Better than AFI’s Top 100: 20-16

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!

We’re really in the home stretch now – here goes.

20) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), directed by F.W. Murnau.

Sunrise is a rare sort of movie. It has the technical bona fides of a much younger film (it turns ninety in September) which never intrude on the emotional warmth the the back half of the movie is invested in building. Indeed, without the moving camera and spellbinding sets and meticulous handling of the physical film itself, the emotional warmth would largely disappear. It’s a union that we think of primarily in our favorite blockbusters, but Sunrise shows us that it’s not only possible but desirable to mash the two together in a significantly more slender drama. Sunrise is not like The Wizard of Oz or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future, all of which are at least a little guilty of putting their setpieces before the development of plot or character. There’s never a question that Murnau’s effects and groundbreaking techniques aren’t sensational in themselves, the way that the boulder in Raiders is, but focus is in on the people and their settings. One approach isn’t better than another, but the level of difficulty is higher for a Sunrise than for those aforementioned movies, and it’s important to recognize that Murnau was rewriting filmmaking rules when he was making the picture. Even the little things, like title cards, are few and far between in Sunrise; in some ways, it is less reliant on words than any other movie in my top 100.

The story of the film pivots on the Man (George O’Brien), a rural man who has been seduced by an old-fashioned city slicker, the Woman (Margaret Livingston). (Names were simpler in the ’20s, apparently. In all seriousness, though, this convention from silent movies of creating relatability by withholding names can’t be recreated in talkies, which is a shame. There’s something pretty in the way Sunrise reduces the actions of the story to its skeleton and in so doing implicating the unfaithful in the audience and praising the redeemed.) The Man is married to the Wife (Janet Gaynor, who won the first Best Actress award partly for this movie). In an attempt to get the Man to run off with her, the Woman comes up with a diabolical plan: fake a boat accident, drown your wife, and float back on these reeds I’ve collected for you. The Man goes as far as to take the Wife out on the boat, and while he comes close to beginning the deed, he cannot bring himself to murder his wife. Over the course of a day spent in the city (presumably where the Woman hails from), the two of them rediscover each other. Irony rules in Sunrise, where the Man begins the film willing to kill his Wife on the water for the Woman. On the way home from the city in their little sailboat, the Wife curled up in the Man’s coat and fast asleep, a raging squall drops on them and capsizes the boat; the Man, met by a gleeful Woman, throttles her until he hears that the Wife survived; the reeds her husband tied on her at the last moment kept her afloat and saw her through the storm on the bay. The basis of the film is so tight that it’s almost as cutesy and simple as The Artist, but Sunrise does not make jokes about itself. There’s a dignity in Gaynor’s smile at the end of the film, when the sun finally rises, that shows us that the humanity referenced in the subtitle is valuable even if it is sometimes confused or wrong.

19) Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese.

Taxi Driver, maybe more than any other Scorsese film, is beautiful. Raging Bull is a beautiful movie, and so is The Aviator, and so is The Last Temptation of Christ. Taxi Driver, in virtually every shot without Albert Brooks, does something with color or light or camera placement which is just stunning. I love the shots of the taxi at night as it splashes through giant puddles, as it reflects the neon lights of New York’s apparently very expansive red light district on its body. They aren’t merely beautiful compositions, but they reinforce the aimlessness of Travis Bickle’s life over months and months. The film sets up a rhythm for his life. Drive a taxi all night, go to the dirty movies, stop in at an all-night cafeteria with the Wizard and company, take a slug out of whatever’s in that paper bag once the shift ends, eat junk food, and once in a very little while make alternately unhinged and high-minded proclamations to Betsy or Iris. The movie never forgets what many other movies let alone; there’s a pattern to his life which is adhered to even when more noteworthy things begin to happen to him. The pattern is not set in stone, and the movie spends time on that as well. Travis gives up the junk food and the wasted downtime and begins to practice with his firearms and work his thin frame into pure muscle. Again and again we return to Travis with a gun in his hand. Even at the end, when he’s used all of his guns and another one too, he still manages to make the motion of blowing his own head off. There’s not a coach in America who wouldn’t be proud of a person who turns his habits in practice into his habits in the game the way that Travis does.

