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!
15) Safe (1995), directed by Todd Haynes.
I have written a 3000+ word post on Safe in the past, which deals with most of my opinions on the movie: color theory, HIV/AIDS connections, alienation. I also imagine that putting Safe this high is…controversial is the wrong word, because that would require a heck of a lot more people to read this/care…unusual. Safe is, per the invaluable website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, the 499th most acclaimed movie of all time. Given that a little less than half of the movies in the top 1,000 are at least linked to the United States, that makes it seem, just from a broad point of view, like Safe should be well outside the top 100. But…
- Safe is beautiful. There are some individual shots in this film that I would put up against the best of Kubrick. Haynes’ movies are guided by precise color schemes; Carol leans heavily on a sickly green, while Far from Heaven is a coppery, red-orange movie with interspersed midnight blues. Safe combines coral and teal in the ’90s before we knew that those were not, in fact, great colors, but Haynes manages to combine the two attractively anyway. Furthermore, the two colors come to imply a level of danger that people usually wouldn’t assign to them. Carol (played by Julianne Moore, who is coincidentally beautiful herself) is awash in a sea of coral and teal from dusk till dawn, and when they follow her to her retreat in New Mexico it’s as if the poltergeist in her house has followed her hundreds of miles. Many male directors settle combining beauty and danger in their lead actresses, and while this doesn’t make a movie better or worse on its own (go ask Alfred), one is inclined to give Haynes a bump for Safe because he finds profound threats in different places. This is not a story of a man tempted by a sexy woman; this is the story of a housewife whose houselife might be killing her and all the while pretending to be as innocuous as a Barbie doll or a glass of milk. Even the parts of the movie which are disquieting are aesthetically pleasing. At Wrenwood late in the film, which is swathed in handsome beige and topaz variants, we catch a figure in the distance. His name is Lester, and he is as haunting a phantom as I’ve ever seen; at the same time, he is framed in beautifully composed shots, mixing our fear with our visual pleasure and allowing us to taste the two simultaneously.
- Safe is stimulating. I would hesitate to call Safe a thriller in the same way that I wouldn’t call Mulholland Dr. a thriller. The two of them are a little too peripatetic in the middle and more importantly are totally disinclined to give clear answers at the end. But Safe is a mystery, and one which is utterly fascinating at that. Carol is a healthy early-middle-aged woman. She exercises, she eats well, and she doesn’t have undue stress. But she starts coughing and she can’t stop. In one scene, at a friend’s daughter’s birthday party, she suddenly can’t breathe. Her skin looks unhealthy. She’s exhausted. What makes the movie terrifying is that despite the best efforts of doctors to figure out what the problem is, none of them, from GPs to specialists, seem to have any idea what’s happening to her. About two-thirds of this movie is a tacit critique of haute bourgeois coastal life and its total fragility, stirring in thoughts about women’s bodies, environmentalism, and from where I’m sitting, the HIV/AIDS crisis of the previous decade. The final third (after Carol comes across a flyer at her gym) raises the question of how one finds safety. She finds out about the purposefully vague disorder “environmental illness” and decides to retreat to a compound in New Mexico for people like herself. Aside from its cutting perspective on neoliberalism (the founder of the place lives in a great big mansion away from the trailers and bungalows of the afflicted, distances himself from them except when he wants to be motivational, and tells them that only they can fix their problems), the film frighteningly addresses what safety means. By the end of the movie, Carol begins to view safety as total isolation from everything; how she comes to that perspective is quiet, understated horror.
- Safe is unique. I mean that literally: there aren’t other movies like Safe. Environmental movies from WALL-E to The Day After Tomorrow think about environmental catastrophe and how it will affect a great swath of humanity, but Safe posits that the environmental catastrophe is a state, not an event. Safe is a rarity among movies about women; there is virtually no romance nor are there people for our heroine to beat up. From that point of view Julianne Moore has a greater kinship with Delphine Seyrig than, say, Jane Wyman or Bette Davis.
