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!
70) North by Northwest (1959), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The defining characteristic of Cary Grant, Movie Star, is not his good looks or his unmistakable voice or his suave appearance but his ever-present indignation. No one has spent more hours on screen being indignant than Cary Grant; it’s a quality which runs through many of his star-making roles, as in Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story. It’s there in later roles as well when he was a more established star, like I Was a Male War Bride, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and most indignantly of all, North by Northwest. Who could be more put out that he’s been mistaken for a key Cold War spy than a late-middle-aged ad man? As he puts it:
Roger Thornhill: I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders who depend on me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.
Something about that Transatlantic voice simply works best when it’s annoyed. Maybe it’s because we have some schadenfreude to deal with about people who are better off than we are, or maybe it’s because not having very much /r/ in one’s vocal repertoire is intrinsically funny. Whatever the case, Grant is absolutely in his element in this picture. Grant and Hitchcock together make about as strong a pair of “never won an Oscar” as you can get in American pictures, and while ’59 was the wrong year for them to win anything – Ben-Hur won eleven Oscars, and this blog recognizes North by Northwest as only the third best American movie of the year – one feels for them. Grant and Hitchcock weren’t even nominated for those awards, but goodness knows Grant, at least, deserved a chance at that Best Actor win for this picture.
No other Hitchcock movie is quite as grandiose as North by Northwest, which is surely part of the appeal; who else in the ’50s would have a chase scene/fight on the face of Mount Rushmore? There’s a car chase at high speed, and some intrigue is had on a train across the Midwest, and of course a crop duster swoops down to ruin a rich man’s suit. This is not a criminal chase through alleys and slums, but one which must be undertaken in mansions with pretty gardens and modern architecture atop mountains, in New York City and the picturesque picnic grounds surrounding Mount Rushmore. Even the villain is more urbane than one might expect; it’s James Mason, not Edward G. Robinson or some other aggressive little man. Hitchcock is, in his movies, overwhelmingly concerned with comfortable people, but perhaps none of the other ones (with the possible exception of Psycho, obviously) goes so out of its way to show what the privileged class is like when it finds itself unable to fix a problem with money or their wonkish logic.
69) Bonnie and Clyde (1967), dir. Arthur Penn
Britain has Tristan and Iseult, Rome has Antony and Cleopatra, and America has Bonnie and Clyde. We’re a nation whose myths are myths of democracy, of everymen; we play up the Continental Army’s unprofessional background and diminish George Washington’s wealth and aristocracy. Bonnie and Clyde are perfect American heroes in their own way. Both of them rise up from shiftless and awkward beginnings to regional prominence and adoration. Through sheer boldness and charisma, they manage to start something of a family business which quickly makes a profit. They are young, sexy, foolish, and totally reckless. (Young Beatty and Young Dunaway, two of the canniest actors in Hollywood at the time, were maybe one and a half of those four things.) The fact that they shoot people only adds to their marketability. They self-advertise in mediocre verse. Their downfall comes when they give a friend a tattoo that his dad doesn’t approve of. Everything about them (and for this we can credit the editing) seems to be done at a million miles per hour, and when they die in the original hail of bullets, it’s only fitting. In America, dying young and on the wrong end of a gun has always had an appeal.
Bonnie and Clyde is frequently credited as helping to bring violence to the American movie theater, which is certainly true. The way Bonnie and Clyde die is tame forty years later, but it was strong medicine when it premiered. Yet to me, Bonnie and Clyde has significantly more to do with sex than it does violence anyway, even if that’s not the way history reads the film. Just as Romeo has to unleash his pent-up aggression on Tybalt, so too does Clyde rely on guns as a way to get it up. The movie is sexually frank; it begins with Bonnie, pouting and banging on the bars of her bed, rolling around and pacing stark naked in her room. (Penn’s camera is reserved but not shy around Dunaway as she goes to her window and shouts down to Clyde, who’s in the act of trying to steal her mother’s car.) Clyde has no such scene for himself. Bonnie ultimately succeeds in getting him to use his God-given instruments instead of the steel implements he’d favored previously, but it’s a near thing; towards the beginning of the film he rebuffs her when he clearly knows what’s on her mind. He’s worried after the fact that it wasn’t good for her. She comforts him; it feels just like it should, she coos. Yeah, he says, chuckling to himself and stammering as he finishes buttoning up his shirt, trying to justify that he asked at all. But she stops him.
