Monday, 17 October 2016

The New York Times Best 1000 Movies Ever Made... My Top 40

The New York Times 1000 Best Movies Ever Made - My Top 40

Deep breath. I'm done. Every film on the list of The New York Times' 1000 Best Movies Ever Made, watched and ticked off.

I started this latest epic quest immediately on the back of having completed the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so for the last three years or so I've been doing almost nothing but watching films from these two books. I imagine I must be one of the very few people in the world (stupid enough) to have watched their way through the entirety of both books, and so feel uniquely placed to advise anyone contemplating doing likewise to run like hell in the other direction. You have to be seriously obsessed with cinema to get through this, there's no getting away from the fact that there are an awful lot of films on these lists that will have you losing the will to live. The sheer volume of them doesn't help your sanity much either.

There is, however, one crucial reason why it is worth persisting: you also get to discover, and rediscover, some of the best films you will ever see.

The New York Times Best 1000 Movies Ever Made Book

I liked that the book included all the New York Times reviews as they were originally published, even those that were heavily slated at the time and then came to be regarded as classics later on. My favourite review is for The Exorcist, which it describes as "a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap... practically an impossible film to sit through... a new low for grotesque special effects... boredom by shock and insult."

As for me, I'm worn out by film lists. I feel like I've exhausted my need to absorb the entire history of cinema, and can at last return to the status of normal human being. Ish. From now on I'm just going to watch whatever I feel like - TV boxsets, impulse Netflix and Amazon Prime selections, DVD's of my own choosing - no more lists and no more snooty critics dictating my viewing. What a joy that will be.

The most satisfying Post-It Note I've ever received.
In the end, I counted 351 titles from the NY Times list that I enjoyed, click here to see all of those. Below you'll find a countdown of my top 40 films from that list. Films that featured in the 1001 Movies book aren't eligible; this is for the avoidance of repetition, and because it doesn't seem necessary to say again that The Godfather and Fargo are great. And also because I like arbitrary rules. Let the countdown begin!


40. The Match Factory Girl
Perhaps the best Finnish film I've ever seen. Admittedly I think the only other one I've seen is the Christmas film Rare Exports, but anyway... this is an absurd comedy drama following the monotonous days of a girl who works in the most boring job in the world, leads the most tedious home life imaginable... and then something exciting happens to flip her life upside down. Tremendously odd.

39. About Schmidt
Dear Ndugu… Jack Nicholson is an old-timer who finds himself retired and at something of a loss. Circumstances then lead to him setting off on a campervan road trip across the States to visit his daughter. Along the way he writes unwittingly hilarious pen pal letters to a child in a third world country that he happens to be sponsoring, keeping the child fully up to date with his progress. Like all good road movies, it’s filled with quirky characters, humour and a smidgen of melancholy, and it’s that mixture that makes it my favourite movie sub-genre. Pleasingly for me, there were several such movies in the list.

38. Dead Man Walking
Sean Penn plays an inmate on death row whose only remaining hope of appeal lies in the hands of a nun (Susan Sarandon) who takes an interest in the case. An intense and affecting statement on capital punishment and the American penal system, elevated by two leads at the top of their game.

37. Barton Fink
One of the Coens’ most overlooked titles, certainly not in the league of Fargo but still fun to be had. John Turturro is a screenwriter with writer’s block, under pressure from the studio to deliver a low-budget boxing movie, whilst living in a decrepit hotel with the neighbour from hell (John Goodman). Sends up Hollywood in a similar way to their recent release Hail, Caesar! - except this one’s actually good.

36. Living in Oblivion
Another film industry send-up, this time with Steve Buscemi as a fantastically incompetent director trying to make an obviously terrible zero-budget film with a bunch of clueless actors and crew. Cleverly structured and rammed with comedic imagination, really enjoyed this one.

35. Tunes of Glory
The commander of a Scottish army regiment, the excellently Scottish-sounding Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness), does his best to turn his troops against the overbearing Lieutenant appointed to replace him (John Mills). Worth watching just for Guinness' magnificent finale speech to the troops within the atmospheric setting of Edinburgh Castle.

34. The Verdict
A washed-up alcoholic lawyer, Paul Newman, tries to resurrect his career with one last case. All I need to say is that it's directed by Sidney Lumet, the master of riveting courtroom dramas (see: 12 Angry Men). One of those films I knew was going to end up as a favourite even before I'd seen it.

33. The Full Monty
I'll confess that this was the first time I'd watched The Full Monty, somehow the idea of a film about male strippers never much appealed. And yet it turned out to be as good as all the hype suggested - hilariously funny, brilliantly acted (especially Robert Carlisle) and with a powerful political message lurking beneath the comedy. I would probably never have gotten around to watching this if it hadn't appeared on the list.

32. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
A little-known gem from Martin Scorsese, one that begins with an absolutely inspired opening scene riffing on films like The Wizard of Oz, before settling into a good old road trip movie. A lounge singer heads out on a long-term journey through a succession of towns and failed relationships, trailing her precocious yet still somehow likeable son along for the ride. If you want to see a different and less violent side to Scorsese, this is a great place to start.