Speaking of the gun obsession, much of what’s great about the movie is the byproduct of Paul Schrader, who was never this good again. Schrader’s screenplay is not notable for any single line of dialogue – “You talkin’ to me?” has more to do with De Niro’s delivery than it does Schrader throwing it in there – but it’s remarkable on several levels. The whole thing was finished in about a week and a half; it’s the As I Lay Dying of screenplays. And while depressed, repressed, lapsed, arrogant, ambitious Schrader is not the kind of guy I would want to hang out with for any amount of time, his perspective strongly influences the film. Schrader’s second-greatest contribution to movies is his study of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer; he recognizes the importance of what surrounds a character as much as what the character is doing. Tokyo Story without its establishing shots or Ordet without the high grass are as unimaginable as Taxi Driver without dirtbag New York. Perhaps the most important influence, however, is the Puritanical mindset that dominates the way Travis thinks. When he gets a presidential candidate in his cab one night, the man asks him what he’d like  to see fixed; Travis gives an awkward but characteristic answer about cleaning up New York. His diary entries are filled with much the same ideology; he rambles on apocalyptic lines about flushing the streets clean much the same way that the Old Testament God flushed the Earth clean with a great flood. No one in Taxi Driver spends time on religion, but the idea of purification is central to the film’s effectiveness. Travis as a semi-insane Vietnam war vet cab driver is an interesting movie, but hardly a classic. Schrader raises the stakes immensely by creating a character who acts on a belief that blood is as good a cleaning agent as bleach.

18) Mulholland Dr. (2001), directed by David Lynch.

Hollywood’s most strange and haunting sobriquet is “the Dream Factory.” None of the other nicknames for America’s movie hub call quite as much attention to the slaughterhouse and meat packing quality of the place movies come from. The thought that dreams could be manufactured should, at the very least, be a paralyzing one. “Dreams come true” has been a false joy discussed by authors and comedians and so on for decades. The first time I encountered the idea in print, it was in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and it preceded a hairy little moment in the story; or it might have been in Roald Dahl’s The BFG, where it pushed the queen of England into taking forceful action against a previously unknown threat. A dream factory, though, is more sinister. Dreams coming true is a freak of nature or an act of God in the same way that earthquakes or tornadoes are. Someone putting together the dream itself, having the raw material for the ethereal and deciding it’s somehow right or decent or profitable or whatever to release the dream: that’s something else entirely. David Lynch had done it before – Eraserhead is a stress dream so unnerving that it makes me want to study for tests I don’t even have – but Mulholland Dr. approaches dream manufacture in a new and far more frightening way. I always return to the Bum, who is a magnificent jump scare as well as an interesting symbol of the dark side of L.A. In my very brief notes on The Exorcist, I explained that I’m a horror wuss for the most part. I’ll jump at jump scares, or yelp, or whatever else. The Bum didn’t do that to me; s/he froze me. (Incidentally, this is why the picture above is of Betty and not of the Bum…I don’t intend to get freaked out like that again for a blog post.) When Dan tells the story of the man out behind the diner to Herb, it’s at first relatable, and maybe a little pitiable. When he faints, there’s no question as to why. The dream came true, and it put him back to sleep. We’d all do the same; each of us has, at some time, had a difficult time separating fact from the fiction we thought up while we were sleeping.

If Mulholland Dr. holds its shape by imitating dreams, then it should be no surprise that it has shape which defies rigidity, and that that it appears to turn gloopy towards the end seems fitting. This is another quality from our dreams which Mulholland Dr. recognizes; if we have two dreams in the same night, we often try to connect them, or perhaps we misremember one in favor of what feels like a more empirical description of the other. Where Betty, Diane, Rita, and Camille fold into one another is interesting but not fascinating, and trying to explain the links is like finding objects or animals in cloud formations. It’s enough that who people are is fooled with on a regular basis in this movie. Rita was always a false name, and Camille was always a cipher. Betty’s personality as an actress seems constantly in flux. In practicing for an audition with Rita, her character is angry. In the audition itself, without any clear reason for change, her character is sexy. Only the characters on the margins, the strangest ones, appear likely to be a certain way most of the time. The executives choosy about cappuccino and the cryptic cowboy are, mostly, who they are, just as in a dream the mystery centers not on the setting but on the faces.

17) Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott.

What a piece of work is man, indeed, especially when there’s reason to believe that he may have created a new race greater and more powerful than his own. Dr. Tyrell’s replicants, which at their best are stronger and smarter than human beings, have only the weakness of premature death to contend with. Blade Runner tells the story which has been told in many different forms many different times: long and unremarkable against short and glorious? Few seem to question that choosing the former for humans and the latter for replicants (although replicants are slaves, so the whole “glorious” thing is certainly limited) is correct. Dr. Tyrell seems to know it. Roy Batty sees the choice and moves heaven and earth to change the boxes available to check. But otherwise, the souls of Blade Runner do not question the way things are. Even an intelligent and perceptive blade runner, like Gaff, plays by the rules as they have been laid out. “It’s too bad she won’t live!” he cries out, referencing Deckard’s replicant lover, Rachael. “But then again, who does?” He has a point. As Dr. Tyrell tells Roy, there is no reversing the process which ends the life of a replicant after a few years. The deaths of Roy’s friends and compatriots, a string of killings which give an otherwise musing movie structure and pace, is tragic in the way that dead butterflies are tragic. J.F. Sebastian, whose apartment is filled with creatures from whatever demented Disneyland one would imagine in 2019, is the center of the Venn diagram. A human like Tyrell but doomed to die young like Roy, his empathy is the rarest of coins in this future, and his diminished, saddening station is a sign of compromise. He lives alone in a deserted, run-down apartment, playing long-distance chess with a living legend and harboring the most notorious criminals of the moment. The presence of the replicants is the most interesting, enlivening thing that’s happened to him maybe ever.
My favorite part of the movie – is it everyone’s favorite part of the movie? – is the “tears in rain” monologue that Roy has in store for Deckard. Contextualized, the speech takes on even more power than it does as a few written-out sentences or as a YouTube clip; not only does this small statement occur after Roy and Deckard have, presumably, been fighting to death, it takes place just after Roy has sat down near Deckard, who is not quite upright and cowering just a smidge a little distance away. “Tears in rain” happens when it’s obvious that the replicant could kill the man and complete his vengeance for the deaths of Zhora, Pris, and obliquely, Leon. But he doesn’t. With his half-smile, he gives a wry statement of the experience he has squeezed into so few years. “All those moments,” he begins, “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Deckard’s face is still fearful, but Harrison Ford is a good enough actor to lay a smidge of wonder into his features as well. Roy dies moments after, but he is a little bit fortunate all the same; assuming, of course, that Deckard is a human being, he couldn’t find that kind of poetry in himself if he had another fifty years to live.

16) Fargo (1996), directed by Joel Coen.

The Coen Brothers have an angle on inadequacy, and in particular male inadequacy, that I’ve never seen replicated in any other filmmakers’ work. Even within their own oeuvre, although they certainly do a job of it in A Serious Man and Burn After Reading and Inside Llewyn Davis, Fargo stands alone on that subject. They understand the seeds of it, the way the shoots look as they grow, and they for certain recognize the flowering of it. Male inadequacy must be dealt with, by its adherents, through arrogance and boldness that normal people would never take up for themselves. Carl Showalter seems to believe that he has some great intellect, frequently using five-dollar words (or maybe words only worth $2.50, as when he can’t quite spit out “carcinogenic”). Mike Yanagita is a thirsty, thirsty man who thinks he can parlay a lunch at the Radisson into a sexual encounter with a pregnant, married high school classmate. Jerry Lundegaard, the God-king of this brood, we’ll talk about later.

