Better than AFI’s Top 100: 60-56

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!

60) Chinatown (1974), dir. Roman Polanski.

Robert Towne had a bad habit of writing screenplays longer than some classic novels; especially as he got older and more thirsty for the attention he had gifted to others early in his career, that willingness to add more and more to a screenplay led to some downfalls. That tendency is there in Chinatown, for sure, a movie which stretches on longer than it has to; a bloated film noir is a mutually exclusive concept except in this instance. Most movies in the genre tend to focus in on the case and the dangerous woman at the center of it who bangs the detective. Chinatown has its sights much higher than that, turning itself into an origin story for Los Angeles and making the backstory of that dangerous woman so much darker and more twisted than anyone in the 1940s could have gotten away with. In short, John Huston playing Richard Nixon makes the difference.

Perhaps no villain in a film noir has ever been quite as frightening and loathsome as Noah Cross, who is (deep breath) a refined, rich rapist. It’s the first quality that is most offensive, really; we simply feel better with villains if they slaver a little, and Cross appears to be in control even when he’s been shot. Once Gittes has figured out most of the pieces to the puzzle, he asks Cross how much he’s worth. He plays dumb, but eventually assents to about ten million dollars, which is a fabulous sum in the late ’30s. What do you want that you can’t buy with that kind of money? Gittes asks. What do you need it for? Cross’ answer is chilling, especially when paired with our own knowledge (and Towne’s and Polanski’s) of what would follow when the rich got richer. The future, he bellows. He wants nothing less than the future, personified by the teenager who is both his daughter and granddaughter. In the last minute of the movie, he drags her out of the car away from the corpse of her mother/sister, covering her screaming mouth with his giant hand. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” was always a coded message; in America, the biggest checkbook tends to lift the most weight, no matter how strong the pull of Hell is to its holder’s soul.

59) Annie Hall (1977), dir. Woody Allen.

“Why don’t you get William F. Buckley to kill the spider?” is one of my seven or eight favorite lines in any comedy ever. Had to get that out of the way. Alvy Singer is kind of a toad; he may fall for the “wrong women,” like the Evil Queen in Snow White, but that supposes he would be the right man for anyone. It’s not necessarily that Alvy is a bad person, but simply that it’s hard to know anything when one’s head is lodged so firmly in one’s own intestinal tract. (In one of the movie’s first scenes, Annie says something which is so right that I felt it at a gut level, like the guy behind them in line wants to feel things: “You know, you’re so egocentric that if I miss my therapy, you can only think of it in terms of how it affects you.” Alvy ignores this.) There may not be a romantic comedy which gives us so purposefully unappealing a protagonist as Alvy; some romantic comedies seem to believe that the little wart on screen is a diamond in the rough, but Annie Hall doesn’t pretend. Alvy is neurotic and anxious and totally self-involved, and all three can be true at once. Even those people are allowed to fall in love.

What I appreciate most about Annie Hall, even more than a main character we hope will be broken up with, is its structure. Don’t tell Christopher Nolan, but you can in fact allow a movie to unfold in an unconventional or nonlinear way without turning blue in the face calling attention to the cleverness of it. Annie Hall feels for an awfully long time like it’s a very special Woody Allen stand-up performance, what with that aforementioned scene where Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan out from behind a wall. (Imagine if people could actually pull McLuhan out into public places like that just on a whim. One of us wouldn’t make it.) Allen tells a few jokes which aren’t his originally, although they set a tone for the movie which is useful (“And such small portions!”). Wives from Alvy’s past appear and disappear, as do Alvy’s classmates and parents and teachers and roller coasters. Even individual scenes with Alvy and Annie together stand out with the kind of vividness given to vignettes, not chapters. The plot of their relationship seems unimportant compared to the small moments where lobsters roam, the Brooklyn Bridge gloams, and William F. Buckley is nearly subcontracted for arachnid extermination.

58) WALL-E (2008), dir. Andrew Stanton.