14) There Will Be Blood (2007), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Daniel Day-Lewis is the LeBron James of this exercise. The Golden State Warriors just beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in a gentleman’s sweep this past NBA Finals, but for the first time in his career, it seems no one is blaming LeBron, who put up a 34-12-10 line for the series against what is probably the greatest basketball team ever assembled. The parallel isn’t precise – movies don’t actually compete, praise be – but something about the perfection of the central figure in the endeavor rings true to me. What Day-Lewis accomplishes in There Will Be Blood is Jamesian in that it may be the best dramatic performance ever put on the big screen. (It’s also Jamesian in that at the time, most people were saying that the best performance was in There Will Be Blood, but the better picture was No Country for Old Men.) If that statement is hyperbolic, then that’s fine with me. Day-Lewis is so good in this movie that he is only understandable in the language of hyperbole. Like silent actors, he is comfortable using his body as a primary indicator. The opening minutes do not see him speaking very much, if at all. He bellows at one point, but for the most part we get a sense of the nascent Daniel Plainview through how he shoulders a pickaxe or lies on a wood floor or gestures with his eyes or puts a little whiskey on a bottle for a noisy baby. It is some time before we hear him speak (ten years in the movie’s history, which I like a lot), but that voice is perfect. “So, ladies and gentlemen,” he says to a boisterous group sitting on a gusher, “if I say I’m an oilman, you will agree.” Ten years has, if anything, cleaned him up a little bit; he now wears a big ol’ hat and his mustache is in better shape. (He is also rail-thin; at 6’2″ and 175 Day-Lewis is not precisely Jimmy Stewart, but he is certainly slender and commanding.) But the voice is the thing. His vowels don’t seem quite right; he chokes on them a little, but his diction on consonants is perfect. His speech is polite and measured, but concurrently hurried; he sounds like any other deep-voiced gentleman who is perpetually a few hours away from having a frog in his throat. His first-person rages later on in the picture – “I am the Third Revelation!” and “I have abandoned my child!” and “I drink your milkshake! Skkkssssssh! I drink it up!” – are justly famous, but it’s at whatever passes for even keel in Plainview’s mind that I’m most impressed with. His conversation is not dangerous in itself, nor is his demeanor, but something about him is obviously wrong all the same. He’s like an adult animal whose mother never socialized him properly.
It’s in one of these quieter moments that he reveals a secret. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed,” he says, and then, almost ruefully, “I hate most people.” When I reviewed the film I called that line the call of the “ultra-capitalist,” but I stopped short of discussing a concept that I usually save for Fitzgerald: the American Dream. What is Daniel Plainview if not an avatar of that frenzied, greedy, opportunistic fever? He adopts an orphaned baby, H.W., because “I needed a sweet face to buy land,” and once H.W. grows older and decides to strike out on his own, Plainview lets him have it. “Bastard from a basket!” he yells. The corollary in our own history is allowing/forcing a huge influx of immigrants to come as cheap labor but then decrying them as treacherous (German, Japanese), subhuman (Eastern European, African, Chinese), or simply undesirable (Irish, Latino). In a series of marvelous shots, Plainview tells a crowd in voiceover that he is a man of the people, someone who will get them their money and improve their town, that he is committed to family life, but in the pictures we see we find that the workers are lonely men without wives or children, that the town is largely unchanged, that Daniel profits the most. The parallel to American history is a transparent one. Daniel Plainview understands deep in that untouchable heart of his that success in business cannot be predicated on compromise; like a general from antiquity, he understands that the only way to ensure one’s own safety is through the annihilation of all challengers.
13) City Lights (1931), directed by Charlie Chaplin.
City Lights is a consolation. The front half of the movie is, after a marvelous gag where the Tramp gets himself stuck on a statue of peace and prosperity, run by the budding friendship of an often-drunk millionaire and his surprising benefactor, the Tramp himself. The latter saves the former from committing suicide in a reflecting pool on the night his wife leaves him, and then the former must save the latter for attempting to save the former. The back half of the movie is driven by the plight of the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill); she and her grandmother are twenty-two bucks short on the rent, which is about $350 by our standard. It’s a sum that a pair of flower sellers cannot possibly make up for themselves, and so the Tramp, who fell for the girl and managed to make her believe that he was a bigwig (a car ride, groceries, etc.), tries to make up the shortfall. He comes up short in a boxing match despite instigating the worst line dance in the history of the world. He finds his millionaire buddy has returned from Europe, but is the victim of false identification when the millionaire is knocked cold and robbed. (The Tramp gets no help from the millionaire’s manservant, who hasn’t liked the Tramp at all over the course of the entire movie; it’s a rarity in Chaplin movies to see a minor character like him use a long-running motivation late.) He absconds with the money the millionaire gave him for the rent, is caught after giving it to the blind girl for a trip to Vienna to have an operation to restore her eyesight, and goes to prison. Only the chance encounter between the now-seeing girl and the Tramp some months later, turning on the memory she has of his hands, gives us the happy ending we were all looking for in our Chaplin movie.
I wasn’t ever worried, precisely, that we wouldn’t get the happy ending, but I audibly said “Oh no!” when the Tramp went down for the final time during the fight, and again when it became clear he was going to get in trouble for a robbery concocted and completed by other men. The final scene, though it’s not long, stretches us to the limits of our forbearance because there’s a terrible choice ahead. “I’ve made a conquest!” the now-seeing flower girl says when the Tramp stares, goggle-eyed, at the woman he fell for months ago and risked everything for. He is reticent to accept the free flower that the flower girl, now a shopgirl with a more stable income, tries to give him. Eventually he holds the flower between his teeth while the girl presses a coin into his hand and remembers. “You?” she asks simply, looking at the man with the torn, worn clothes and the sheepish smile. Charlie Chaplin didn’t have trouble getting people going to his movies; no publicist had to come up with “Chaplin Touch” like he did for Lubitsch. But if there were a Chaplin Touch, it would be making people like me worry that things would turn out badly when they know nothing painful will last. Like the Tramp tells the millionaire: “Tomorrow, the birds will sing!”
