OK, so the story here is I’m going to try and work my way through the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine critics poll, conducted once a decade, in which they ask hundreds of film critics to submit their selections for the greatest films of all time. I’m limiting myself to the top 50, around half of which I have seen before, the rest I’ll (hopefully) be enjoying for the first time. A lot of these films are well known, and as such shouldn’t be too hard to track down, but some are potentially harder to acquire so getting through the list might take some time. As I work through the list (in no particular order), I’m going to write up some thoughts, most likely at five film intervals.
This is the second crop of five films, the first post can be found here.
SOME LIKE IT HOT (Wilder, 1959)
I don’t know what it is about Some Like It Hot (#43) that has never really grabbed me all that much. As much as I love Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon, and certainly Marilyn Monroe, the film to me just isn’t the classic that most people seem to think, and doesn’t even come close to reaching the heights of Wilder and Lemmon’s other masterpiece, The Apartment.
As fascinated as I am with Marilyn, even she seems a little off for me in Some Like It Hot. When she’s on point she still lights up the screen, but much of her performance seems disinterested and is delivered without much of the energy she was capable of. I guess that, this being only three years before her death, her personal problems were already in play, and there are well-known stories about her becoming very difficult to manage during this portion of her career. That said, she absolutely comes alive during her final song, “Through With Love”, delivering one of those moments that reminds you why she is such an enduring icon, likely to never be matched. Perhaps the sadness of the song allowed her to tap into something more authentic from her own tragic life.
So Some Like It Hot is an enjoyable, madcap film with a touch of the dark undercurrent that showed up in so much of Wilder’s work, but for me it’s never going to be a classic. I personally would have liked to see The Apartment in the top 50, or certainly ahead of this film, but alas, it wasn’t to be.
TAXI DRIVER (Scorsese, 1976)
Martin Scorsese has a pretty miraculous track record. I haven’t yet seen everything he’s done, but I think the only film of his that I don’t really enjoy is Hugo, and even that is a film which I could probably watch again. Taxi Driver (#32) really does stand out though, not only as his most important work, but as the film that really defined him as one of the greatest filmmakers we have.
I always thought of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) as like the Terminator without a target. He prowls the filth of New York City by night in his taxi, endlessly scanning the wretched, neon-soaked environment, not so much searching as absorbing the world around him and letting his disgust and rage build. It’s such a stylish film, as Scorsese drenches the city with bold colours reflecting off the rainy streets, and with Bernard Herrman’s jazzy noir score setting an incredibly uneasy mood, there’s never any doubt that things are going to get ugly. De Niro is electrifying, building his character to it’s inevitable, yet still somewhat surprising conclusion.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968)
Hmm, I’m not exactly sure what I can write about 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6). I love it and can see its importance not only to science fiction, but cinema in general. But more than anything else, I’m kind of in awe of it. I don’t pretend to understand the ending (the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence), but I’ve been told that the sequel
2010: The Year We Make Contact might shed some light on what it means. Yet, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want the ending explained to me, so I’m yet to decide whether I’ll watch 2010 or not.
2001 is a film that took me several viewings to unpack and enjoy. I can see some of what Kubrick was getting at; the dangers of technological reliance, the human need to explore and conquer, but every time any theories I might have come completely unspooled in the last 20 minutes.
And that’s what I love about 2001 more than anything else. I want to try and figure it out. I enjoy tying my brain up in knots thinking about the white room and the space baby. I’m sure I’ll never form any solid conclusions, but it doesn’t matter to me. A film that still poses questions after a dozen viewings is such a rarity that, rather than frustrating me, which I know it does some, it just makes me more involved. It’s not my favourite Kubrick film, but I completely understand why it’s the one film on this list from arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time.
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (Lynch, 2001)
Looking back over the films I’ve watched so far over the course of this project, I already mentioned that there seems to be a theme of uniqueness amongst the top 50. What’s becoming clear, in terms of my personal reactions, is I tend to be most involved with and affected by films that I don’t altogether understand. Certainly that’s the case with Mulholland Drive (#28), probably my favourite of the bunch thus far.
In truth, having seen Mulholland Drive several times previously, I think that I do have a pretty decent understanding of David Lynch’s dark, surreal masterpiece, although what someone sees in it is probably very different from person to person. The film veers from absurd to terrifying better than any I’ve ever seen, and Lynch, never one for audience hand-holding, keeps you scratching your head right through his bleak tale, the rotten heart of the American dream. Critiques of Hollywood don’t come more savage than this. Naomi Watts throws everything she has at a difficult character, by turns adorable, naive, and pitiable, and is supported by a ravishing Laura Harring as the epitome of Hollywood glamour, the ambitious film director Justin Theroux, and the usual assortment of Lynchian oddballs.
Mulholland Drive really requires at least three or four viewings to decipher, yet (for me at least) it’s brilliance grows each time. It’s not pleasant, but for those who haven’t yet experienced it, or dismissed it as too offbeat after a single watch, it’s absolutely a must-see.
THE 400 BLOWS (Truffaut, 1959)
Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (#39) is the second film of the list I hadn’t previously seen, and, as I kind of expected, I wasn’t all that crazy about it. I’ve watched several French New Wave pictures over the years, and for whatever reason it’s just not a movement I really connect with. The only example I can remember enjoying is Godard’s Jules et Jim (which I actually really love).
The 400 Blows is at times charming and funny, but really it’s a pretty grim story of how a young boy’s life is affected by his disinterested, self-involved parents. The film feels very personal, and I was wondering how much of Truffaut’s own childhood was in play when he was conceiving the story, although I know nothing about his personal life. It hinges on a remarkable lead performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, and he’s so natural and truthful that you simply believe in what he’s experiencing. Several moments in the film reminded me of other films released decades after this, so I guess I can see its influence and importance, but really what I’ve seen of the French New Wave just doesn’t do it for me.
OK, so after 10 films, I’m maybe beginning to see a few patterns emerging. Hopefully sometime in the next week I’ll get through 5 more and will have another post up.