Bonnie: You did just perfect.
Clyde: I did, didn’t I. I really did.
Not long after, men whose guns are for killing instead of symbolism blow them away. In those moments, I think the future of American cinema was largely set. We were going to embrace the violence, to write that as large as we could on the screen, and to internalize it as part of our national character via the arts. The sex, no matter how tender the interaction is, is elided.
68) Far from Heaven (2002), dir. Todd Haynes
It’s gutsy to cover a great song, but frequently the best covers are the ones which veer furthest away from the character of the original tune. Jack White’s cover of “Jolene” is a different species than Dolly Parton’s original; Scissor Sisters’ cover of “Comfortably Numb” is a different genus than the Pink Floyd classic. Far from Heaven hardly runs from All That Heaven Allows, but it adds levels of feeling and density which make it utterly different. All That Heaven Allows confronts bourgeois ’50s society with a will; while never taking on its own time with the verve or opacity that its predecessor does, Far from Heaven considers race and homosexuality in that same ’50s Connecticut. Instead of making the primary love interest a gardener who read so much Thoreau it made him mad, an African-American gardener and single father becomes a white woman’s good friend. (This is a pre-Allstate Dennis Haysbert, and it makes me miss him in the movies. He’s every bit as solid and trustworthy and handsome as Rock Hudson.) Instead of making the protagonist a widow, she’s still very married; her husband is a closeted homosexual who is struggling to eradicate his deviancy but finds himself unable to beat what everyone around him views as an affliction. Instead of making her children a pair of overgrown little snots, the kids in this family are too young to fully comprehend their actions.
Frank and Cathy Whitaker are the faces of the television company Frank is an executive at, Magnatech. They are recognizable from the advertising, and why shouldn’t they be? Frank is rugged and handsome, and Cathy is perpetually radiant. It’s a fact frequently commented on by their friends, who delight in saying “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech.” But there’s as much falseness in that chirpy little phrase as there is on the television set itself. (No doubt Haynes recognizes the irony of updating All That Heaven Allows, which starred a gay man playing a straight man, with a straight man playing a gay man.) Frank’s homosexuality is the first issue the movie deals with, and Far from Heaven is not kind to the past. Dr. Bowman (a clammy James Rebhorn) is generous but firm with his new patient. Cathy is supportive – much too supportive for Frank, who wants to “get better” simply because it will save him a great deal of humiliation. His behavior becomes erratic; he drinks heavily and unabashedly in public and begins to verbally and then physically abuse his wife. Cathy bears it with as much grace as she can, though it’s this change which moves her toward Raymond. Frank backslides before the end of the movie, eventually running off with a young man he meets in Miami. His character is perhaps unique. I can’t think of another explicitly gay movie character living in the 1950s who gets to be gay and lives; Frank is Mr. Magnatech, not some sissy in wardrobe, and he leaves his wife and children in the late prime of his life.
Josef von Sternberg had Marlene Dietrich; Yasujiro Ozu had Setsuko Hara; Todd Haynes has Julianne Moore. I’ve gushed about her on this website maybe a little excessively, but she is simply the best. Haynes has an eye for color just as a matter of course, but he just about out-Sirks Sirk in this movie. Moore, with green eyes and her light hair, dressed in reds and purples, is in brighter color than real life; no room she’s in is absent some blazing blue, and no outdoor setting is without the burning colors of autumn.
