25 favorite films

Recently, the They Shoot Pictures Don't They website had a poll where users listed their 25 favorite films. They received 1,983 replies, with a total of 5,945 films chosen. They have begun posting the top 1005, spreading things out to keep us in suspense. In the meantime, here were my 25 choices. Each selection received one point, so there was no need to rank them. I'll list mine in alphabetical order:

mank (david fincher, 2020)

You can't talk about Mank without talking about Citizen Kane. Like many people, I re-watched Kane the day before we watched Mank. I liked it quite a lot this time around ... you never know with classic movies, sometimes they reveal more with each viewing, other times you wonder why you ever thought it was great. Citizen Kane still isn't boring, which is an achievement in itself for a movie that is almost 80 years old and has been watched by yours truly countless times. Many years ago, in the fabled Facebook Fave 50 event a few of us did, I put Kane at #7 on my list. Here is a taste of what I wrote:

Citizen Kane is a group effort. The “authorship” of the movie has been a matter of heated debate for decades (it seems most accurate to say that Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz are co-authors, but that Welles-as-director had a much larger hand in the film that resulted from the script). Gregg Toland might even be more important than Mankiewicz. Toland, the film’s cinematographer, was such an integral part of Citizen Kane that his name appears at the same time as Welles’ in the credits. The look of the film is endlessly fascinating. It looks intriguing even as stills on a page, but to fully appreciate what Toland pulls off, you must see it “in action.”

Mank addresses that heated debate about authorship. Pauline Kael doesn't show up physically ... in 1941, she wasn't Pauline Kael as we came to know her. But she is all over the movie. It helps to know her history with Citizen Kane, but I'm not spending this entire blog post recounting it for you. What matters is that a man named Jack Fincher wrote the initial script for Mank, intending the movie to be made in the 1990s, and that Jack Fincher was apparently very influenced by Kael's notorious essay, "Raising Kane". Fincher only got one screen credit in his life, and it came 17 years after he died, when his son, the acclaimed director David Fincher, used his father's script as the foundation of his own movie, Mank. Kael influenced Jack, David used Jack's script, and the result is Mank. (Given the film turns on issues of authorship, all of this is appropriate fodder for discussion.)

Do you need to know any of this to watch and appreciate Mank? I watched it in a Netflix party with eight family members, and a couple of them might have had some minimal knowledge of the backstory, but I am the only Kael obsessive in the family. It's safe to say none of them loved Mank, but none of them hated it, either, and the holes in their knowledge focused not on Kael and Jack Fincher, but on the enormous number of real-life characters who are barely, if at all, explained in the movie. My wife kept consulting her phone to see who was this or that person. So your enjoyment of Mank will depend a bit on what you know about the characters, not just Herman J. Mankiewicz and William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but also characters like Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer and John Houseman and, yes, Orson Welles, all of whom are important characters in Mank, and, digging even deeper, people like Josef von Sternberg and Norma Shearer, who are in the film but barely introduced to us before they disappear.

In all of this, I am focusing on how Mank fits into the legend of Citizen Kane, and on how an audience who comes to the story cold might react. But I've yet to say whether Mank is actually any good.

Yes, it's good. It is not the definitive word on the authorship of Citizen Kane, any more than was "Raising Kane". Like most biopics, Mank fudges with the truth in the service of telling a story. The acting is variable, or rather, the casting is variable ... Gary Oldman will likely get an Oscar nomination for his performance as the title character, but in truth he's too old for the part. Amanda Seyfried gives a kind performance as Marion Davies, and I'm always glad to see Tuppence Middleton from my beloved Sense8 in anything (she plays Mank's wife). Fincher and his team put a lot of work into the look of Mank, which is a black-and-white film that doesn't exactly emulate the look of Kane. The recreation of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s is entertaining. Whichever Fincher was responsible for the words we hear on the screen made certain to include most of Mank's famous bon mots, even if they don't always turn up where they were actually said.

