My (Fake) Sight & Sound Film Poll Ballot

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Once every ten years, British cineaste rag Sight & Sound conducts a critics’ poll of all-time greatest films. With the latest edition’s results imminent, here’s what my ballet would look like if I had one. The poll requires participants to list only ten films, which is a preposterous thing for any film geek to consider (but most of us love doing it anyway).

In chronological order…

1. SUNRISE: A TALE OF TWO HUMANS (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1927)
A majestic summation of what silent cinema could accomplish, and almost by default, since technology rendered this particular aesthetic obsolete shortly thereafter. Although of its time in a visual sense, it endures because it depicts an age-old conflict of morals without moralizing, instead expressing the simple, pure joy of being alive and sincerely in love.

2. BRINGING UP BABY (Howard Hawks, USA, 1938)
As I wrote when I recently saw it, the essential screwball comedy and a strong candidate for best all-time film comedy: every single scene faultlessly jam-packed with punchy, witty dialogue, every last joke hitting its target with agility and grace, every ounce of dazzling chemistry between Hepburn and Grant effortlessly sparkling.

3. VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
Because every ballot needs at least one slot for Hitchcock. Because 50+ years on, it still speaks volumes about how we’re all voyeurs (especially moviegoers). Because this is James Stewart’s best onscreen persona: curious, driven, and tormented. Because odd blonde goddess Kim Novak still beguiles and comes off as enigmatic as Marilyn.

4. PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, France, 1967)
I’ve haven’t seen this in awhile given that it’s the one of two films I have to watch in a theater, never on TV (the other is by Stanley Kubrick—guess which one). No other director viewed film as a multi-dimensional canvas in the way Tati did here, taking physical slapstick to new heights of cerebral sophistication without forgetting to be funny.

5. MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (Robert Altman, USA, 1971)
One could say Altman turned the western inside out with this revisionist take on the genre, but what he actually did was radically alter how one could tell a story by dropping the audience into the thick of it as if they were Warren Beatty’s McCabe, a stranger in a town not yet fully built. A rich mess of overheard dialogue, muted lighting and Leonard Cohen songs all cohere into something transformative, a new way of comprehension via textural and poetic detail.

6. ANNIE HALL (Woody Allen, USA 1977)
I viewed this again two weeks ago and as a romantic comedy, it holds up nearly as well as BRINGING UP BABY, but with a twist: it takes the earlier film’s greatest attributes and so finely refracts them through Allen’s sensibility that the result is like a perfect dramatization of one of his stand-up routines. And it might’ve been nothing but wacky comic navel gazing if not for Diane Keaton’s input and inspiration, which gives the film its soul.

7. THE LAST OF ENGLAND (Derek Jarman, UK, 1987)
Because in his truncated life, Jarman did more than arguably any other contemporary filmmaker to combine and recontextualize disparate genres and formats. Because he introduced us to Tilda Swinton. Because this scathing, explosive attack on a country ravaged by Thatcherism retains all of its power a quarter century on. Because he gave a voice to the queer and the HIV-positive at a time when they were ignored.

8. BEAU TRAVAIL (Claire Denis, France, 1999)
Claire Denis’ idiosyncratic take on Melville’s Billy Budd is a brilliantly conceived, gorgeously framed Rubik’s Cube of a film that’s also a rigorous, kinetic paean to the male form. As it pieces together a purely visual language, at its center, the wiry, wound-up Denis Levant can barely conceal a mounting intensity the film keeps bottled up until it’s released in an unexpected, euphoric finale.

9. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, USA, 2001)
Constructed from scraps of a rejected television pilot, Lynch’s weirdly emotional mindfuck of a film fearlessly explores connections between dreams, reality and the movies and all the sublime and more-often-than-not terrifying possibilities that surface as those things overlap. I can’t imagine another film I’d want to watch on endless repeat—just thinking about the opening mélange of skittering images and swing music gives me goose bumps.

10. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)
Despite often citing it as my favorite film, I almost didn’t include it here since MOONRISE KINGDOM gave me hope that Anderson may surpass it someday. Then I considered the film’s insane, jewel-box attention to detail, its cast of enchantingly flawed characters and the fact that with each viewing, I’ve taken away more from it. I haven’t seen it since 2007, so I’m speculating that it still holds up. With good faith, it earns a spot here.

Because all-time top ten lists are ridiculous and because I can’t resist, here are ten more I wish I could include on this ballot: The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In the Rain, Rosemary’s Baby, Young Frankenstein, This is Spinal Tap, High Hopes, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, The Sweet Hereafter, There Will Be Blood.