Remember the first time you saw WALL-E and saw the great skyscrapers which turned out to be towers of trash and garbage taller than the real skyscrapers themselves? In less than two minutes, it’s clear how sick Earth is, and it’s a vision which I don’t think many of us were prepared to see. (Judging from current events, the first few minutes of WALL-E are about this close to being current events and we’ll be no more prepared than we weren’t before.) Viewed from a distance behind a haze of satellites and mess launched into space, and then from above where we can see the trails carved into the ground where our little hero speeds along, our home has clearly been ravaged. Shortly afterward we find out who the culprits were: Buy ‘n Large, a mega-corporation which owned commerce, transit, food, banks, the works. Even their CEO (played by the real Fred Willard and not an animated version of him) stands behind a podium and makes the kind of pronouncements that presidents used to make. In short, big business took and took and took, and there but for the grace of WALL-E goes the entire planet. He is the last one of his kind, a race of little Turing tests on treads doomed to slavery and decrepitude on a planet evacuated by its most powerful species.

WALL-E is, in many places, stirring and wondrous. It does not shy away from wide shots which allows us to see great landscapes of waste or the relative purity of deep space. It’s often funny as well; there’s a solid minute where I can’t breathe because of how much I enjoy the petty little battle WALL-E has with MO, whose job is to clean things and whose divinely ordained nemesis must be WALL-E, covered in “foreign contaminant.” But my favorite moments of the film are intimate, so intimate that WALL-E is essentially alone with his cockroach. Over the years, WALL-E has become a hoarding champion, creating a museum of sorts which would delight a social historian if any of those still existed. He’s not sure of the meaning of all the items he’s collected – a spork is diabolically confusing – but he’s done his best to organize them and put them together as he sees fit. WALL-E becomes a class warfare hero later in the film, and much sooner than that warms our environmentalist hearts, but as an individual I’ve always thought him particularly touching. Amid the psycho-capitalist system from which WALL-E was created, there’s one being left who understands what choice means more than a thousand CEOs ever could. The story of his freedom, and how he continues to choose for himself the freedom he wants despite increasingly desperate odds, makes WALL-E inspiring.

57) Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), dir. Leo McCarey.

There’s a definite strain in American filmmaking about old people where they are either regretful and sad or wise and paternal. This is not the case in Make Way for Tomorrow, which reaches its highest heights when it lets us engage with Bark and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) as plain folks. They’re old, and that makes some amount of difference, but it’s not the only thing about them which matters; they are characters in their own story as opposed to an outdated supporting cast in someone else’s saga. In New York City, of all places, the two of them have four consecutive interactions with people in the city of endless hustle which reaffirm their personhood. A car salesman who mistakes the destitute pair for closet millionaires isn’t mad when it turns out they can’t make an offer on the luxury car he drives them around in. I just wanted to show the car off, he says. A girl at a desk in the hotel where the two of them went on their honeymoon fifty years before says she’ll remember them. The manager of the hotel goes out of his way to welcome the two of them, paying for drinks and dinner. The bandleader changes the tune the band is playing so that the old folks can dance too. It’s been months since anyone treated them like human beings, going back to the original decision that obliterated a loving marriage. The Depression finally caught up to Ma and Pa Cooper; when their house was foreclosed on, none of their four relatively local children was able/willing to shelter both parents. Ma goes to live with George and his wife Anita (Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter), while Pa goes 300 miles distant to live with Cora and her husband Bill (Elisabeth Risdon and Ralph Remley). Even during their sojourns, the only kindnesses Ma and Pa receive are from people outside the family. Pa makes a friend, the generous Max Rubens (Maurice Moscovitch), a local shopkeeper, but he is chased away by Cora when he comes to pay Bark a visit when he falls ill. The kindest thing the kids do for their parents is stay away from the railroad depot when their mom and dad say goodbye. “They’ll think we’re terrible!” protests Nellie (Minna Gombell), who gives the game away.