12) The Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Every time I watch The Godfather, I marvel not so much at the performance of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone (who’s great, of course) as I do at the importance of the Godfather to the picture itself. Through two Godfather movies, it’s clear that Coppola has some idea of who Michael is from a thematic perspective – a tragic figure, cut down in his glad and heroic youth to become the soulless overlord of a murderous criminal operation – but is less interested in who he becomes once the soullessness sets in. The last truly interesting sequence about Michael in either Godfather movie is the one where he married Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli); after that, it’s more or less downhill for him. But Vito Corleone is marvelous until the end. In his sad, pained confession “I never wanted this for you,” and as he plays with his grandson among the tomato plants, we see that he actually believes what he told Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) all that time ago. He asks Johnny if he spends time with his family; Johnny confirms. “Good,” says the Godfather. “Because a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” In a movie filled with double-crossers and liars, which ends with a seriously impressive killing spree, Vito is the last man of principle left. He’s not above some deception himself – consider why Luca Brasi goes to the Tattaglias in the first place, for one thing, and it bears repeating that he is a literal Mafia boss – but he is just about a gentleman. And he longs for his sons, especially Michael, to become legitimate rulers of the universe. “Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone,” he says wistfully. Don Corleone is not virtuous by most standards, but he is sincere and loving and is honestly committed to being a family man. The contradiction which is active within him is far more arresting than the contradiction in Michael across time.
Atmosphere is the most important quality of The Godfather’s success as a movie. Part of that is Gordon Willis, whose cinematography is not quite Barry Lyndon or Days of Heaven good, but it’s darn close; adjusted for inflation, The Godfather is the highest-grossing movie with the best cinematography. There are scenes in the movie which are beautifully shadowy, so dark that it’s hard to tell at first glance who’s there. I always come back to Michael and Enzo standing outside the hospital in the dark, pretending to be armed and staring down a car with assassins inside; I love the amber quality of the scene where Clemenza teaches Michael how to properly make meatballs and sauce, and how it’s echoed when Clemenza shows Michael the gun he’ll use to murder Sollozzo and McCluskey. I think Nino Rota’s score is beautiful and understated, and I always think it’s funny that the last scene of 8 1/2 and the last scene of The Godfather, both of which are absolutely crucial to our understanding of the films, were scored by the same man. They couldn’t sound more different. As for the rest of the atmosphere, it’s given to us by actors who simply look like the people they should be playing. Al Pacino and John Cazale were as unknown in 1972 as Gene Hackman was in 1967 or Tom Skerritt in 1970, and the two of them are part of a cast of Italian actors who might reasonably be called “Corleone” or “Sollozzo” or “Barzini” or “Rizzi.” Realism in these films, using unknown or even nonprofessional actors for a look as much as anything else, was in vogue, and for good reason. The Godfather, like The Graduate, couldn’t have worked with Robert Redford in the lead role. Watching Richard S. Castellano and Abe Vigoda, one short and fat and the other wrinkly and tall, as Clemenza and Tessio makes the movie for me. They float in their roles without rocking the boat, and they sell an epic by looking like themselves.
11) Do the Right Thing (1989), directed by Spike Lee.
Do the Right Thing is “important,” which is one of those words that means very little to start with and means even less in its own case. Smoke Signals is “important.” Gentleman’s Agreement is “important.” Norma Rae is “important.” Get Out is rapidly approaching “important” status, if it hasn’t already reached it. Do the Right Thing touches a third rail on race that I’m not sure any American movie has, and that counts for something. But personally, I want to emphasize that as a movie – as that thing that goes up on a big screen and people watch for two hours – Do the Right Thing is undeniably incredible. By any standard, it is a movie which stands tall. Every actor in this movie is impeccably cast and plays their part beautifully. Aside from Lee and Aiello and Turtorro and Nunn and Esposito, the characters on the margins who fill the neighborhood are essential. The trio of Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, and Paul Benjamin as three older guys sweating it out and complaining on the corner at the young folks is hilarious. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, playing the oldest people in the neighborhood with the most wisdom (even if Da Mayor is hiding it a little), are believable and genuine. Mister Senor Love Daddy is only my second favorite Samuel L. Jackson bit part in a Spike Lee movie (after his appearance as an aging townie in School Daze), but second isn’t nothing. The set design and cinematography portray heat with an almost allegorical flare, using fire engine reds to emphasize the rising temperature as well as any movie not set in a desert. Lee’s camera views the block without too much abstraction, but he’s not afraid to move his camera or use unexpected angles to make a point. The screenplay somehow lost to Dead Poets Society at the Oscars, which is just unreal. (It’s not even the weirdest screenplay anecdote at that ceremony; Driving Miss Daisy won Adapted Screenplay.) In a decade with Broadcast News and Amadeus, Do the Right Thing has a real argument for best screenplay, original or adapted, of the entire decade. It jabs and jabs and jabs, moving at liquefying speed, and, to bring this full circle, the delivery from the performers never fails.
