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!
25) Some Like It Hot (1959), directed by Billy Wilder.
So many romantic comedies come down to the idea of control, of lovers like combatants deciding who is in charge in the relationship. Shakespeare has it on the brain in The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing and, a little more creepily, in Measure for Measure. In the past twenty years, Ten Things I Hate About You and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, although they are sometimes unwatchable, are about couples bludgeoning one another into love. It’s also hard to think of a romantic comedy which doesn’t even have that idea as a subplot. Who takes the lead on when we have sex? Whose weird family needs acceptance most? Who needs to get over the ex? Some Like It Hot is marvelous, even sublime, because the fight about control is not between Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe or Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown. The fight is between Curtis and Lemmon, who are at loggerheads even before they try to scrape out who is going to run the drag outfit they’ve founded. At the beginning, Joe is more or less in charge of the friendship; he’s the one who coerces money out of Jerry, not the other way around. But as the two of them start playing in an all-female band, Jerry begins to take the lead on more and more subjects…or at least his behavior forces Joe to adjust his plans a little. Jerry wants to convince Joe that playing a different character outside of Josephine is bad news, even if it gets him a night with Sugar; Joe wants to convince Jerry that he isn’t allowed to marry a man no matter how rich he is. In the end, they both lose the battle because of other people; Joe and Sugar are together and, uh, Jerry and Osgood might be too.
It turns out that playing Josephine or Daphne or Junior is like tonic for the guys. They’ve been living in something like poverty, begging their way into bands, losing money on long shots. The fantasy of being rich or, better yet, marrying into wealth is the kind of fantasy they could never have allowed themselves as men; dreaming on that kind of salvation is lunacy. Lemmon, however, frequently feeds on mild lunacy to giant comedic effect. When they first hear about the opening for a tenor sax and a bass in a girls’ band, Jerry is more or less open to the idea. “You gotta be girls,” the agent says. “We could,” Jerry begins. The two men, in their first drag scene, seem to have failed to come up with names to give to their bandleader. Both of them – Joseph and Gerald – have names that are easily made feminine. Joe takes the hint. Jerry doesn’t. “I’m Daphne!” he says, and everything – his face, the way his voice cracks, the name “Daphne” itself – is egregiously funny. There was always a Daphne just under the surface in Jerry, praise be, and it doesn’t take long before Daphne gives her opinion of men. “Rough, hairy beasts!” she cries. “With eight hands!” Daphne turns out to be a charming date for an older man, especially a rich geezer like Osgood who’s just out for a good time. And Osgood, who’s a pig but also a prince, doesn’t mind Daphne’s many flaws. “I’m a man!” Jerry says desperately, tearing off his wig. “Well,” Osgood says without changing his expression, “nobody’s perfect.” In that moment, Wilder out-Lubitsched Lubitsch. I’m not sure anyone has done it since.
24) Star Wars (1977), directed by George Lucas.
Star Wars sounds like it should be a confidence trick for the movie industry. While the ’77 movie is by itself fairly accessible – I mean, “Jedi Knight” and “the Force” and “Death Star” sound odd on the first go-round, but they aren’t difficult concepts to figure out – I really think you have to be nuts to guess that ’70s audiences would spring for hi-tech space opera after movies like The French Connection and The Godfather and The Exorcist, to name a few, had dominated the box office in the first half of the decade. But they did. The first thirty seconds of Star Wars is a thunderbolt; Lucas, while he has a personal reputation as something of a cold fish, has as canny an understanding of a theater audience as any man alive. Begin with a battle sequence like no one in a movie theater in 1977 has ever seen before and it doesn’t matter how much hocus-pocus pseudo-religious gibberish Alec Guinness spouts; people will be hooked. During a test screening, doubting the picture he’d made, he knew that if the audience didn’t cheer when the Millennium Falcon swept in at the last moment, the movie didn’t work. People went berserk. Star Wars does not create new character beats, but recycles old ones with such precision that it has taken on a mythology all by itself. We gawp with the naif, we chuckle with the outlaw, we smile knowingly with the wise old men, we breathe a little faster with the helmeted villain, we gasp at the megalomania exhibited by the imperial bureaucrat. None of it is new, but all of it is grandiosely repackaged. In that way Star Wars is quintessentially cinematic.
