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