leading humanist director, above even Renoir. This was the first in a series of movies about Apu, a young boy in rural India. Viewed in quick succession, this trilogy may be the most accurate record of the human condition ever put on film.

In the allegorical The Virgin Spring (1959), a medieval father confronts the men who raped and murdered his daughter. Ingmar Bergman has become passé these days -- too introspective, too tormented, I guess -- but this philosophical inquiry of forgiveness is wound up tight around the aesthetics of faith and suffering. There is still a haunting magic to it.

Honorable Mention: Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Francois Truffaut's Les Mistons (1957).

The 1960s

The title may be corny, but Psycho (1960) stands as a theorem proof which explains the power of moving images. Hitchcock's precision as a visual storyteller forces viewers to identify with his themes of paranoia, delusion, and insanity. Has there been another film that so clearly delineates how movies can annex our innermost fears and vulnerabilities?

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Shoot the Piano Player (1960) such an enormous entertainment, but this story about a nihilistic musician ricochets all over the place. Director Francois Truffaut was in love with making movies, and that uncorked passion is evident in every moment here. This is cinema, with the works.

Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) is the only film to truly get under my skin. It achieves genuine horror because it plays out its premise -- a pregnant woman is losing her mind, or maybe she really is carrying Satan's child? -- as credible, creepy drama. For the first time, wickedness seems palpable.

Honorable Mention: Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) and Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962).

The 1970s

Polanski also made Chinatown (1974), perhaps the most satisfyingly complex film noir in history. Impeccably researched and crafted, the film follows a dreary private eye as he investigates a corrupt water rights deal. Stylistically it feels like a tribute to '30s noir, but the corruption coils into startling new depths.

In Taxi Driver a lonely deviant loathes society but can't quite explain his pressurized torment. Director Martin Scorsese wants to understand why a psychopath searches for discharge, and his thoughtful exploration of numbed-out violence is more relevant now than upon its initial 1976 release. We are not entertained by the film's blood, but we learn from it.

My favorite romantic comedy is Annie Hall (1977). Diane Keaton and Woody Allen banter famously, exchanging neurotic rants splashed with skittish, pseudo-intellectual joshing. The movie reinvented an entire genre, and it remains Allen's zingiest creation.

Honorable Mention: Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971) and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972).

The 1980s

Possibly Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) appeals only to the boy soldier in me, but I find its veneration of adventure-movie conventions exhilarating. The film, so willing to please, becomes a purely kinetic experience -- and a touchstone for modern directors trying to capture sheer energy on-screen.

Set in a decayed city verging on renewal, Atlantic City (1981) follows several characters, including an aging racketeer with delusions of being a notorious mobster. As directed by Louis Malle, the film is about chasing dreams despite the rot, but it's also about the cult of American prosperity.

Jonathan Demme's hairpin Something Wild (1986) is the most underrated title on this list. Jeff Daniels exploits his natural befuddlement as a mannered suit mixed up with a mysterious bombshell. The result is a surprisingly humane comedy which dotes on American oddness, laments the existence of menace, and celebrates terrific music.

Honorable Mention: George Sluizer's original The Vanishing (1988) and Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue (1988).

The 1990s

The architecture in Raise the Red Lantern (1992) consistently augments the film's sense of relational emptiness. Like the German Expressionists, Zhang Yimou uses his sets to convey interior states of mind. Few directors find as much meaning in location, and I actually prefer Zhang's imaginatively realistic and colorful sites to the perceptually blunt ones of those early Germans.

More beguiling than any true artwork ought to be, Schindler's List (1993) is a great film almost in spite of itself. I'm not in the business of trumpeting self-aware "important" films, but Spielberg's depiction of the Holocaust jack-knifes you right into the perversion of genocide. It's a war spectacle, indeed, but one that understands the intimate shock of atrocity.

The Truman Show (1998), about a man unaware his entire life has been broadcast live, is bottomless to me, endlessly fascinating. Director Peter Weir relies on radical visual composition in the same way silent movies do, and achieves a similar dreamlike effect. But this pristine, bright-colored dream is actually an insidious nightmare: Imagine the entire world playing a practical joke on you.

Honorable Mention: Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992) and Robert Redford's Quiz Show (1994).

End Credits

The above list helps explain why I fell for the movies... but I notice several glaring omissions. Hoop Dreams (1994), a film about basketball, hope, and urban America, is the most compelling documentary I have seen. Singin' in the Rain (1952) is the century's finest musical, proving that Gene Kelly's impulsive athleticism is as graceful as Fred Astaire's elegant footwork. John Ford directed John Wayne in more than a dozen films, and The Searchers (1956) is the best work in each of their long, distinguished careers. Besides the pictorial beauty, what marks it as a great film -- the greatest of all westerns -- is the tense, relentless hatred exhibited by Wayne, who would rather kill his kidnapped niece than see her enjoy life as a Comanche. Finally, there is a special place in my heart for Helpmates (1931), the best Laurel and Hardy short film, which studies the mechanics of perfectly timed physical humor by simply slowing down the protocol of silent-era slapstick.

Article published 01.13.2001.


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