It can’t be said enough that the special effects make the movie, which sounds like a backhanded compliment but isn’t. Star Destroyers and X-Wings and the Death Star and lightsabers and so on are proof of concept. No one’s ever made a movie about God, but the good movies about faith visualize the effect of God’s work through people or through the events of the film. If you’re a Passion of the Christ fan, you either love blood as much as Mel Gibson or you think Caviezel sells the son of God bit. If you’re an Ordet fan, it’s because the actions of the movie reveal the linguistically indescribable power of faith. God is as difficult for us to imagine as the rules of this science-fiction universe, and with the help of the good people at Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas brings those details to the fore. If you’re going to make a movie about space fascism, then we need to see a populated planet destroyed by a superweapon. If you’re going to make a movie about the Force, which is all around us and flows through us, then we had better be able to see how the Force works. And we see it channeled through lightsaber duels, and in the way a pair of torpedoes fly into a duct once a farmboy has put away his targeting computer. Star Wars takes guff, and deservedly so, for making its characters’ minds airily transparent during a decade when more difficult protagonists filled our screens. But the ethos of the movie is in showing us things we’ve not seen before; it’s simply consistent in pulling back curtains on the people, too. (Besides, everyone knows what happens at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest twist in mainstream cinema.)
23) Toy Story (1995), directed by John Lasseter.
From a technical standpoint, Toy Story is every bit as impressive as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s a historical fixture. However, Snow White is not on the list because it’s a bit of a snoozer. As befits a movie about toys, Toy Story is a heck of a lot of fun all the way through. No Pixar movie since has been quite as sassy as Toy Story, and few American animated movies can address some very adult themes in the midst of so much levity. The feud between Woody and Buzz begins when Buzz touts his standing as a Space Ranger sent to fight the evil Emperor Zurg, a proclamation that Woody can read right off the box Buzz came in, which is obnoxious to Woody because Buzz is totally oblivious to the fact that he’s a toy. It’s a story of old money versus new money, of the established against the revolutionary. Woody, a cowboy, cannot compare with the flashing lights, built-in wings, and karate chop action that Buzz brings with him; in a memorable demonstration (which also happens to be a heck of a piece of filmmaking), Buzz proves that he can “fly,” albeit with some fortuitous help from Andy’s Toys ‘R Us of a bedroom. The other toys aren’t convinced by Woody’s dismissive suggestion that it wasn’t flying so much as “falling with style.” Indeed, they seem to welcome a newcomer who can produce some “laser envy” in the toy who we’ve already seen take a great deal of pleasure in being the boss. (The concept of “laser envy” has to have been the dirtiest joke any American animated picture had ever slipped into the dialogue before ’95.) In the ensuing montage, with a song sung by Randy Newman over it, we see as Woody simultaneously loses status with Andy and thus with his fellow toys. As a child, my sympathies were with Woody, who was watching his own funeral turn into a farce. As an adult, one sides with Buzz as a future Director of the Playtime Proletariat; in the “Strange Things” sequence, Buzz seems to be honestly invested in his fellow toys and interested in learning about them and hanging out with them in a way that the standoffish Woody was not. Toy Story tells, in its first half and beyond, the story of what it’s like when the top rail winds up on the bottom; Woody proves to be a reactionary when he tries to dispose of his successor.
I love the back half of Toy Story as much as I giggle through the first half; there’s a darkness in the movie even when Buzz is saying things like
You see the hat?! I am Mrs. Nesbit!
and Woody is dropping the most important line of dialogue in movie history:
Wind the frog!
