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!
55) Intolerance (1916), directed by D.W. Griffith
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Sunset Boulevard the musical adds very little to Sunset Boulevard the movie, because how could it, but one of those few things it brings to the texts is a recollection from Norma that I’ve liked since the first time I heard it: “We gave the world new ways to dream/Somehow we found new ways to dream.” Griffith had done exactly that with A Birth of a Nation, a movie which would be on this top 100 if it didn’t just obliterate a normal human’s tolerance for racism; he had accidentally given the world new ways to bring nightmares to life. So it was that Intolerance was born, a movie which decided to take as its theme a running history of what real intolerance looks like. It is jumbled as heck, and for a full list of the reasons why I encourage you to click on the link where I found the screenshot for the film. But one of the things Intolerance does a good job at, much better than trying to find a through line between Babylon and Jesus and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, is finding a new way to dream. Griffith is not the first one to take massive sets and literal casts of thousands and put them on screen; one can see that kind of innovation in Cabiria, an epic by Giovanni Pastrone which had been released two years before Intolerance. Even the moving camera is a Pastore innovation before a Griffith innovation. (This doesn’t detract from the majesty of some of the shots in Intolerance, especially in the Babylon sequence; the slow crawl from on high down to individuals over the better part of a minute is still incredible.) But Griffith is absolutely among the vanguard in treating film as a medium that can contain different plots, cutting between the present and the distant past and the recent past and the mysterious woman rocking a cradle as if it were nothing at all. In my mind, ambition is at least as important as execution in the creation of any art, and a century later there are still only a handful of movies in the same realm as Intolerance on that count. That’s why Cloud Atlas is going to be my top-rated American movie at the end of all this. (That’s a joke. Or is it?)
54) The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed
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Of all the movies in my top 100, The Third Man is probably the most controversially un-American. Three prior movies – Alien, Paris, Texas, and Barry Lyndon – are barely American by my own qualifications, which place great weight on elements other than the production company. Through highly subjective measures, I’ve managed to convince myself that there’s something American enough about each movie to include it here. Other pictures – the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mad Max: Fury Road, just about anything with David Lean’s name on it – simply don’t meet my qualifications. This raises a fair question, though: how does a movie set in Vienna, directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, and (here’s the kicker) ranking first overall in the 1999 British Film Institute’s Top 100 poll qualify in any way as American? The answer lies in more than just Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles; no one mistakes The Third Man for an Italian movie because Alida Valli is in it. It has everything to do with the way that Cotten and Welles are interlopers in Viennese society which has not yet recovered from the Second World War. Holly Martins and Harry Lime both are Americans, and both are profound disruptions on the way of life that has risen out of the ashes. Harry, of course, has engaged himself as the primary puzzle piece of the criminal element in Vienna, but even Holly is a type of invasive species. There’s a reading of The Third Man I’m fond of which places it within the scope of “ugly Americans” art.
Welles kidnaps the movie as soon as he shows up, which is a very Orson Welles thing to do, but it ought to be remembered that people think he’s dead for a really long time. For the majority of the film, Joseph Cotten is minding the banana stand more or less solo. Cotten doesn’t shine by himself – having Valli or Trevor Howard with him makes it a much more fun ride – but no small credit for the film’s greatness belongs to the man who’s in just about every scene. Although Cotten had a really successful run of movies in the ’40s, I personally think he was just active at the wrong time. To me, and especially in The Third Man, the weariness he shows the viewer is the kind of aspect that would have made him a marvelous fit in the ’70s. He’s tall and handsome, sure, but that didn’t hurt Warren Beatty. The Third Man is a film about feeling beaten to an inch of your life, of a cynicism growing to giant proportions: these are sentiments that Cotten conveys skillfully. While he wanders, the geometry of the picture takes center stage. It places characters behind paned windows and within great spiral staircases; no other movie is quite so aware of its cobblestones.
53) Greed (1924), directed by Erich von Stroheim
The legend of Greed has probably exceeded the movie itself by now, but it’s worth discussing anyway. Von Stroheim turned in an eight hour movie to the studio, which had recently been brought into the MGM fold, and what von Stroheim got back was a two and a half hour version of the movie which eliminated massive swaths of the plot. Since then, no one has seen more than four hours of the movie, and even those four hours rely heavily on pictures more than moving pictures. No lost film carries more weight than the absent and probably unrecoverable reels of Greed. Yet what there is remaining to us is still a tour de force. Greed is based on the underappreciated novel McTeague, by Frank Norris. (Like the movie his novel was based on, Norris is missing a few reels from his own life. Had he lived past thirty-two, there’s no doubt that Norris would be remembered alongside Dreiser, Wharton, and Lewis as one of the great American novelists of the early 20th Century.) Greed tells the story of a rough San Francisco dentist who marries a nice young girl. Trina wins the lottery, begins to hoard the money obsessively, and is killed by her husband for it. McTeague runs off into the desert with the money (albeit with the intent to prospect with another fellow), but in his own growing paranoia goes off into Death Valley. He is followed by Trina’s onetime fiance, Schouler; in a fight, McTeague pistol-whips Schouler to death, but not before Schouler handcuffs himself to his rival. The film’s last images are awe-inspiring. McTeague, in a more literal Death Valley than ever before, can only look about him and see the dead donkey, the dead man, and bloodied gold. It is a stunning culmination, for few images or words have ever conveyed what “worthlessness” is so starkly. Greed, even if it weren’t moving and genuine, would still be noteworthy for its technical contributions to the medium. Gregg Toland was twenty and Orson Welles just nine years old in 1924; Von Stroheim was using deep focus with the kind of fluency often referred to as a Citizen Kane property. The lighting in the film is remarkable, down even to the different colors in the film back when “black and white” was the only way to go. For example, the Death Valley scenes – shot on location, because insanity was apparently in vogue in the ’20s – are given an unusual yellow color to evince the light and the heat.