Steve Buscemi fascinates me as Carl, partially because his mien matches the man he’s playing; no role could ever say “weasel” quite as loudly as this one, and no face could say “weasel” quite as thoroughly. Carl cannot influence events in his direction, not even when he’s pulled a gun on someone; the appearance fails him, for at least weasels are cunning enough to get their way every now and again. He cannot get his partner in crime to drive a mile of a long car trip, or to roll the window down while he smokes, or to stop for steak instead of pancakes. He gets half his face shot off one night, and then the rest of him is deposited in a wood chipper. He can’t even have paid sex without it going badly; there may never again be a scene as tormentingly funny as a naked Steve Buscemi being thrown across a room. His insistence on anything, great or small, ends with him being rebuffed, and in the one case where he attempts to proceed with his original plan, he is murdered by his ersatz partner. Carl’s venality is the sort which stems from a life full of micro-frustrations; he speaks to everyone like he just saw a parking ticket on his car after only having parked illegally for like, five minutes tops, Officer. Despite the chilling fate he comes to, it still might be better to be a ninety-eight pound weakling like him than Jerry Lundegaard, who believes himself a sumo wrestler. The scene where he arrives in a smoky little bar (an hour late, as it turns out) to meet Carl and Grimsrud is rightly famous, but what I enjoy most about it is that the movie points a finger at its own absurdity.

Carl: I’m not gonna sit here and debate. I will say this though. What Shep told us didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Jerry: Oh no, it’s real sound. It’s all worked out.

Carl:  You want your own wife kidnapped?

Jerry: Yah.

Carl: You – I mean, the point is, you pay the ransom, what, eighty thousand bucks? I mean, you give us half the ransom, forty thousand, you keep half. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. It doesn’t make any sense.

It doesn’t, and Jerry’s plan is too clever by half. He tries to sell it to his criminal partners, but without giving away many details about what the problem is in itself; he scratches the surface a touch, saying that his rich father-in-law would never give him the money he wants. We find out later that Jerry’s professional accomplishments end with his middle manager position, where he sells Oldsmobiles to other inadequate men. (I’ve never bought a car before, but I’m sure that the gentleman in a tizzy over the Trucoat is not the only one of his ilk.) His plot to make himself respected, or feared, or best of all, deferred to, is Byzantine and strange. While the plot to kidnap his wife is in play, he tries to convince his father-in-law to come in a business deal that he’s researched, although the tagline of the conversation is fairly uninspiring: “We’re not a bank, Jerry.” In essence, his father-in-law says, “You’re saying that we put in all the money and you collect when it pays off?” Put on those terms, Jerry’s dream of walking away with three-quarters of a million dollars is utterly risible, and yet one wonders: what did he think would happen? There are a dozen such moments throughout the film (which is saying something, because the movie is barely an hour and a half), and each one feels like a fresh twist. If Carl’s ethos is of the man who believes he’s been unfairly put upon, Jerry’s is of the man who has found a sensitive area of his anatomy in an ever-tightening vice and never remembers how he got into that situation in the first place. William H. Macy has, for my money, the best non-Julianne Moore acting performance of any American in the 1990s; not even Buscemi could outdo his performance of a perpetually thwarted fool who did the better part of the job himself.
I love the last scene of this movie, which sets it apart from most dark comedies and from just about every other film noir, because it has an assuredly happy ending. Margie Gunderson, the affable and wickedly funny police chief of Brainerd, has successfully tracked down Grimsrud and brought an end to the spree of various high crimes which has he helped to spearhead. More impressively, she does it almost entirely by herself; her explanation of dealer plates to a clueless subordinate is a comedic masterpiece but also indicative of what she has to work with. She’s in bed late at night with her husband, the memorably nicknamed Norm “Sonuva” Gunderson, an artist and the stay-at-home type between them. His painting of a mallard will go on a three-cent stamp, although another artist’s bird got the twenty-nine. He’s a little disappointed. She’s thrilled for him; people, she reminds him, always need the little stamp whenever stamp prices go up. (She’s not kidding, either. The price of a stamp has gone up twenty cents since 1987.) They tell each other that they love each other. In two months they’ll have their first child. On my first viewing I thought the ending felt tacked on, that it was tonally jarring. I’ve never felt that way since; there’s too much sincerity in that scene not to appreciate it not as a ill-judged note, but as counterpoint.
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