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!
75) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), dir. Elia Kazan
Streetcar hasn’t necessarily aged well on all fronts – thanks, Mallory Ortberg – and ironically, I think some of that has to do with the shirt-ripping, shout-yelling acting which also makes this film great. By our standards today, Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando and Karl Malden are overacting. The appeal is still obvious; one remembers the line in Fame where an aspiring actor slurs his words in homage to Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and of course Marlon Brando. And if you’re not prepared for Marlon Brando in his undershirt, sweating and screaming, then I have no doubt that it acts as an especially strong tonic. This is a movie where Brando has to shout far more than “STELLA!” Stanley often approaches something new – his sister-in-law’s trunk of costume jewelry, his wife’s sudden disdain for him – in quiet tones first, with the kind of indignant wonderment of someone much younger. Only eventually does he reach his brassy, room-filling tone, accompanied by banging or breast-beating. He is fond of allusions to Louisiana’s political system, perhaps the item of greatest sophistication that he can claim to understand, and it’s surprising how frequently he relies on them in some of the film’s most famous sequences. When he’s rustling through Blanche’s trunk, he’s going on about the Napoleonic Code and what it means if Blanche really does have the treasures in her suitcase that he believe she does. (Stella, played by Kim Hunter with fewer histrionics than everyone else, tries to hush him and notes rhinestones where she sees them.) When he starts screaming about the names he’s been called by his wife and her sister, his justification for not being called a “pig” or a “Polack” is that Huey Long promised that every man would be a king. It’s good acting, but sixty-five years on it isn’t acting which seems terribly natural to us anymore as much as it might have during the Truman administration.
Streetcar is unusual among movies because it largely flips the script on what shadows mean against light. Blanche lives in the shadows; Vivien Leigh barely sees any kind of strong light on her until Karl Malden holds her there to see her age under a bare lightbulb. Stanley is frequently in the spotlights of a run-down tenement, even during a card game where the lights are lower and the cigarette smoke tumbles upward. As viewers, we are conditioned to believe that only monsters or villains inhabit the shadows; nighttime is for wickedness and daytime is for heroes. The film plays with that conception – what if, it asks, it benefits some creatures to hide in the darkness? – and I think it adds to the overall ambiguity that reigns for about 90% of the film. Whether or not Stanley is actually as brutish as Blanche claims to be when he’s drunk or when he’s yelling is one thing. The answer is only given to us at the end, when he plays his trump card and leaves no doubt as to the extent of his cruelty to anyone in a position to see him clearly. Yet his position in the light, the fact that all of his flaws are exposed with telescopic certainty, makes him sympathetic for a little while. In this way Streetcar is a complex enough story for the here and now as well. Whoever gains your sympathy puts a mirror in front of you.
74) Days of Heaven (1978), dir. Terrence Malick
Depending on whether or not you think young Richard Gere is incredibly handsome or actually kind of weird looking, Days of Heaven has a real argument for “most beautiful movie ever made.” It’s one of those movies, like Cries and Whispers or Lawrence of Arabia, where the name of the cinematographer is absolutely as important as the name of the director. Nestor Almendros was Malick’s DP on the movie and won one of the most-deserved Oscars of all time for his work. So much of this film was shot during “magic hour,” a slim bit of time around dusk, to give an unbelievable golden hue to the film; it reads as a stand-in for the idealized wealth and majesty and beauty that the principals will never manage to come cross themselves. As it was for Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott in Barry Lyndon, natural light as opposed to man-made light was the object of the film; for Malick and Almendros, it led to a significantly longer and more expensive shoot than the studios bargained for. One sees in it, purely from a film history standpoint, a movie like Sorcerer or Daisy Miller or New York, New York or even Apocalypse Now and especially Heaven’s Gate: took too long, took too much money, didn’t make nearly enough back, blame the director.