Woody and Buzz have accidentally been taken by Sid, the sadistic kid from next door who delights in mangling his own toys. Another Randy Newman song plays over Buzz trying to do something heroic (“I Will Go Sailing No More”), this time trying to fly out of a window after watching a commercial for Buzz Lightyear action figures. It ends badly; his arm breaks out of its socket. Later on he will be duct taped to a firework rocket, a death sentence that he only very narrowly avoids. It falls to Woody to motivate Buzz back into action, and here Woody makes a confession that burns him deeply: Buzz is a “cool toy,” and Woody should be strapped to that rocket instead. This would be the shining moment of the movie if not for the brilliant elation which closes the film’s climactic scene. Having chased a moving truck as far as they can, Woody lights Buzz’s rocket; Buzz manages to break out of the duct tape as the rocket explodes above them, and while holding on to his new friend, Buzz falls with style, gliding through a crisp blue sky. “To infinity and beyond!” Woody cries in his elation; his elation is ours, too.
22) The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton.
Harry Powell has a religion all his own; it’s one, he tells a cellmate, “the Almighty and me worked out betwixt us.” They are powerful words and true, for no one has a religion short of the one that s/he’s worked out with God. Harry is a liar and a convincing one; if Robert Mitchum had said in his voice that the Earth is flat or that vaccines are dangerous, I’d believe him. But in that moment where he expresses to a convicted murderer how his faith is cemented, Harry is telling the absolute truth. The Night of the Hunter uses favorite Protestant hymns the way that Hitchcock would use Bernard Herrmann’s score in Vertigo – “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” – but one that doesn’t appear which sums up Harry’s relationship with God is “He Walks with Me in the Garden.” As the song says, “He walks with me,/And He talks with me,/And He tells me I am His own.” Such is Harry’s gospel, and while he’s able to inflame others as a preacher, the primary object of his sermons is himself. The story of “Right Hand Left Hand,” LOVE and HATE, is tattooed onto his body. It’s far and away the most famous image/speech from the film, one that has been copied and parodied many times. He seems to genuinely believe in it, although it’s not a story about the world or about love and hate as abstract ideas or about the way he intends to treat his stepchildren; it’s a story about how he recognizes the feelings within himself, and how he feels loved by God when God gives him an opportunity to profit. Ironically, he’s proven right – LOVE does defeat HATE in the end – but he happens to be all Left Hand when it happens. Although he is the center of his own religion, his ability to sweep up others in it is a spectacle. In a memorable scene, his bride, Willa (Shelley Winters) preaches a sermon about the sins of the flesh and the sins women are prey to (clothes, makeup, jewelry, etc.) while Harry, likewise on the dais, slouches and looks on at her as she whips her audience into a frenzy. Part of the reason this scene works so well is because the last time we saw them together, Harry was lecturing her on the proper use of sex; instead of challenging her husband’s purity, she is ashamed of herself. She is awed by his forbearance and prays to God that he’ll make her what Harry wants her to be. Ironically, God answers that prayer in the affirmative when Harry kills her and puts himself one step closer to the fortune in stolen money which her children are hiding from him.
Some of the best shots in The Night of the Hunter are unusual and ambitious, especially for a first-time director like Laughton, but their success makes the movie all the more unsettling. The bedroom Harry and Willa share is shot from a distance so that it looks like some small annex in a Gothic cathedral. John and Pearl, hiding in the basement from their stepfather who is no longer shy about threatening them with maiming and death, disappear in the darkness. From a distance so great it must be outside the house, we see Harry slowly descend the stairs, impossibly small in fact but simultaneously appearing larger than life because of the shadows. I’m fond of a scene where John, looking out at the moon from a hayloft, sees the small shadow in the distance of a man on a horse. He’s singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with a clarity far greater than John’s ability to see him. The moon hangs low, too, when the children get into a skiff together as Harry is trapped momentarily by the deep mud, giving them a chance to float down the river away from the monster following them. Eventually, the children are adopted, more or less, by a kindly old woman named Rachel (Lillian Gish, a full forty years after she rocked the cradle in Intolerance.) Yet even in Rachel’s loving and firm care, those strange shots keep coming. Downtown, the shadows veer in every direction; in Rachel’s house, she waits for Harry to come after the children while she and her rocking chair and her shotgun are silhouetted. A great actor like Laughton recognizes that providing the proper emotion in a phrase like “the time is out of joint” is important, and as a director he creates the proper atmosphere as well.