I don't know ... for some reason, I hoped that Mank would be something more than just an artfully-made biopic. My expectations were dashed, but the film is no disaster. And since its take on Mankiewicz, Welles, and Citizen Kane is largely Kael's, and since Kael is my icon, I found it enjoyable to see what others made of her work. In fact, the one thing I took away from Mank over all others was that I wish Pauline were alive to see it. I'd love to read her review.

geezer cinema: the night of the hunter (charles laughton, 1955)

Internet was down most of the day, which among other things meant the movie I'd chosen for this week's Geezer Cinema was unavailable. So I fell back on an old favorite, The Night of the Hunter, which way back when was #31 on my Facebook Fifty Faves list. I'm only just now back online, so I'll cut and paste from my original comments.

The Night of the Hunter is a collaborative work; all films are, but I feel like in this case, people tend to focus on the fact that it’s the only film Charles Laughton ever directed, and thus assume the film’s idiosyncrasies are his alone. Recent research has demonstrated the importance of Davis Grubb, who wrote the novel, James Agee, who wrote the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer. I won’t pretend to know exactly who did what. But I can describe the results. Visually, the movie is a cross of D.W. Griffith and the German Expressionists. These influences come from silent film, and add to the feeling that Night of the Hunter is somehow timeless. (The presence of Lillian Gish doesn’t hurt, either). It has elements of the horror film; at times, Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell is shot so that he resembles the monster in the Karloff versions of Frankenstein. It’s noirish, but noir as told through the eyes of children. It is, at times, pretty funny, which is unexpected. And Robert Mitchum’s performance is one of cinema’s greatest.

The movie also features several set pieces that are remarkable, and in many cases, unique. The children’s long trip down the river is the most obvious example, full of interesting choices by Laughton/Agee/Cortez/whoever. The image of Shelley Winters sitting in a car at the bottom of the river, her hair flowing like it had belonged underwater all along, is unforgettable, and you’d like to congratulate Laughton (or whoever), except the novel’s author, Davis Grubb, submitted some early drawings to Laughton that include one which looks almost exactly like what we see on the screen, so send your congrats to Grubb for that one.

If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat, but the best time to see it for your first time is when you are young. You’ll be scared shitless, but you’ll never forget it. I suppose some parents would think this film to be exactly the kind of thing their kids should be protected from, but those parents are wrong. The Night of the Hunter works at the same elemental level as a good fairy tale. It is certainly better and more memorable than whatever tripe Disney is selling this year.

The Night of the Hunter was a notorious flop; no one went to see it, critical response was tepid, and it was soon forgotten as an inexpensive stylized piece by Laughton, who never directed again. But its status has increased over the years. It regularly appears on best-of lists, and is one of the films honored in the National Film Registry.

(#43 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.)

50 favorite movies revisited

It's been nine years since I took part in a Facebook project where three of us chose our 5o Favorite Movies. (Here's a Letterboxd list of my choices.) Of course, I'd do a lot of different things now ... Tomorrow Never Dies didn't belong (I chose it because of Michelle Yeoh, but then she was in another of my choices later, so the 007 movie was unnecessary). And I was too devoted to older movies ... the most recent movie in my Top 20 was The Godfather Part II from 1974, and there were only 4 movies from the 21st century on the entire list.

So here are my favorite movies (as of this moment) for the years 2012-2020, the years after I made that 50 Favorites list. I'm have to think a few of these would make the list if I made it now.

2012: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

2013: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

2014: Boyhood (Richard Linklater) (a pattern emerges!)

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

2016: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

2017: Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR)

2018: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)

2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

2020: Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

revisiting the passion of joan of arc (carl theodor dreyer, 1928)

Back in 2012, when I took part in a group that chose our favorite films of all time, I had The Passion of Joan of Arc at #15. It is the best film of 1928, and it gets my vote as the best film of the silent era. It is #17 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I thought it was time to break out my as-yet unseen Blu-ray copy of Criterion's release. Here is what I said about the film in 2012:

There are all sorts of markers that, I suspect, convince people to avoid a particular movie. If “everyone” says the movie is a classic, you might tire of their enthusiasm. Maybe it’s a silent movie and you don’t think you like those, or it’s in black & white and you think you don’t like those. Maybe it has a religious theme, and you aren’t ready to be converted. And maybe you read comments like those that appear in this group, where week after week we recommend this or that movie, and at some point you realize there is no way you’re going to keep up with our suggestions, and no way to ensure you’ll actually like the ones you watch. And so, when I tell you that The Passion of Joan of Arc is a justifiably great classic film, that when I say it’s great I don’t mean great like The Social Network but I mean great like Hamlet or The Great Gatsby or Born to Run, when I note that, as Pauline Kael wrote, this is “one of the greatest of all movies” … this time, it isn’t hyperbole. Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, never appeared in another movie, but she went out with a bang … her performance here is unparalleled. In addition to all of the above, you have likely never seen a film that looks quite like this one.

Jean Cocteau said The Passion of Joan of Arc was “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” This perfectly explains the odd feeling we get watching the film, which is like a cinéma vérité documentary, except we know it can’t be. What is equally odd is that the film feels so “real” yet there is nothing realistic about it stylistically. As Dreyer said, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.” The actors wore no make-up, and the film was shot in sequence, all of which added to the documentary feel. But Dreyer’s use of close-ups draws our attention; we are constantly aware of the manipulation of the camera.

Meanwhile, there is Falconetti. I’m suspicious when someone says “it’s great, but I can’t put the reason into words.” I usually assume the person is merely trying to disguise the way their subjective response affects their judgment. (I’m all in favor of subjective responses, I just don’t think they should be disguised.) I am also suspicious when someone uses a version of the “end of story” trick, wherein discussion is closed without any real explanation for what has been said (end of story). Yet, the truth is, I can’t describe Falconetti; she has to be seen. And even Kael, who was never at a loss for words, is left with nothing except to state that “Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”

I would add a brief note regarding something I was not aware of. Apparently there is some disagreement about what speed to show the movie, either 20 frames per second or 24. I don't pretend to understand the details (there is an excellent supplement on the Blu-ray that discusses this). I can tell you that the 24 fps version is "shorter" because it runs faster. I watched the 20 fps version.

top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018

throwback thursday: the wild bunch (sam peckinpah, 1969)

I'm reading a new book by W.K. Stratton, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, and thought to watch the movie again. Some years ago, I ranked it #8 on my 50 Fave Movies list. Here is what I wrote at the time. The only thing I might add this time is to emphasize just how much this is a Guy Movie. The only women in it are whores, and the bygone myths that the movie explodes are all Guy Myths.

After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.

Ironically, for a film that blasted away the past, The Wild Bunch is extremely nostalgic itself. The characters, and the film, pine for a time when a code mattered, and the characters, like the film, know that their time has passed. It is as if Peckinpah couldn’t bear the anguish of nostalgia; even as he felt it and expressed it on the screen, he was making sure the objects of our nostalgia would be destroyed.

Ultimately, The Wild Bunch is a confusing film. Kael claims that Peckinpah tried for so much, it overwhelmed him in the end, that what began as a realistic treatment became “an almost abstract fantasy about violence.” The bloody conclusion is orgasmic; these men love what they are doing, which may not have been Peckinpah’s intention, but then, he loved what he was doing, as well.

Peckinpah’s career was a mess. There were mediocre films, there were films where the studio interfered, there was the vile Straw Dogs. His attitude towards the women in his movies is bad enough that you wish there weren’t any female characters … absence would be better than misogyny. But at his best, and often at something less than his best, he was a great film maker, the antithesis of the efficient competence of Clint Eastwood.

Near the end, one of the Bunch has been captured by the “bad guys.” The gang has left him behind, because they are outnumbered 50-1, because to do anything else will result in certain death. But then, in a few minutes almost completely without dialogue, William Holden’s Pike Bishop knows what has to be done. Earlier in the film, he had famously said, “When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished!” It was time to stay with their man. The exchange between Holden and Warren Oates is so simple, yet it tears at me every time I see it: “Let’s go.” “Why not?” The long walk was improvised on the set. As they walk, knowing what is to come … I’m not sure it has anything to do with “being a man,” but it has everything to do with the social construct that is “being a man.” Peckinpah romanticizes it, but nonetheless, it leads to their death.



my fave movies of the 21st century

An interesting question came up in the comments for the post on the latest They Shoot Pictures, Don't They update: What are the one or two 21st century films that have ranked highest in my informal all-time list? Interesting enough to answer the question in a separate post.