One of the things I appreciate most about Do the Right Thing is that there’s no reason to believe that Sal isn’t, at heart, what a lot of people would think of as a “good guy.” There’s a scene which sticks with me late in the movie in which he tells Pino and Vito that he wants to rename the pizzeria “Sal and Sons’ Famous Italian Pizzeria,” and that Mookie will always have a job there; he thinks of Mookie like a son, too. It’s paternalistic, yes, and it’s as genuine and friendly a feeling as Sal is capable of pulling up. (From an economic perspective, it’s not a small thing for Mookie that Sal’s given him what amounts to a lifetime commitment; the movie has not been shy about the fact, to this point, that Mookie is neither a go-getter nor a self-starter. He could use any job he can hold.) Sal is mostly invested, as a human being, in running a restaurant that has been active in Bed-Stuy for something like two decades. The fact that the residents of the neighborhood are black seems to be more or less unimportant to him. In Do the Right Thing, it’s culture that matters, and the war over culture in Do the Right Thing is the engine of the film. Sal doesn’t like Public Enemy. Sal has a wall in the restaurant of Italian-American heroes which seems to grow bigger every time you look at it. Buggin’ Out makes the demand, which is not unreasonable, that a pizzeria in a predominantly black neighborhood could stand to have a wall of African-American heroes on it. The older I get, the more I comprehend Sal’s bellicosity. The first time I saw the movie, I was a teenager and couldn’t understand why it made him so mad; having seen a little more, I can understand what’s going in Sal’s head. He doesn’t like being told that his whiteness – even if it’s not necessarily an especially privileged whiteness! – might not fit his milieu. It’s pushback that makes him seem like he’s done something wrong just by being proud of who he is. The movie calls attention to this moment because it’s a time when a black man makes a white man feel like a black man in white America. How would Sal, who has built his restaurant up from nothing, feel about a black president saying, quite honestly and reasonably, “You didn’t build that” about his business? (It would probably go sort of like it does in the movie.) Sal is racist, but he’s decent. The epitaph for white America will probably read similarly.
Lee, for everything else that happens in Do the Right Thing, makes it abundantly clear that black culture is on the rise and will, ultimately, have its days and months and years in the sun. Smiley tacks up one of his pictures he’s been trying to foist off on people, the ones of MLK and Malcolm X, up on the burnt-out husk of Sal’s restaurant. In a memorable exchange, Mookie accidentally gets to the bottom of Pino’s racism.
Mookie: Pino, who’s your favorite basketball player?
Pino: Magic Johnson.
Mookie: And who’s your favorite movie star?
Pino: Eddie Murphy.
Mookie: And who’s your favorite rock star? … Prince. You’re a Prince freak.
Pino: Boss. Bruce.
Mookie: Pino, all you ever talk about is “nigger this” and “nigger that,” and all your favorite people are so-called “niggers.”
Pino: It’s different. Magic, Eddie, Prince are not niggers. I mean, they’re not black. I mean – let me explain myself – they’re, they’re not really black. I mean, they’re black, but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. It’s different!
Mookie: It’s different?
Pino: Yeah. To me, it’s different.
Ask this question a few years later and the results hold, albeit with different people: Michael Jordan, Will Smith, and Whitney Houston. Pino, like a whole bunch of real-life racists, has a hard time squaring what’s distant from him with what he sees in front of him, and has an even harder time doing the sort of metacognition which would challenge why he has to square the two at all. Pino is a different breed than his father, and there’s a genuinely bizarre doublethink that both men do. For Sal, the people are fine but the culture is wrong. For Pino, the culture is very right but the people are very wrong. Mookie, stuck in the middle of the two of them professionally, takes on an uncomfortable role for them. In this instance, he’s in the thankless role of educator. Later, when he throws the trash can heard ’round the world through the window of the pizzeria, he may have saved their lives or at least their health. Do the Right Thing occupies an interesting zone; unlike School Daze or She’s Gotta Have It or Malcolm X, which are movies where black people relate primarily to other black people, Do the Right Thing wonders about black people and white people (and the occasional Asian grocer) interacting with one another. Part of what makes it special is that it doesn’t have to wonder much at all.