Cora conspires to send her father, who is less annoying in practice than Lucy is to Anita, off to California to live with an unseen fifth sibling, Addie. Anita, after their daughter Rhoda gets involved with a man twice her age, becomes gunshy about letting her girl out of the apartment but also knows that Rhoda won’t bring her friends home because of her grandmother. She tearfully gets George to send his mother to a retirement home for women. (In one heartbreaking scene, after having discovered the letter from the retirement home, Lucy tells her son that she wants to be sent to the other place. For this reason, only George seems to grasp the scope of what he and his siblings have done to his parents. And so it is that we leave the film on the platform of a railway station in New York City. Ma and Pa have given each other deathbed statements on the platform, affirming their love for one another in person for what must certainly be the last time. Pa says he’ll send for her once he’s gotten work in California, which is the kind of thing people say in The Grapes of Wrath; Ma is going to be buried alive upstate. McCarey’s camera, which is as unobtrusive as they come, is unsparing in these last moments. Call your parents.

56) The Shop Around the Corner (1940), dir. Ernst Lubitsch.

Picture links back here

People have been trying to define the so-called “Lubitsch Touch” for many, many years; of all people, former Lubitsch collaborator and foremost Lubitsch disciple Billy Wilder probably has the best answer. To me, it is in the revelation which we in the audience have been screaming for for fully half the length of The Shop Around the Corner. Jimmy Stewart finally tells Margaret Sullavan that he’s been her correspondent, the one she expects to get engaged to tonight, on Christmas Eve. But it is not merely the detail of a letter she wrote to him that he quotes back at her, albeit with a slightly more romantic edit. He puts a carnation in his lapel, the way he was supposed to on the night where the pen pals were going to meet in person for the first time. It sounds so small written out, but as a culmination it is breathtaking. If we’re honest, the premise of the movie is not in itself a terribly romantic one relying as much as it does on dramatic irony. But the gesture recalls not merely the words but fulfills the action promised long ago, delivered only now. It is lovely, and it is romantic in a way that movies so rarely are. Mr. Kralik and Ms. Novak bicker back and forth over what seems an eternity, never devolving to rudeness or nastiness but merely being short with one another; Stewart sounds like himself, and Sullavan sounds like Margaret Dumont with less moral heft. When they finally shut up for a minute and kiss, what a relief on all fronts.

I believe a hot dog is a sandwich, which I suppose makes me contrarian in the flesh-and-blood world and which makes me conventional on the Internet. But – as inconsistent as this is – I don’t believe that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. One doesn’t deny that Die Hard is, by the calendar, a Christmas movie, but for a term such as that I believe that we ought to set our sights a little less literally and a little more emotionally. Christmas movies, for better or worse, are about a bourgeois warmth that comes from abstract concepts like “gifts,” “family,” “religion,” “tradition,” etc., and yes, they take place on or around Christmas. The Shop Around the Corner, along with that other marvelous Christmas movie starring Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life, does more than simply address those middle-class conceits. Certainly the idea of family is at the heart of The Shop Around the Corner, or at least around its lungs. Aside from the fact that we expect Mr. Kralik and Ms. Novak to get busy and create some ill-fated children – there’s an unusual pall on the story, which is set in contemporary Hungary – Mr. Matuschek has some family issues of his own. Played by Frank Morgan (“Pay no attention to that Matuschek behind the curtain!”), Matuschek has a nervous breakdown when he discovers his wife has been stepping out with one of his employees. The fact that he believes it’s Kralik until a PI tells him otherwise changes the course of the plot. Loneliness, an underrated element of the Christmas season, is also very much part of a plot about two handsome young people who can’t seem to find anyone to settle down with except the person under their noses. That emphasis on loneliness, especially the way that multiple set-ups put Mr. Kralik and Ms. Novak in situations where they are alone together, sets The Shop Around the Corner apart from the average Christmas movie just as surely as the cold rushing water under a bridge does for It’s a Wonderful Life. From a personal standpoint, I can’t help but prefer Kralik’s carnation to Zuzu’s petals.

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