67) Barry Lyndon (1975), dir. Stanley Kubrick
Among Kubrick’s comedies, Dr. Strangelove reigns supreme, but his most underrated comedy is without a doubt Barry Lyndon. I think part of the problem is that we come to the movie expecting some level of seriousness, even if we know better. Based on a Thackeray novel…a movie best known for its technical virtuosity…a cast full of models and character actors…none of it is obviously funny from the description. But there is a certain joy in watching a fool do foolish things, and be thrust into situations which he is utterly unable to manage or control for himself. Such is the state of Redmond Barry, later Barry Lyndon, an Irishman who grazes the edge of the peerage despite bumbling just about every interaction he has. From the beginning, his lack of wit is established; his cousin has very clearly hidden a ribbon on her
person bosom which she wishes her cousin to search for, but like a seven-year-old afraid of cooties, he merely states he cannot find it. He manages to shoot down his only rival for her affection, only to find out that the gun he was given was not loaded with a bullet. He is robbed by a famous highwayman, joins the British regulars, bails, and then is forced into fighting for a German army when his ridiculous tales fail to fool an officer. He spies on a cheating titled fellow for said Germans, but even then cannot do it right; he tells the fellow he’s spying on him almost immediately. And this is only the first half of the movie! If his incompetence were catching, all of western Europe would have choked on their own tongues. The movie doesn’t leave you catching your breath for laughter, but it seems to squeeze the humor out of your gut, or to force you to throw your hands in the air and ask what on earth is going on.
Each scene in Barry Lyndon, at least from a perspective of aesthetics, is perfect. It benefits from beautiful settings and rich interiors and memorable faces as much as the next film, but surely no other movie has thought of itself so much as a spiritual sequel to 18th Century paintings. Barry Lyndon is an art museum within a movie. Part of that has famously been done by using lenses which were designed for the Apollo missions; I don’t know if there will ever be another movie which is shot, in some scenes, by candlelight, and so I don’t know that we’ll ever experience that incredible beauty in a film ever again. But part of that is an understanding of space and distance, and another is an understanding of the way a human body moves. Especially in the latter, Kubrick seems to have a genius for putting his actors into positions where their mere movements are fascinating. The way Ryan O’Neal raises his pistol arm is etched clearly into my mind, and I can see the way that Marisa Berenson’s limbs and head seem, improbably, too heavy to support.
66) Brokeback Mountain (2005), dir. Ang Lee
I’ve been pleasantly surprised, during the process of writing these…write-ups…that there have been some common threads running through my groups of five. In 90-86, the relationship people have with a distant God runs through Amadeus and The Last Temptation of Christ; in 75-71, there was a preponderance of Sam Shepard. Here, the idea seems to be that period pieces dealing with socially condemned love affairs are particularly good at their jobs. To its credit, Far from Heaven never feels the need to throw Cathy and Raymond together (although very obviously the two are interested in each other). Brokeback Mountain throws Ennis and Jack together with abandon, teasing us a little by taking more than thirty seconds for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to find each other. I’ve written this before, but the word “love affair” is not very fitting for what Ennis and Jack have; love is about repeated, consistent action. If it’s hard to call a “fishing trip” every several months love, it has nothing to do with the fervency of their feelings or the seriousness they handle them with. It has everything to do with a social order which is hellbent on ensuring that the two of them eye what might well have been love with paranoia, suspicion, and loathing. It’s not love for them so much as it is soul-level chemotherapy, a poisoned action which is their only chance for survival in a world which is far deadlier and toxic. It’s hard to lay so much of one’s redemption on such fundamentally shaky ground.
“If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” Ennis says to Jack late in their affair. More than any other line in the film, more than any one of the ineffable shots which Lee places within the film like a jeweler placing diamonds in a ring, that single, profound statement tolls truest. It’s a statement which solidifies the most powerful emotion that the movie has to offer: longing. It is one of the most difficult emotions to evoke well in a movie because it must stem from empathy. Our own yearning for a setting or an experience is different from empathizing with the longings of a character on a screen; it cannot simply be a wish for an Ennis or Jack of our own, but it has to be the weighty penumbra of Ennis’ or Jack’s feelings reflected in ourselves. In any event, Brokeback Mountain has enough longing for half a dozen movies, and the world might be a better place if it could have shared some of that excess.