Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 10 to 1

I began this endeavor last February and now, after counting down 90 of my favorite movies, I’ve arrived at the Top Ten. It’s been grand fun for me—I’ve enjoyed revisiting each of these films and have delighted in reading comments from others who hold them in esteem. Thanks for all the wonderful feedback. Click here to read the complete list from 100-1. And now, without further discourse, here is (as Miss Jean Brodie would say) the crème de la crème.

Bronson as the mysterious Harmonica.
10. Once Upon a Time in the West – "Epic" and "sprawling" are the words critics frequently used to describe this now-revered 1968 Spaghetti Western. Yet, despite its lengthy running time and visually massive backdrop, Once Upon a Time in the West focuses tightly on the relationships among four people over a relatively short period of time. These characters are: Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless gunfighter who aspires to be a powerful businessman; Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a rascally outlaw with killer instincts; Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a former prostitute in search of a more meaningful life; and a mysterious revenge-minded stranger whom Cheyenne calls Harmonica (Charles Bronson). It took multiple viewings over the span of several years for me to fully appreciate Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. In the end, I was won over by its fascinating characters, overarching theme, Ennio Morricone’s score, and some marvelous set pieces (especially the opening and climactic showdown between Frank and Harmonica).

Don't you love Doris's hat?
9. Lover Come Back – There aren’t many comedies in my 100 Favorite Movies and only two in the Top 10—there just aren’t that many films that tickle my funny bone. A major exception is this bright 1960s laugh fest with Rock Hudson and Doris Day as advertising rivals. To distract Doris, Rock comes up with a fake product called Vip. He even films commercials for the fake product—which are, unfortunately aired on TV. To avoid criminal charges on fraud, he hires a Nobel scientist to invent something that could be passed off as Vip. Meanwhile, Doris mistakes Rock for the Vip inventor and he plays along. It’s a classic “snowball comedy” played by a cast of pros, including Tony Randall and Edie Adama. But the main attraction here is the pairing of Doris and Rock in their best outing. This is the film that reminded me that Rock Hudson was an exceptional comedian, as evidenced by his expert timing in the delicious scene when he tries to seduce Doris.

Tippi as another Hitchcock blonde heroine.
8. Marnie – When I first saw Marnie as a teenager, it made no impression at all. I thought Tippi Hedren was miscast and Sean Connery dull. The plot--what there was of one--seemed thin and the characters lacked interest. Decades later, I watched it it again and, to my complete surprise, I loved it! Tippi Hedren's subtle detached performance made Marnie a vulnerable, intriguing character. The progressively complex relationship between Marnie and Sean Connery’s character generated suspense--in its own quiet way--worthy of Hitch’s best man-on-the-run films. I was captivated by Hitch's finest use of color (especially during the opening scenes). And finally, there was Bernard Herrmann's incredible score (which, for me, ranks second only to Vertigo among his Hitchcock soundtracks). I've often wondered how I missed all of this the first time around?

Bing and Danny singing "Sisters."
7. White Christmas – There was a time when I grumbled because White Christmas was shown every Yuletide season while Holiday Inn (1942) only made sporadic appearances. Most critics consider the latter film, in which the song “White Christmas” was introduced, to be the superior musical. It was only after my wife and I acquired both films on video that I recognized the virtues of White Christmas. It’s a near-perfect blend of music and comedy, with the cast and crew at, or near, the peak of their careers. The dance numbers are staged energetically, with the highlight being Danny and Vera-Ellen dancing outside a nightclub to the melodic “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Crosby and Clooney generate a more subdued, but no less effective, chemistry. Their duet “Count Your Blessings” was the big hit song from the film. The most effective pairing in the film, though, is the one between Crosby and Kaye. They’re a sensational team, whether doing musical numbers or comedy (their version of “Sisters”, done originally as a joke on the set, is hysterically funny).

The quartet on their way to Oz.
6. The Wizard of Oz – When I was growing up, the annual network broadcast of The Wizard of Oz was a big event. I never failed to watch it. It’s so much a part of my movie-watching DNA that it’s hard to describe its appeal other than to say it’s one of the most perfect films ever made. The cast, the characters, the themes, the sets, the costumes, the music—does Oz fail to earn a top grade in any of those categories? But for me, the most amazing aspect of the film is this: Despite the thousands of pop culture products derived from the film over the last 70-plus years—which are more than enough to overwhelm even a dedicated fan—I never tire of watching The Wizard of Oz.

