The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
85) The New World (2005), directed by Terrence Malick.
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In The New World, the beauty of the film is amplified by the sense of a palette and by the intense longing which permeates the action. Watching the movie, it seems that colors never appear of their own volition but because some hand chose them. Q’orianka Kilcher smears ashes over her face in the cold light of day, surrounded by the light brown of dirt and the deeper brown of shadowy wood. The bright gray of the ashes is the perfect color to complement the others; it’s the kind of visual understanding, repeated over and over again across more than two hours in forests and on the water, which acts like a cool sedative on the viewer. (Malick is working with Emmanuel Lubezki here, who in the past ten years has laid a strong claim as the best working cinematographer out there.) There are scenes of some intensity, and The New World is not a sleepy movie. But it is not a movie made to kick adrenaline; the moment of John Smith’s rescue from death by Pocahontas is almost anticlimactic in its suddenness and relative celerity. As for the longing, that’s primarily Kilcher’s work. Unlike so many young people who do well in film roles like these, Kilcher is a professional actress as opposed to someone plucked off the street for her appearance. While the “non-professional actor” bit always makes good copy and has a long history of success besides, Kilcher’s mere youth and her unfamiliarity to a wide audience are good enough to make us see her in the role as the pensive princess. In a movie with Colin Farrell (avec earring) and Christian Bale, both of whom are a little grizzled and tough-looking for the film, she has a purity of appearance and motion which is unique in its context.
84) Cabaret (1972), directed by Bob Fosse.
Other movies had already dictated what the best ’70s cinema in America would look like by the time Cabaret debuted. What The French Connection did for cop movies and Easy Rider did for road movies and The Last Picture Show did for coming of age movies, Cabaret would do for the movie musical. Less than ten years earlier, another musical set in the early years of the Third Reich charmed audiences to bits, and The Sound of Music has a pretty fair claim to be called the best-loved movie in American history. Its formula of cheery songs and breezy plot and twinkling eyes was at the heart of what most musicals were doing at the time; the optimism within them was the optimism of at least a decade earlier, and audiences eventually ran away from those big-budget pictures. Peter Biskind argues that the failure of musicals in the the mold of The Sound of Music so bludgeoned the big studios that it made the American New Wave possible. Cabaret is sort of an unlikely member of that group, since its director was one of the most established choreographers in Broadway history and a good ten years older than the types who would overrun the studio system. But Bob Fosse shares real similarities with men his age like Hal Ashby and Robert Altman; his choreography experience mirrors Ashby’s editing career and Altman’s years working in television. And when he did direct a film, just his second, it turned into one which is the fulcrum of American movie musicals. No one’s going to walk out of the theater and sing “Two Ladies” with their children on the ride home like one might with “My Favorite Things,” and climbing ev’ry mountain to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is replaced with an ominous snare drum which puts the viewer squarely in the film’s accusatory lens.
Cabaret is muddled in every sense of the word. Its back half isn’t perfect, but it sets the scene of the Weimar Republic through greedy Anglo-American eyes with aplomb. The colors of the walls, of spangled makeup, of the Kit Kat Club seem to seep out of the lines, to be more powerful than the space which hold them. The blue-white spotlight is jarring and headachey; rooms seem to be universally upholstered in the iron-red color of a nosebleed. Its almost universally handsome cast outside the cabaret – Michael York, Liza Minnelli, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson – is mirrored by a bizarre troupe within it. Joel Grey as the Emcee is of course the primary example here, but the cabaret dancers (“Heidi, Christine, Mouzy, Helga, Betty…und Inge”) are like if the dead rose up from their graves to gyrate slowly onstage. All of them are virgins, the Emcee tells his disbelieving crowd. He revels in their disbelief, and he implores them to check behind him. “Go ahead!” he cries. “Ask Helga!” His laughter roars throughout the chamber, but Helga is impassive. Perhaps she sees the future and knows that no one in that room, for one reason or another, is going to make it through the upcoming war anyway.
83) The Conversation (1974), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
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More than any of Coppola’s other ’70s movies, The Conversation lives off of its time and place. The Godfather and its first sequel are both explicitly about the past; Apocalypse Now may have a Vietnam setting, but the parallels to Heart of Darkness are so strong and purposeful that characterizing it as a “Vietnam movie” is almost disingenuous. The Conversation, which relies on state of the art technology to make its plot run, is a contemporary thriller with contemporary sorts. The lugubrious dusky feel of the Godfather films and the psychedelic flashes of color and light in Apocalypse Now aren’t present here. It’s hardly a movie without shadows or darkness, for those are very much part of the film. It’s simply that the movie can live with steel blues and natural light.
