Now that all the technical awards have been handed out at earlier ceremonies, we’ve reached the crescendo of this pomp and circumstance. The top ten:
10. Unforgiven (1992)
Credit the success of Unforgiven that, nearly 25 years on, it looks less revisionist by comparison. Not that it hasn’t been done better before (Boetticher) or since (“Deadwood”), but I think where it looks tame today is largely due to the now well-tread path it forged.
It’s hard to think that the Academy didn’t anticipate it was Eastwood’s, as well as the traditional Western’s, dusk and—while I wouldn’t trade A Perfect World or Letters from Iwo Jima for anything—I could have largely done without the geriatric tour. I’m not refusing to take responsibility for my cynicism that has come with age, but I think I would have preferred a romantic end for The Man With No Name instead of a world where Clint makes the empty-chair speech at the Republican National Convention. Unfair to the art, probably, but it can’t exist in a vacuum either.
9. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
The Academy has, historically, loved the war film while trying to, historically, remain apolitical. Put another way, war films are rarely about the complexity of war and more about projecting social issues, the human spirit, or American guilty conscience over a war backdrop. All Quiet on the Western Front had a great effect on me when I was 14 as I imagine it did many of the supposed 100 million viewers who saw it, worldwide, in the 1930s.
It’s sticky, and I like this aspect of it. Not its pacifistic message, mind you. That is crystal clear, but it’s the character and nationalist representation that is interesting. War is harrowing, ugly, and crushes our humanity. It is a waste, the film says, but conveniently from the German point of view. It’s remarkable America could sympathize with the film’s German protagonists in 1930, but I wonder if it could have succeeded had its protagonist been a slaughtered American.
8. Rocky (1976)
So sad for cynical New Hollywood idolaters that Taxi Driver lost out to the rare, genuine, everyman auteur triumph of Rocky. If you really want to rankle ‘em, Letters from Iwo Jima should have beat The Departed, too.
7. It Happened One Night (1934)
There are great movies and then there are movies that revolutionize a genre, threaten to transform gender hierarchy in screen representation, entrance a generation and still hold up 80 years later. The screwball comedy might be my favorite classic genre, God bless Frank Capra.
6. On the Waterfront (1954)
On the Waterfront is my Casablanca. It’s a male-centric melodrama with a bittersweet (but mostly positive) ending full of sharp, quotable dialogue and iconic, star-driven acting. The difference, for me, is that it also has a visual panache (Casablanca is rather flat) to earn its legendary status.
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
F.W. Murnau, like his visual compatriot and Fox colleague Frank Borzage, perfected visual language in a remarkably short time, elevating film—this is no understatement—to the highest of arts, rich in the aesthetic, the moral, the religious and the dramatic. It’s like the Renaissance happening 15 years after the invention of oil paints. Shakespeare emerging from shadow puppetry. There’s no Hitchcock without its Americanization of German Expressionism. No Ford without its lyrical folkways.
4. Annie Hall (1977)
It’s easy to underestimate how revolutionary Annie Hall is. For starters, the Woody Allen character we know to this day was surely honed through Allen’s early comedies but modified and unleashed specifically with this picture. It’s a comedy in name only as “screwball” sounds a lot less funny from the psychiatrist’s couch. It’s dark, it’s unafraid to stoke the ugliness of human nature and feed it to a large commercial audience. It wears its influences on its sleeve—from the French New Wave to Ingmar Bergman to Walt Disney—yet feels original in its rapid-fire delivery. It’s remarkable how much is thrown at the wall here and even more remarkable that it sticks. Annie Hall is not my favorite Woody Allen, but the time is overdue to reexamine how such seemingly light fare changed the cinematic landscape. That it appears effortless is its biggest ruse.
3. No Country for Old Men (2007)
It’s not that I don’t believe Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis claiming the West closed in 1890, it’s that I don’t believe the frontier—conquerable, virgin, feminized land awaiting our manifest destiny—ever existed. No Country for Old Men, as true an adaptation as exists, isn’t a Western in terms of genre iconography but is revisionist in putting to rest the mythology of rugged individualism and rough justice. Uncanny in its reflection of our time, it manages to metaphorize our murky quagmire of modern morality with the devious concision of a coin flip.
2. Rebecca (1940)
Romantic only in the sense that its relationships run medieval and supernatural in turns, Rebecca’s search for identity post aut propter the myth of juvenility is drawn from the same frightening well that gave us both Snow White and Persona. They’re favorite themes for Hitchcock, but the chaos at the moral of the axiom “through fire, nature is reborn whole” is indelible.
1. The Apartment (1960)
Louis C.K. recently said, when forced to pin down genre for his new series “Horace and Pete”, “It can be funny. And also not. Both. I believe that ‘funny’ works best in its natural habitat. Right in the jungle along with ‘awful’, ‘sad’, ‘confusing’ and ‘nothing’.”
Of course this is true and everyone believes it. But just like C.K.’s idiosyncratic prose, the joy is often more than the humor; it’s in the invitation to the human infrastructure of the artist’s jungle.