Danny and Basil in their delightful
duel (snap!).
5. The Court Jester – My favorite comedy is a spot-on, delightful spoof of swashbuckling films. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor). The supporting players are all at the top of their game, too. Basil Rathbone has a grand time parodying past roles such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Angela Lansbury displays a deft comedic touch, while Cecil Parker steals his scenes as the bored king whose only interest appears to be “wenches.” The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in the history of cinema?

Gort melts a tank...how cool is that?
4. The Day the Earth Stood Still – If there were a Hall of Fame for Timeless Movies, then one of its founding members would be The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've probably watched it at least once every decade since I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960s. When I was a youngster, the film's fantastic elements--and Gort, the coolest robot in the history of cinema--appealed to me. When I was a teen, its stern warning about the perils of nuclear war resonated with me. With each subsequent viewing, The Day the Earth Stood Still has revealed something new: presenting itself as a Biblical analogy, an editorial on the influence of media on public opinion, a portrait of fear of the unknown, etc. Its themes never fail to thrill me…making it much more exciting than any action-oriented sci fi film.

3. Anatomy of a Murder – Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Talk about doomed love...
2. Vertigo – This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. What we see at the bell tower is initially false, but ultimately true. I could go on and on…but, hey, whole books have been devoted to this film. I think it’s Hitch’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Hermann, and nifty Saul Bass titles. Like all great films, I glean something new from it or appreciate another facet every time I watch it. My latest viewing reminded me just how brilliant James Stewart is in the lead. In a career filled with fine performances, I think Stewart does his finest work as a typical Stewart “nice guy” who evolves into a man obsessed with an illusion. Contrast Scotty’s (Stewart) playful banter early on with Midge with his climactic confrontation with Judy—his eyes ablaze with confusion, hate, and something akin to love. It’s a brilliant and chilling transition.

1. The Adventures of Robin Hood – For many readers, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Robin Hood occupies the No. 1 spot on my list. For me, it shares many traits with The Wizard of Oz in that, from top to bottom, it’s a flawless film (well, except for one tiny continuity gap). The early Technicolor color is rich. Michael Curtiz, who took over the film from William Keighley, keeps the pacing tight. Errol and Olivia, one of the great screen couples, exude celluloid chemistry. Basil and Claude make for dastardly villains. And the supporting cast, from Alan Hale to Una O’Connor, is incredible. My favorite aspect, though, is that it’s the penultimate “let’s form a team” movie. As discussed in this blog before, I hold a special affection for movies in which one character recruits others to form a team to accomplish a goal (e.g., The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen). There’s nothing as satisfying as watch Errol assmble his Band of Merry Men. As for that one tiny flaw in Robin Hood, watch where the sword lands when Basil drops it on the staircase and note how it magically moves courtesy of a continuity gaff. Those are the kinds of things one notices when watching a favorite film a few dozen times!

13 comments:

  1. Another great list in your comprehensive 100 faves, and this, I believe, is the only batch of ten movies in which I've seen all ten. I can't even pick a favorite of these ten, though I particularly enjoy ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, LOVER COME BACK and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. But each one truly is superb. Rick, your list of 100 favorite movies has been wonderful to read over the course of ten posts. It was fun anticipating the next ten films, although I will admit that the suspense was ruined for me because I knew your #1 and rightly guessed #2. Maybe next you can do your least favorite 100! Wonderful read, as always, and I will most definitely miss the monthly visits to your faves!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Rick, at last the top ten are revealed. Some outstanding films here, others I'm less enthusiastic about than you. But still an original and very personal list and a nicely varied one too. Most pleasant surprise for me: "Lover, Come Back." I didn't watch these movies growing up (too much of a Film Snob) but caught them years later on TCM and found them enjoyable, even if at the time of their release they must have had the faint whiff of relics to them. Most people seem to like "Pillow Talk" the most, but I've always found "Lover, Come Back" the best of the lot and an excellent comedy in its own right. It has not only Doris and Rock at their best, but Tony Randall too. And has any clean-cut Hollywood leading man ever looked better with a beard than Rock Hudson in this film?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rick, this is a superb conclusion of your list of favorite films. "Once Upon a Time in the West" has the most fascinating opening with its very leisurely scene waiting for a train to arrive, punctuated by close ups and extreme close ups. Henry Fonda plays a thoroughly detestable character and we are glad to see him receive his comeuppance. "Lover Come Back" is truly clever and funny and showcases Rock Hudson at his comedic best. "Marnie" has also grown on me with repeated viewings and is an excellent study on how not to raise a child. "White Christmas" is magical to me and I was delighted to see you post the picture of Bing and Danny singing "Sisters." With my signature I know you won't be surprised to hear how thrilled I am to see "The Wizard of Oz" so high on your list. I knew you liked the formula of gathering a team together and Dorothy does this very task as she wanders along the Yellow Brick Road. "The Court Jester" is one of the best displays of the brilliance of Danny Kaye. I, too, love "The Day the Earth Stood Still" for multiple reasons. It is truly a thought-provoking film. "Anatomy of a Murder" is so well crafted that I can never turn the dial if I happen on it by chance. "Vertigo" is a splendid, complex choice for your number two spot. So your numbers three and two both share exquisite performances from Jimmy Stewart as they unravel mysteries. "The Adventures of Robin Hood" boasts a perfect ensemble cast with a heartfelt portrayal of the title character by Errol Flynn. I truly loved your countdown and hope it will encourage folks to seek out your favorites, Rick. Awesome job!