If Coppola had been less operatic in temperament and in interests, one can see him having transitioned to such films more neatly in the ’80s after the production fiasco that was Apocalypse Now. The proof of that is in a movie like The Outsiders, which is strong but not brilliant. The Conversation is thematically difficult enough, and brought out so well by Gene Hackman, that the death of cinematic arias doesn’t matter a bit. Paranoia is the order of the day, an emotion, a way of being which I think is uniquely suited to film. There is no one who could be more nervous about being heard than the person who listens for a living. Hackman’s Harry Caul (what a name that is, almost a description of the actor’s mustached visage) comes to be terrified by what he hears as surely as he has terrified that someone hears him. His landlady gave someone else a key and so he changes where his mail is sent. He tears apart his apartment looking for a bug which he knows has been planted somewhere. In the beginning of the film he tries to be dispassionate about his job; he is placed very much in opposition to Stan (one of those precious few John Cazale roles), who tells him that being curious about what other people are saying is “human nature.” Harry responds by telling him that curiosity and business and human nature do not intersect; he only knows what business is. If that could be true for other people as well, then Harry could live peacefully. He’d also be unemployed.
82) The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston.
Humphrey Bogart was a great actor, and in some ways he’s the right man to play a man as weathered as Sam Spade is. But in other ways he’s not; Bogart, at 5’8″, is only two inches taller than Mary Astor. Astor doesn’t appear without Bogart, and his relatively shrimpiness makes her look too tall. It’s hard to explain, but femmes fatales are significantly more effective when they look shorter than their male counterpart. Jane Greer is only an inch shorter than Astor, but Mitchum was 6’1″. Stanwyck was also 5’5″, but Fred MacMurray towered over her at 6’3″. If Bogart were six feet or better, then this movie might be ranked higher, but no matter. There’s a world of other actors in here, mostly in supporting roles, who prop up the film and make it the marvelous and important noir it is.
The combination of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, the Slovakian before there was a Slovakia and the Englishman playing a “Kasper Gutman,” is a potent one. Although Lorre and Greenstreet would later be part of the scenery in another Bogie classic, Casablanca, I kind of prefer them here. Lorre’s cigarettes are a Freudian stand-in. He’s still in Expressionist mode, I think; something in his eyes is as necessary to the film as Elisha Cook, Jr.’s weaselly little face is. Greenstreet, the “fat man,” is certainly that. His heft makes him as exotic and bizarre as a curly-haired guy named “Joel Cairo,” and his very English voice makes him even more distinct; one can pick Greenstreet’s voice out of a crowd as quickly as one can Bogie’s. Huston’s dialogue, inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name, sparkles. Even without the actors in front of us, long conversations between Sam Spade and Kasper Gutman ring in our heads in the exact voices of the actors, indelible as the image of a black falconiform statuette which was supposed have limitless value. I love how they’re all shot, too: canted, through long shots and shots which are edited together to look longer than they are.
81) Boogie Nights (1997), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
“The stuff that dreams are made of” is the defining line of The Maltese Falcon, but it might be even more apt to place that tagline on Boogie Nights, a movie that features enough clowns to have kept Fellini busy for a year. The clowns are not entirely stupid, although I’m amazed that some of them can tie their shoes without help from an adult. Much of what ails them is that, like many of us, they believe in the power of inertia. The careers of Dirk Diggler or Amber Waves or Rollergirl have been acted upon by an outside force – Jack Horner, in what must be Burt Reynolds’ greatest role and which no one could have predicted would be when he was in his heyday – and it only seems right that they will continue to move speedily and giddily without any friction whatsoever. Life is an impromptu (or is it? I have no idea) dance played out on the floor of a disco club. Yet there are warning signs. For example, the blood of Little Bill on New Year’s Eve is the ritualistic, pagan omen for the uncertain ground that the others at the party will land on. Dirk and Amber and Rollergirl are forced to adjust, if that’s what you call it when you walk away from the burning husk of a car wreck, and to some extent they manage it. Dirk has a tabloid collapse enlivened by the strains of “Sister Christian.” Amber loses her son. Rollergirl finally gets that GED. Minor characters get married, have kids, open businesses, and weather the most marvelous typos ever put on screen. “God Only Knows,” a ’60s song in a movie aflame with songs from the ’70s and ’80s, plays over them as they make course corrections and poke up fertile sparks from the still-warm embers.
Boogie Nights is the kind of movie which gives you goosebumps because of how anxious it makes you. Beyond a girl overdosing on cocaine, or Rollergirl’s bad, bad experience in a limousine, or Dirk’s breakdown by the pool, even the unquestionably funny scenes are cringeworthy. Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly should have been knighted for singing “Feel My Heat.” Don Cheadle’s country vibes are so earnest that you can almost see the ghost of Hank Williams. Anderson’s special genius for hilarious discomfort is best seen in scenes where it’s hard to know if it’s supposed to be funny or not. Is it funny that Little Bill’s wife is having sex in front of a crowd and he can’t get her not to cheat on him in front of an audience? Is Alfred Molina’s bathrobe performance funny or horrifying? Is Amber’s need for someone to mother while simultaneously doing enough cocaine to floor Jack Nicholson pathetic or hysterical? Boogie Nights is not precisely a long movie, but it definitely seems longer than it is. Some movies give you the flowchart for how to feel, but Anderson crafts a movie that doesn’t even know such a flowchart might exist.