21) Raging Bull (1980), directed by Martin Scorsese.
Raging Bull remains one of the most difficult movies to watch that I’ve seen. Jake’s profound unhappiness – the anger, the self-doubt, the paranoia – is both infectious and carcinogenic. Joey and Vickie are not exactly on their way to exalted happiness themselves, but there can be no doubt that Jake’s being is a capsid of turmoil. Scorsese, as a general rule, is interested in what happens when people boil over as a way of relating to each other, and he’s not always successful. Casino is three hours of people shouting at one another, which makes the movie as enjoyable as chewing tinfoil. Raging Bull isn’t precisely fun either, but it does have a handle on the shouting and the hatred and the self-hatred. It knows when to, pardon the pun, land its punches. Jake takes losing his first match badly; he beats the bejeezus out of his kitchen and his wife (“Bring it ovuh. Bring it ovuh!”) before going to the pool and finding a teenaged blonde to share his troubles with. Years later, guessing that the blonde (Vickie, his wife now) has been sleeping with his brother Joey, he goes to Joey’s house and beats the bejeezus out of him next. Even prison walls are a good choice for him bang his fists against, and a prison cell a good place to cry out without words or recognizable sounds beyond that instinctive bellow of pain. Raging Bull is frequently described as a great sports movie, which is sort of like calling 2001: A Space Odyssey the greatest movie about space exploration. The boxing is hardly the focus of the movie, but as a structural element it is seriously cathartic. It’s almost a relief to watch two men beat each other into putty with their fists every now and then, because if nothing else it is an outlet where the rules change and outright depraved violence is encouraged. In domestic life, seeing a boxer’s fists out and ready for use is as uncouth as removing a shotgun from the gun closet. But LaMotta’s fights against Robinson, against Cerdan, and especially against Janiro are a way for our shoulders to finally uncurl. That last one in particular is gross; watching someone’s nose break and seeing the blood spurt is a little nasty. I always chuckle at “He ain’t pretty no more” after the Janiro bout, and at the way Jake, who has taken a legendary thrashing from Sugar Ray Robinson, taunts him after losing the fight. “I never went down, man!” he says. The comic relief in Raging Bull is there, but it is awfully lean, and it is part and parcel of some prior rampage.
I don’t typically love black and white as a cinematography choice after, say, 1965; part of it, I suppose, is that if God didn’t want us to have color films he would have made Gone with the Wind a flop. Yet there are two black and white movies in the past fifty years which I don’t think could have been done in color. One is The White Ribbon, which is terrifying and arresting in black and white in a way it wouldn’t have been in color. The other is Raging Bull, which subverts our typical expectations of pain and makes them more horrifying. There’s a bucket in the ring at one point. Is it filled with water? With water mixed with blood? Is it all blood? It’s impossible to tell in black and white just how much of the liquid in that bucket came from somewhere inside Jake’s body, and for that reason it’s a haunting shot. I also appreciate how a black and white view of the events of the movie mirror the black and white perspective of the protagonist. Either Joey is sleeping with Vickie or he isn’t, and Jake thinks he is. Either he has a standard for beating Sugar Ray or he accepts the judges’ perspective, and Jake chooses his own set of goals. Either he’s funny or he’s not, and Jake thinks he is. And so on, and so on; something about Jake stands up to nuance like a brick wall holds up against breezes, or maybe something within him is an incorrigible criminal unable to integrate into nice society.