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of my favorites both from the 50’s and the more recently released version but only because I really like Keanu Reeves. The idea is fascinating and Gort is by far the most awesome robot to come out of the imagination. We lose a piece of this planet all the time with the way we treat it and the film really pushes that message right in your face. That unique creative is what drives my fascination for films and leads me back to them repeatedly. I recently upgraded my system to HD and after talking to a colleague who works with me at Dish Network I realized there are endless titles to be had in the Classics category. With HD alone, I got HD free for life, as would any qualifying customer. I cannot argue with over 200 HD channels to choose from and more coming available all the time. I love the Classics so I was really happy that TMC is one of those channels.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Rick, I'm not surprised by any of your top 10 personal picks. I had the same experience with Once Upon A Time In The West as you did. I've grown to love it over the years. The music, the characters, Henry Fonda as a real monster -- just a marvelous movie. I'm glad it is long because I enjoy it is so much.

    Marnie is another favorite of mine. I liked this one when I first saw it, but I was too young to understand the real nature of the relationship of Connery and Hedren. I had to get older to get what was going on, and each time I saw it more layers revealed themselves.

    Of course, Robin Hood is a top favorite of mine, and not just because Errol Flynn is in it ... LOL! He is the focal point of course, and the perfect Robin. But the movie is just top of the line in every way.

    I have really enjoyed this look at your personal favorites, Rick. There haven't been many that I don't like myself, and it's been a lot of fun!

    ReplyDelete
  6. A fabulous top 10, Rick. I agree with you on your number one choice, but you knew that already. I'll have to look for that continuity error in Robin Hood. I've never noticed that before.

    When I first saw "Once Upon a Time in America" I thought to myself, "Boy, there's a film that can use some editing."

    Now, after seeing it several times, I wouldn't snip a single frame from it. Ah, the follies of youth.

    I haven't seen in "Marnie" in years and look forward to re-visiting. The only film in your top 10 I haven't seen is "Lover Come Back." I hope to rectify that soon. Thanks for putting your top 100 together. It's been a lot of fun.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Another fantastic list - and every one of these films are fantastic. I just can't get over the silly hats Doris wore.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Wonderful comments as always! It was particularly rewarding to see that LOVER COME BACK has its admirers...it's sometimes overshadowed by PILLOW TALK (which was fun but not as good as LOVER). Many of my favorite films were ones that took their time to cast their spell on me, such as OUATITW, MARNIE, and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. Thanks again to those who waded though this lengthy list from start to finish.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oops, I meant "Once Upon a Time in the West." I assume everyone knew that.

    "Lover Come Back" is scheduled to show on TCM on Feb. 12. Thanks to Rick's recommendation, I'm going to make sure it doesn't get past me. Looking forward to it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I've enjoyed these posts as well, Rick. Even if we sometimes don't agree on one or two particular films, on the whole, we're doing okay. I adore THE COURT JESTER. So, so funny. And who can quibble with ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD? Not me.

    I think that ANATOMY OF A MURDER is kind of a 'lost' film. I'm glad to see it included. I think it's my second favorite James Stewart film after REAR WINDOW.

    My favorite Doris Day romantic comedy is THAT TOUCH OF MINK with Cary Grant, but I may be in the minority.

    Can't wait to finish my own list coming up in 2012. Haven't decided how to post it yet. I'm not as patient as you, doing ten at a time.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "Anatomy of a Murder" is in the top three courtroom dramas.

    ReplyDelete
  12. What's this? I see no links on any of these titles. Perhaps the old adage is true, it is most difficult to write about what we love best?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For the most part, you are correct! I do need to add links, though, for MARNIE, WHITE CHRISTMAS, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

      Delete