The easiest place to start is with the Fave Fifty project a few of us did on Facebook back in 2011. Here are the 21st century films that made my all-time top 50 list:

City of God (#20 on my list, #10 on TSPDT)

In the Mood for Love (#38, #1)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (#44, #33)

The Lives of Others (#45, #31)

Since then, I have also given my highest rating to these movies, which came out in 2011 or later:

A Separation (#17 on TSPDT)

Mad Max: Fury Road (#49)

Before Midnight (#207)

The Square (N/A)

If any of these movies would make my current Top 50 list, it's probably A Separation. Fury Road, much as I love it, isn't different enough from The Road Warrior for me to bump it that last little bit, and Before Midnight gets at least some of its value from being the third in a trilogy. The Square is the only documentary on this list, so it will get an honorable mention.

So the question is, where would A Separation fit among those other four movies from my 2011 list? The only one of those movies I've watched in the past few years is In the Mood for Love, which grows in my heart with each viewing. I'd probably put it at the top of those four movies now. So, off the top of my head, here are my Top Five movies of the 21st century:

  1. In the Mood for Love
  2. City of God
  3. A Separation
  4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  5. The Lives of Others

movies, 1969

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a set of columns on popular culture in 1969. Mick LaSalle got to examine movies from that year. He noted that the old Production Code was finally dumped in late 1968, and that studios that were losing money looked to younger filmmakers: "This combination, within the industry, of no censorship and a willingness to innovate would bring about a brief but important golden age." He then proceeded to look at a few of the best movies of 1969 ... "[W]hen you consider some of the best movies of 1969, the past doesn’t seem that far away at all."

The movies he mentioned were Anne of the Thousand Days, Army of Shadows, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, Goodbye Columbus, Midnight Cowboy, Salesman, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and Topaz. It's an idiosyncratic list, as it should be. I've written about two of these on this blog.

Army of Shadows:

This tale of the French resistance is purposely low-key; you don’t come here for action-packed heroics. Instead, you get ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, making life-or-death decisions (in truth, mostly death in the short term), living under assumed names, their actions unknown even to their closest family. There is an inevitable feeling to the fates of these people. Knowing, as we do with hindsight, that the Nazis eventually lose, and that the Resistance helped expedite the Nazi failure, isn’t much good to the characters, who all know they are unlikely to see that victory. 


In my formative years as a film major in the early 70s ... I was a real believer in cinéma vérité, and I didn't spend much time questioning the "reality" of what was on the screen. More than 40 years later, I've seen a lot of cinéma vérité, and I no longer trust it in quite the same way. I'm more aware of the artist's manipulations than I was in my more naive years. If I had seen Salesman when I was 19, I would have loved it. Now, the "vérité" seems, not false exactly, but concocted. Its truths are the ones the filmmakers want to put forward, just like with every movie. And if I take away the aura of reality, Salesman is a documentary that takes a little too long to makes its points. The more reflective salesmen have insights into their own lives, but those insights feel casually slipped it, as if they weren't any more important than the other scenes in the movie. That's part of the trick, of course, to make it seem like the camera just happened to be there to record the men. And the artistry of the film is hidden behind the theory of its execution.

Of LaSalle's other choices, I've seen Butch Cassidy and Midnight Cowboy. I'm not a fan of either, and have a special dislike for Cassidy. I've also seen Easy Rider and liked it OK. That gives me four movies to check out.

What are my favorite 1969 movies? Thanks for asking. At the top are two that I listed in that long-ago Facebook Fave Fifty project.