The movie isn’t afraid of its own apocalyptic pretension, which I appreciate. In a voiceover early on, a girl (Linda Manz) talks about what she hears the end of the world will be like according to a religious kid. It’ll be animals running all over and the earth opening up and fire spewing and the whole works. As the movie progresses, of course that all comes into play, some of it almost all at once. A plague of locusts falls from the sky upon the crops, necessitating smoke and smacking from the hands. But it’s to no avail; the locusts are too many, far too many for shovels or burlap sacks or even bonfires to destroy, and when an ambush by one man against another with his lamp ignites the wheat, the burning follows. Bill, with his violent nature and his surprising skill in killing, seems to carry the end of the world with him again and again from the mills of Chicago into the open farmland of the West. More than that, it’s fitting that his apocalyptic tendencies and his apocalyptic time (during World War I) circle around, like the seasons do in Days of Heaven, to the very beginning. His foolish gambit, to pretend that his girlfriend is his sister, is a story as old as that of Abraham and Sarah; the death he holds in his hands, on the other hand, makes it terribly clear that his children will not number as many as the locusts or the wheatberries of an abundant harvest.
73) Notorious (1946), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
As much as I believe in the power of late Hitchcock, I would listen to an argument which thinks of those movies, even the best of them, as maybe unnecessarily baroque. Rear Window puts together the pieces of a murder through bare hints viewed through a camera lens. Vertigo really speaks for itself here, and likewise The Birds. I adore the first two in particular, but it’s hard to deny that their reach exceeds what most of us would grasp at in a movie. They are especially strange to reckon with in conjunction with many of Hitchcock’s films from the 1940s. Rebecca, Rope, and Notorious all spend the vast majority of their time in one location, with remarkable plots which are nonetheless a little less back of the tabloids. Of these three, at least, Notorious stands out. Even if the payoff of the movie seems every bit as unlikely and stunning as the Madeline/Judy reveal, Notorious is rooted in contemporary history a bit too firmly to dismiss it. Sure, it’s a little wild to think of a woman marrying a Nazi in hiding to gather information on him, and it’s a little wild to think of her mother-in-law and her husband poisoning her slowly to discreetly dispose of her, but at least “Nazis in South America” was a headline. And although the premise itself is a little wild, I think it taps into a fear that many of us have felt before. We are afraid that one day we will be weak and dreaming and be unable to wake up from the nightmare, just as Alicia cannot push herself out of bed and escape her inevitable death.
Notorious is a sexy movie, maybe even sexy enough to earn a “terribly” in front of it. Some parts speak for themselves, or at least were spoken for in Casablanca. Claude Rains greets Ingrid Bergman by saying, “I was told you were the most beautiful woman to ever visit Casablanca. Tha was a gross understatement.” Bergman may be the most beautiful actress in the history of the movies, and while Cary Grant is not the most handsome actor in that history, surely he rates in the top five percent. The nuzzling kisses that they share might have been kept out of the film entirely if the Hays Code hadn’t necessitated their existence in the first place. What I find especially stirring about the two of them together is the love-hate aspect of the relationship. It’s Grant, already Bergman’s lover, who assigns her to marry another man for their intelligence work. He has to be hard-boiled, and so does she, but she never fails to barb her language with him. During one report, after giving him the dirt on a couple of new marks, she adds in one last detail which might be important:
Alicia: You can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates.
Devlin: Pretty fast work.
Alicia: That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?
It isn’t just that Alicia has been smiling blithely through most of this conversation, and it isn’t just that Alicia bitterly tells her lover that she’s sleeping with another man because he told her to; it’s Devlin’s reaction. Grant, in close-up, chews on his tongue for four full seconds before saying the somewhat ironic phrase, “Pretty fast work.” Four seconds of silence in the middle of dialogue this rapid-fire is an eternity and plenty long enough for us to fill in every gap.
72) The Right Stuff (1983), dir. Philip Kaufman
We Americans don’t like our mythology too old; it’s the same emotion within us that rejects a building from the 1700s or 1800s unless it’s part of some nationally protected park. So while Hollywood is cranking out movies about King Arthur, Greek gods, and other imported European concepts with at least a thousand years weighing them down, what they ought to do is think about the mythology of the United States which is twenty-five, fifty, a hundred years old. Anything more and the details start to get hazy. The Right Stuff is a tale of that mythology, and in my opinion is a key piece of that most American mythology: it comes down to one man with the right stuff. This movie is Theodore Roosevelt’s “the man in the arena” pep talk with rocket engines strapped on; it replaces El Cid or Siegfried or Gilgamesh with Chuck Yeager and doesn’t even blink.
