The best response to one list is another, different list. Therefore, in honor of the latest BFI/Sight and Sound Poll of greatest films (in which Vertigo supplanted Citizen Kane for numero uno), here’s my list. You should definitely make your own.
I’m a huge fan of genre stories, especially science fiction, as this list makes plain. There’s something about the shared furniture of genres that gives them a strong sense of a collective dream. They are the folk tales of today.
Out of the Past (1947, dir. Jacques Tourner) – This famous film noir is what arguably made a cinephile of me, although it took a while. I first saw it on AMC back in the ’80s and liked it so much I taped it. Unfortunately the tape was Betamax, and eventually we didn’t have a machine to play it on anymore, so I didn’t see it again until the advent of DVD. I can’t remember whether I saw this before or after I saw Cat People (1942), but I do remember recognizing the director’s name when I saw whichever came second. Thus my first steps toward auteurism. (I did not spot that Nicholas Musuraca was the cinematographer for both films, for example.) This is just about the perfect film for me. It is endlessly fascinating visually, and the plot recomplications are so convoluted that it becomes dreamlike. I could fill half a top-10 list with Tourneur films (add I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Canyon Passage (1946), Anne of the Indies (1951), and Night of the Demon (1957)), but this one is the one I’ve returned to most often so far.
King Kong (1933) – This is another film I first got to know via broadcast TV, and as with The Wizard of Oz (1939), I remember the first time I watched it in college in an altered mental state and the veil suddenly dropped away on its greatness. The auteurs of this film are Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, but they didn’t give themselves directorial credit. Rather they call it their production. I guess that’s another way it’s similar to The Wizard of Oz, where the directorial contribution is subservient to the total collaborative effort. After all, what would King Kong be without the contribution of Willis O’Brien, who made the title character into one of the iconic figures in film? Whether sniffing Fay Wray’s clothes or poking the tyrannosaurus to see if it’s really dead, Kong’s personality shines through stop-motion. Max Steiner’s score builds the mood beautifully, and the magnificent sets were reused in films from The Most Dangerous Game (1932) (shot simultaneously) to She (1935) and Gone with the Wind (1939). It’s a lost world adventure of the old school (with racial and sexual attitudes to match), but it’s also a canny pop reflection on film-making and the illusion of documentary reality created by cameras.
The Docks of New York (1928, dir. Josef von Sternberg) – I can almost fill up a complete top ten with Sternberg films, with Underworld (1927) and the seven films with Dietrich getting it to nine. Choosing my favorite of those nine is impossible, but this one will do. I love the greasy eroticism of the boiler room where we first find Bill Roberts, and I love the rowdy bar and shadowy dock sets where most of the action takes place. Betty Compson is an entirely more vulnerable character than Dietrich ever played for Sternberg, and Olga Baclanova adds another vivid character to a list that includes her appearances in The Man Who Laughs (1928) and Freaks (1932). Cinematographer Harold Rosson was nominated for five Oscars in his career, including for The Wizard of Oz (1939). Silent film never got more beautiful than this. Then again, Underworld has tommy guns, and Morocco (1930) and Blonde Venus (1932) have Dietrich in a top hat and tails. Choices, choices! I say watch them all.
Metropolis (1927, dir. Fritz Lang) – On the one hand I still think this is a stupid fucking movie in terms of its ham-handed political message, but on the other hand as much as I profess to love Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (1933) or Scarlet Street (1945), there’s no denying that I’ve seen this one more often than either of them or any other Lang film, most memorably at a theatrical showing of the latest, nearly-complete restoration accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. I think it was this latest viewing that finally drove home how extraordinary the editing and rhythm is in this symphonically-structured film. The long final movement, as first the subterranean city floods and then the struggle flows up through the street riots and onto the rooftops, is utterly gripping. Beyond that, the imagery of the film is some of the most influential ever. It has left an imprint on science fiction films from William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936) to Blade Runner (1982). As far as Germanic silent films go, Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) probably had more of an influence right out of the gate (just look at the Hollywood films of 1928), but Metropolis has had more staying power.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988, dir. Hayao Miyazaki) – Another entry that might as well be a placeholder for “films by this director”. On another day I’d go with Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) or Porco Rosso (1992) or Spirited Away (2001), but there really isn’t a dud in the bunch. So why Totoro? I think it’s because by pitching the story to the level of very young children, Miyazaki creates an air of tremendous mystery around the world of the adults (particularly around the illness of the mother, which is never explained) that corresponds somehow to the mystery of Totoro and the other forest spirits. Miyazaki’s world is full of existential threats, but it’s also full of resources for comfort and sustenance. As David Bordwell put it, in Miyazaki animation becomes animistic. This world is alive and peopled with spirits. There is a great sense of the natural world as a sacred place to be revered. All of his films are infused with a sense of wonder, and in Totoro it’s the small child’s sense of wonder. It’s the rare work that can get me back into that most ancient state of mind, and thus it’s something to cherish.