52) Malcolm X (1992), directed by Spike Lee
Think about how Malcolm X starts; it is undoubtedly one of the great openings to any movie ever. It’s all voiceover, all of it hanging over credits. A man greets a crowd with the ritual sayings of the Nation of Islam, works them up a little to hear Malcolm. Applause. An American flag appears where previously there had been a black background, and then we hear Malcolm X (Denzel Washington at his peak). He accuses the White Man of being the greatest murderer, the greatest kidnapper. Horns. Footage of Rodney King. Back to the the flag. Credits still rolling. Back to King. Back to the flag. Malcolm still charging crimes. This goes on for another twenty, thirty seconds, but at the two minute mark, the flag is suddenly ablaze. And now the cuts between the beating of Rodney King are being interspersed with a smoldering American flag, as Malcolm assures his audience that he and they are not Americans; they are victims of America. The horns are suddenly stronger, more confident; the flag has burned into the shape of serif X. In three minutes, an infinitesimal percentage of a film that runs nearly three and a half hours, Spike Lee has made his audience choose. Will they choose America or will they choose Malcolm? There can be no one on the fence; there is no room any longer for the moderate. With a pugilist’s effectiveness and an orator’s skill, Malcolm X explodes into being, and we are carried along with the burst.
Lee is invested in letting the story unfold, which is a profound strength in biopics. Too many biopics taking a long view of their protagonist hustle to get to a moment, to try to make us learn from a climactic moment who that protagonist is deep down. Then once you have that moment, it’s time to hit the next moment, and so on and so forth. Perhaps Lee is fortunate to have chosen someone with as many sides as Malcolm X, but fortune favors the bold. Malcolm X is a seriously faithful adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and it is not in a hurry to hit certain beats to make points. Better to let us see Malcolm do all the things he did, to see his time as a cheap criminal and his time as a reforming convict, to see his months as a pawn of Elijah Muhammad and his months during and after the hajj which altered the way he saw the world. These things come slowly but they come thoroughly, and the result of it is that we really comprehend the choices Malcolm makes while by and large reserving judgment. In a movie which comes in at two and a half hours, the shift from gambler and thief to devout convert is given a “let us gather at the river” quality instead of becoming a torturous process which requires Malcolm to tear himself down and rebuild himself as a new man. And if Lee slyly shoots Malcolm with the eyes of a massive portrait of Elijah Muhammad bearing down on him during a particularly inflammatory speech, so be it; no one has ever accused Spike Lee of being stupid. That doesn’t change the truth of many of the things that Malcolm says during those years, which fairly dominate the middle of the film; they are refiners’ fire and fullers’ soap, and many of his speeches live somewhere in my spinal column. “You been had,” he tells an assembled crowd as the camera moves slowly among the many signs held up by his listeners. “You been took. You been hoodwinked! Bamboozled!”
51) The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming
The reveal that within Dorothy’s house everything is sepia-toned and that outside it the world is in toothsome Technicolor is dazzling, even if one is seeing it for the hundredth time (as so many have). But it’s more than just the magic of Oz which is at stake here, or the novelty which in ’39 was like Avatar seventy years later. It’s the screen reaffirming to us what we already knew: our fantasies are so much more vivid than our realities. The Wizard of Oz sets up a life in Kansas which is warm enough, and comfortable, but which still leads our girl to wander into the haystacks and wonder about what might be over the rainbow. There are not many moments on film which can even echo the purity of that sentiment and the innocence of it, for the flip side of “Why can’t I?” is “There’s no place like home.” She wants to go there for herself; her goals are not scientific or redemptive or violent, but just personal. To me, only the Muppets are capable of recreating that sentiment: “The Rainbow Connection” and “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” in The Muppet Movie, and on Sesame Street “I’d Like to Visit the Moon.” Judy Garland, among humans, stands alone with this unalloyed gentleness for its own sake.
I appreciate the fairy tale which succeeds “Over the Rainbow,” one which is as structurally precise as the wing of a commercial jetliner. Each member of the set off to meet the Wizard is introduced with the same tune in which his goal is set out neatly in a single word, though of course we can see that each…man…among them already possesses what he seeks. The innocent heroine (with the help of a critter sidekick) accidentally defeats the aged villain, and all’s well that ends well. The Wizard of Oz is, for this reason, the last film of the Great Depression and the first film of World War II. It’s got a uniquely American paradox at its heart. You already have what you need to get ahead in your crazy world: brains, heart, courage, and maybe a little magic in your sole. With a bit of help from your friends, there’s no miracle that can’t be achieved. This is, at least in the public eye (or at least an eye which doubts Keynesian economics), the attitude that brought us through the Depression and a world war, the kind of myopic optimism that holds fast because its point of view is so blurry. It’s no surprise that this is a favorite family movie even today; like they say in a different American fairy tale, “Children will listen.”