The Sorrow and the Pity (#2 on that list):

The film also approaches one my favorite subjects, the vagaries of memory. People tell stories about what happened to them 25 years earlier; other people tell stories that contradict the story you just heard. Some people make grandiose claims based on “facts", only to have the interviewer gently contest those “facts” with facts of his own that put the lie to the original speaker.

Ultimately, The Sorrow and the Pity puts us in the position of thinking about how we might have reacted in that situation. We might see ourselves as heroic, and the mythology tells us most French people were indeed heroes. But we also see that the myth is often more false than true, and that ordinary people act in ordinary ways under extraordinary circumstances, when to be ordinary is to be a collaborator.

The Wild Bunch (#8):

After The Wild Bunch, it was impossible to look at westerns the same way. It dealt with the end of an era, but there was nothing new in that; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, from the same period, trod similar ground. But the freeze-frame that concludes Butch Cassidy allows our nostalgia to survive. (“A freeze-frame!”, David Thomson wrote. “You can hear Peckinpah’s sneer. He might slow down the fatal frames, but that is only so we can see every bullet bursting in flesh and blood.”) The excessive violence at the end of The Wild Bunch rubs our noses in the era’s end; nothing seems to survive. After that, what else is possible? From that point on, if you made a western, you had to deal with the line The Wild Bunch drew between then and now.

I think one problem with the recent Magnificent Seven remake is that it acted like The Wild Bunch had never been made.

Army of Shadows is my 3rd-favorite movie of 1969. Coming in at #4:

On Her Majesty's Secret Service:

The worst 007 (George Lazenby), combined with one of the handful of best Bond Girls (Diana Rigg), a Bond that is more human than usual, a love story that is touching without getting in the way, and some of the best actions scenes ever to appear in a Bond movie. If it wasn’t for Lazenby, this would be a contender for best James Bond movie of all time.

So, I'm now building a list of 1969 movies I should watch. Of course, like most "requests" (I'm acting like LaSalle requested that I watched the four of his choices I've missed), it may take me five years to get there. (Anyone reading this who wants to recommend a 1969 movie, that's what the comments section is for!). Meanwhile, here are some other movies from 1969 I have never seen:

Kes, Adalen 31, In the Year of the Pig, Model Shop, Medium Cool.

And, since it's Oscar season, here are some Oscar winners from that year I haven't seen:

Hello, Dolly, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cactus Flower. I have to say those don't look all that great to me.

And finally, I'll add two of the top grossing films in the U.S. that I haven't seen, one which I would like to see, one which I wouldn't: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and Paint Your Wagon.


nicolas roeg

Nicolas Roeg died yesterday at the age of 90. There was a time when he was my favorite director. His first three films as a director (Performance, co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout, and Don't Look Now) remain tremendous. I didn't like his next two, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing, as much, and then I mostly lost track of him, although he directed for another 27 years

I wrote about Performance a couple of months ago: "Revisiting Performance". I ranked it #10 on my 50 Favorite Films list back in 2012. In an earlier post:

Performance no longer seems like a very complicated movie. I showed it to a friend a few years ago who had never seen it, and he thought it was fairly straightforward. This is because the techniques of Performance, the things that made it seem so remarkable in 1970, are commonplace now. Fractured editing, uncertain chronologies, plots full of puzzles, these are all part of the standard bag of contemporary directors’ tricks.

Walkabout in 2011: "Walkabout is one of my very favorite movies, and is one of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director. I recommend it highly to pretty much everyone reading this."

I discussed Don't Look Now in 2013:

In Don’t Look Now, there is a sense that nothing is as it seems, alongside a feeling that one could figure out the puzzle if you just gave yourself over to your gifts of second sight. Roeg plays with time … what the film calls “second sight” allows for flash-forwards as premonition, and the past never leaves us, either. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) sees past events just as often as he sees the future, although he doesn’t believe in those premonitions, only in what happened in the past. The film is full of visual allusions, shapes that occur in multiple settings, motifs of water and broken glass, and the color red, always red. Venice is a character in the film, as well, but it is far from what you might see in a tourist brochure.