Duck Soup (1933, dir. Leo McCarey) – As a kid, the mirror scene made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. In college, it was the montage of forces rushing to the war front that includes a brief insert of leaping dolphins. Last time I watched it, it was the large scale song-and-dance pisstake on militaristic patriotism, “The Country’s Going to War”. And even if the hoodlum humor of the peanuts vs. lemonade sequence has never elicited even a single chuckle from me, the mirror scene still kills. Leo McCarey gets the director credit, but the Marx Brothers are almost certainly the true auteurs. Which is to say that, aside from the mirror scene, the verbal jokes are more important than the visual ones. You really can’t go wrong with any of the five movies they made for Paramount. Who you gonna believe — me, or your own eyes?
Blade Runner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott) – As mentioned above, Blade Runner is a direct descendant of Metropolis, both in its evocation of the futuristic city and in its story about artificial humans — a Machine Man in Metropolis and androids in Blade Runner. Layered on top of this is a fair amount of film noir as well, with Dekkard playing the role of the morally torn detective prowling through an alienated urban landscape. Ridley Scott now claims that he always thought Dekkard was himself an android, but the power of this film has always derived from the ambiguity it engenders about what exactly the difference is between human and android. Above all, it creates a sense of the world as character, which is one of the most powerful things that science fiction does. I visit this film to visit the city and to hear what it has to say. It says, “Wake up! It’s time to die.”
Planet of the Vampires (1965, dir. Mario Bava) – More science fiction! This is also the only low budget film on my list. You don’t watch this film for its great script or great cast. It largely consists of the characters circulating endlessly between a few cheap sets. Yet Bava was a maestro of visual composition, design, and atmosphere, and his films could be compared to the low budget thrillers that Val Lewton made at RKO with Jacques Tourneur and other directors. For all its tawdry, generic qualities, Terrore nello spazio (the original Italian title) has been extremely influential on cinematic science fiction, at least in the horror subgenre, leaving its distinct imprint, for example, on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012). The dry ice fog, day-glo colors, and toy miniatures decorate a dreamlike mood of dread. The fetishistic vinyl spacesuits hint at dark desires. There are no vampires, the voices are badly dubbed, and the sound effects come from mismatched spaces. It’s an adolescent nightmare adrift on the sea-change of blind international commerce. Its dark wonders never cease.
Trouble in Mind (1985, dir. Alan Rudolph) – Okay, the ’30s and ’80s are obviously my favorite decades. And it’s not just that my mind was particularly impressionable when I was seeing films in the ’80s, because two of these ’80s films I love so much now I didn’t see until the past decade. For instance, this one. It was filmed in Seattle shortly after I moved here in 1984, and I was aware of it at the time, but I didn’t see it until 2006. Like Blade Runner it’s an updating and transplanting of film noir, although the genre it’s transplanted into is complex and indeterminate. It’s about love lost, love regained, and love refused. Hawk is the protagonist, so his story seems primary, but the stories of Coop and, more evasively, Wanda, seem equally important over repeated viewings. The aphoristic dialogue spits wisdom in everyone’s faces, and some folks are dying to learn it. Everyone has their reasons, and no one is truly innocent, except possibly the baby. Is this a world without Original Sin? It’s a world of eternal longing, where dreams achieved are yoked to dreams denied.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, dir. James Whale) – “To a new world of gods and monsters!” James Whale’s blasphemous satire makes a trilogy with Metropolis and Blade Runner of films about artificial humans and their discontents. If Dr. Frankenstein is playing God, that makes the monster the Son of God, or Christ — a fact that Whale emphasizes visually throughout, most overtly in the scene where the villagers string the monster up on a pole. Much has been made of the parody this film presents of human (hetero)sexuality, from Dr. Frankenstein’s apparent disinterest in his new bride, to his partnership with the fey Dr. Praetorius in the creation of new life (two men giving birth to a woman, no less), to the spitting rejection with which the female monster greets the male. The absurdly enormous spaces in which much of the action takes place dwarfs the characters, as humanity is dwarfed by the uncaring universe — and orphaned by death. Has any actress made a deeper impact on the imagination in such a brief appearance than Elsa Lanchester at the end of this film?
Talk to Her (2002) – Place-holder for all of Almodóvar’s astounding screwball soap operas.
Brazil (1985) – One of Terry Gilliam’s three masterpieces, with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and Tideland (2005).
A Touch of Zen (1969) – King Hu’s great wuxia film goes through multiple transformations, ever expanding in scope on the way to a spiritually transcendant finale.
Touch of Evil (1958) – I prefer this sleazy nightmare to Orson Welles’ more famous Citizen Kane, and not only because of Mercedes McCambridge as a drug-pushing diesel dyke.
Juve contre Fantomas (1913, dir. Louis Feuillade) – Genre film as surrealist vision lies deep in the roots of the cinematic form.