This is the second Sam Shepard movie in this post, which was not purposeful, but seems fitting. Shepard plays Yeager in this movie, and as the Mercury astronauts eclipse him in fame and attention and narrative importance, he looks much the same. Shepard is as perfect in appearance for the movie as he might be if the movie were totally silent, though to his credit he sounds plenty West Virginian when he opens his mouth and shows us the stick of gum he’s chewing. His is far from the only great performance in the movie. Ed Harris and Scott Glenn are brilliant as pilot yin and pilot yang John Glenn and Al Shepard; Fred Ward and Dennis Quaid provide gruff comic relief behind them; Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, in about ten minutes of screen time, provide absurdist comic relief behind them. It’s that kind of movie, which effortlessly brushes off the cosmic drama of Yeager’s battle against the outside of the envelope in favor of Dennis Quaid holding a totally incinerated hot dog on a skewer and then goes back again when Quaid’s Gordo Cooper watches Aboriginal Australians keep the fire going as Glenn circles the Earth.
71) Jurassic Park (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg
Robert Benchley famously snarked that one day Steven Spielberg would be known as “the greatest second-unit director in America,” and the reason that’s famous now is because he isn’t wrong. Spielberg’s most memorable movies have relied on some wonderful piece of on-set technology to make them run. Jaws had the shark, which was incredible in the sense that it worked long enough for them to make the movie with it. Close Encounters has the spaceships and the lights. E.T. has E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark has its marvelous action set pieces, like the boulder or a U-boat. Jurassic Park still looks fairly good almost twenty-five years later, which is the kind of special effects aging usually given to Star Wars and little else. The special effects, as much as anything else, make Jurassic Park such a great movie. We have to believe in the danger of Velociraptors and the power of Tyrannasauruses and the gentleness of Brachiosauruses, or the movie falls apart at the seams. Nor does the film take the special effects for granted. The cast of Jurassic Park is filled with actors with long resumes and, before Jurassic Park, only limited action bona fides. The top billing belongs to Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum, a group of people probably best known pre-Jurassic Park for A Cry in the Dark, Rambling Rose, and The Big Chill. B.D. Wong and Samuel L. Jackson and Wayne Knight are here too; Wong’s claim to fame was M. Butterfly, Jackson wasn’t the-man-the-myth-the-legend quite yet, and Seinfeld had only had one season. This is an absolutely loaded cast, but it’s possible that many of the Jurassic Park audience members in ’93 had no idea who any of those actors were. Spielberg is good with actors, and for every movie where peak Tom Hanks or Harrison Ford is the star, there are more movies where the leads would become truly huge only after starring in one of his vehicles: Liam Neeson, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Dreyfuss.
One of the hardest things to do as a movie studio or a creative is to make a blockbuster with a soul. That sounds trite, but the list of blockbusters with souls is a really short one, and it includes movies that, even if no one could call them “good” the way that we’d call a movie with the scope of Killer of Sheep good. There is a beating heart in Alien, and in Gone with the Wind, and The Exorcist, and Titanic. The beating heart might be a wicked one, like Scarlett’s powerful resentment in Gone with the Wind, or simplistic like the doomed love of young fertile folk in Titanic. But Jurassic Park contains that core, and it’s one so unusual that it may even be unique among movies this successful: it’s about what it means to love science. Grant and Tim and Ellie and Malcolm love science for its own sake, but they’d never have made dinosaurs come to life on their own. (Malcolm would say that loving science and mathematics means never having to say you’re sorry to the people who get eaten.) Hammond and Wu love what science can do for them, and thus accomplish unthinkable feats with unthinkable consequences. The movie, of course, comes down firmly on Grant’s side, but it’s got to be the most successful film to ever think about that side at all.