Last 10 Films: From SALMON to CHANNING

DARK SHADOWS: Don’t piss off Ms. Pfeiffer

Since PIFF (and hopefully, an extensive review of the new Wes Anderson film) looms, some short takes on what I’ve seen over the past five weeks…

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
Even with a novel premise (the title is all you need to know), a sturdy (if unexceptional) anchor in Ewan McGregor and sound support from Emily Blunt and a tart Kristin Scott Thomas, it all sinks under the weight of some forced melodrama involving Emily’s character and an additional love interest included only to keep her and Ewan apart. What, you’d expect more from such an obviously faux-indie romantic comedy, not to mention director Lasse Hallstrom, who at the very least once had the ineffable charms of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp to peddle this kind of mush?  C-

HEADHUNTERS
Art theft in the guise of corporate headhunting is all fun and games until you discover an unconscious body slumped over in the front seat of your car (or find yourself literally standing up to your ears in shit). This quick-witted, twisty and occasionally gruesome Norwegian import starts off slow but is a hoot from the moment that body shows up in the car. Aksel Hennie is a refreshingly diminutive anti-hero, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a delectably deceitful villain and the story is involving and enjoyable enough to nearly make up for its implausibility.  B

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s films seem custom made for multiple viewings; this, the one he also directed, perhaps the most Kaufmaniest of them all, absolutely requires them. On my third go-around (and first since its theatrical release), it did not resonate emotionally with me the way fellow multiple-viewing-reward-er Wes Anderson often does, but I found it more fascinating than ever. Just the synecdoches themselves, whether in the production design or the dialogue, drawn you in with their ingenuity and sheer omnipresence. I originally called the film an absolutely terrifying comedy; four years later (and older), it’s more of a hilarious tragedy.  A

DARK SHADOWS
Not exactly a return to form for Tim Burton, but easily the best remake/adaptation he’s done since his BATMAN films. Junk culture like a cheesy horror-laced soap opera seems closer to his heart than Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl ever did, and it was a near genius move to set most of it in 1972—the era’s bad taste meshes very well with the gothic overtones. Apart from a real live Alice Cooper appearance, the pop music cues are thudding and obvious but for once, Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins is perfect casting and the ensemble works too—even Michelle Pfeiffer looks like she hasn’t had this much fun in twenty years.  B+

BERNIE
This ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a meek funeral director who murders a wealthy, irascible widow is meant to play like MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF SMALL TOWN EAST TEXAS. While Austinite Richard Linklater is the right director for the region, he’s not a great fit for dark comedy. Thus, the film never finds the right tone and loses momentum post-murder. Jack Black displays more nuance than usual and it’s always a hoot to see Shirley MacLaine play the bitch. The best parts of BERNIE, however, are the interviews with real residents of the town sprinkled throughout, suggesting this could’ve been a great Errol Morris documentary.  B-

ELENA
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s THE RETURN is one of the best directorial debuts of the past decade. His second film (which never found US distribution) was nearly as good, and his third is nearly as good as the second. If this suggests a very gradual decline, it shouldn’t because the direction, visual palette and acting are consistently strong in all three. That leaves the story, which carries intriguing implications about class, family, loyalty and wealth, all in a post-Soviet Russian context.  While these implications linger long after the credits roll, the story wraps up with little mystery or ambiguity, feeling a little pat, which makes this a slightly lesser (if no less technically accomplished) work from a still-promising director.  A-

BRINGING UP BABY
The essential screwball comedy and a strong candidate for my all-time favorite comedy. Watching it for probably the tenth or twelfth time (and my first in a theatre), I was left speechless by its non-stop hilarity. I mean, every single scene is jam-packed with as many jokes as a film like AIRPLANE!, yet they all hit their targets and do so gracefully. The awe-inspiring (and somewhat depressing) thing is, it’s hard to believe anyone could ever replicate this level of sublime silliness—it’s a faultless work that will likely endure long after today’s rom-com fixtures are forgotten.  A+

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
With this tale of retiree-age Brits relocating to India, I expected an entertaining, middlebrow dramedy and it was exactly what I got. What I did not expect, however, was how affecting it occasionally was. On one hand, how could it fail with the likes of Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, etc; (although Dev Patel doesn’t help matters by egregiously overacting); on the other, why should it succeed? Perhaps director John Madden’s depiction of India is more subtle and honest than Danny Boyle’s? Or is it because a few of the narratives here (particularly Wilkinson’s) take thoughtful, unexpected turns? Whatever the reason, it mostly works.  B+

TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN, PART ONE
Forget Teams Edward and Jacob; I’m on Team Bill Condon, who is the first director of this frankly ridiculous franchise since Catherine Hardwicke to exhibit some personality. The baby-birthing climax owes more than a little to ROSEMARY’S BABY, but gleefully revels in the utter schlock of such a conceit. The rest is ho-hum and Jacob such an annoyingly inconsistent character that I groan every time he appears. Let’s hope Condon retains and expands that final scene’s energy into the saga’s upcoming final chapter.  C

CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE
You may argue that the world wasn’t waiting for a Carol Channing documentary, to which I respond, “Yes, but can anyone name another performer remotely like her?” That instantly recognizable voice alone could inspire its own Broadway musical. Pushing 90, Channing nearly looks it and has lost much of her physical agility, but she’s as lucid and charming as ever. Her late-in-life reunion with her first and truest love gives her story a touching arc and the archival footage from all stages of her career is a treat. If the praise heaped upon her by one interviewee after another has a whiff of hagiography at first, it quickly dissipates as one realizes Channing is the real deal—she’s one of the most genuine and generous living legends we have.  B