31. Les Miserables (not the Russell Crowe one)
I don't know how many film and stage versions of this there are now, but I'm sure I must have seen them all. Long before they let Russell Crowe near a microphone, this 1935 version was told as a regular story rather than a musical and is actually more powerful and impressive for it. This is the definitive version in my opinion (even though the running time is about 3 months too long), made better by the use of French actors and language rather than the strange London Cockneyisms found in the modern musical versions. 

30. The Apostle
Robert Duvall, one of my favourite actors, plays a dodgy preacher man who goes on the run after committing a crime. He sets up in a new town, builds a church and congregation, and settles into a new life. Then Billy Bob Thornton turns up. Whenever that happens you know you're in for trouble, and of course a mighty fine film. Praise the Lord! etc.

29. Sexy Beast
"People say, "Don't you miss it, Gal?" I say, "What, England? Nah. Fucking place. It's a dump. Don't make me laugh. Grey, grimy, sooty. What a shit hole. What a toilet. Every cunt with a long face shuffling about, moaning, all worried. No thanks, not for me." They say, "What's it like, then, Spain?" And I'll say, "It's hot. Hot. Oh, it's fucking hot. Too hot? Not for me, I love it." Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, and an absolutely brilliant script. Job done.

28. My Dinner With Andre
A film that breaks every screenwriting rule in the book, one in which almost the entire plot (aside from a few minutes at the start) is simply a static conversation between two men in a restaurant. One guy recalls a series of fantastical experiences he's had, whilst the other listens in intently. For a film in which next to nothing actively happens, save for the waiter bringing them food, it's a remarkably engaging watch.

27. What's Up, Doc?
A Barbara Streisand-starring comedy in my favourites list? Didn't see that coming when I started the book. From director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), this mad screwball comedy races around San Francisco and owes a huge debt to Jacques Tati's Mr Hulot. As a Hulot fan this was right up my street, very silly and packed with sight gags, my impression of Streisand has changed entirely.

26. Stevie
I'm a sucker for characters reciting poetry in films, it's one of those things that movies can do that real life rarely copies. This is a film composed of multiple poetic ruminations on life and death, recited directly to camera by Glenda Jackson, in the role of poet Stevie Smith. Set in a single house, it feels more like a stage play than a movie, but is riveting viewing nonetheless. Not yet available on DVD but is currently on Youtube, track it down before it disappears, it really is worth it.

25. American Movie
This wonderful documentary follows Mark Borchart's efforts to make it as an independent film director, persisting over many years to complete a succession of self-penned scripts without any meaningful budget or crew. Along the way he ropes in whoever he can to help - his long-suffering mother, his uncle, and his best friend Mike. Oh yes, Mike. He's the real star here, a doped-up softie who's addicted to lottery scratchcards, and who happens to be one of the funniest real-life characters I've ever seen in a movie. You have to see this for him alone, but the documentary's biggest success is in drawing out the sadness and sense of failure lurking beneath the surface.

24. The Prisoner
Alec Guinness again, this time playing a cardinal held captive under accusations of being a spy, who resists every attempt at police interrogation. Guinness was the perfect choice for this, his calm withdrawn acting style helps to keep you guessing where the truth lies, and the concept of religion possibly being used as a cover for espionage is a fascinating one.

23. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Tom Courteney, a wonderful actor I only discovered during the course of this book, delivers a brilliant performance as a delinquent sent to a young offenders school. The school attempts to reform him by pushing his only talent - long distance running. The question is, will it work? I know this doesn't sound particularly special, but that's more to do with my description, the film itself is undoubtedly a classic of British cinema.

22. Moonlighting
A strange-in-a-good-way tale of four Polish men, led by Jeremy Irons, illegally working in the UK as house renovators. Irons is brilliantly deadpan with a droll monotone narration, and aside from his encounters with a few shopkeepers (that he's trying to steal from) and a neighbour complaining about the noise, he is the only significant character who says much of anything. It's such an unusual film, could possibly be described as a comedy though I'm not even sure that fits, I just don't think I've seen anything quite like it before. For a good part of the time, we are literally just watching men ripping out walls and hammering things, eating soup from old tins, filling a skip, or sleeping. The weirdness is only enhanced by the fact that this bleak, drab, monochrome existence takes place entirely over Christmas. I can't wait to see it again.

21. Secrets & Lies
An astonishing family drama from Mike Leigh, real heavyweight writing and acting that I regard as a must-see. A middle-class black woman discovers her birth mother is a working class white woman living in a council estate, and sets off to find her. Brenda Blethyn is incredible in the role of the mother whose life is thrown into chaos by the surprise arrival, arguably the standout female performance from any film in the book, but everyone involved is top notch.

20. Nobody's Fool
Paul Newman, in what proved to be his final Oscar-nominated performance, plays a cranky old man who distracts himself from his family troubles by stealing his neighbour's lawnmower and tranquillizing his dog (the neighbour's, not his own obviously). Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman turn up in roles so early in their careers that they don't even warrant a mention on the DVD case. Gently comedic, warm-spirited, and a beautiful original score that I can't stop listening to.

19. Gregory's Girl
A Scottish classic from Bill Forsyth, surrounding a teenager's attempts to woo the only girl on the school football team. A girl who also happens to be the best player in the team. Small in scope, and unashamedly Scottish, I love the idea that this played in New York. I can only imagine how much of the Scots dialect and humour washed over the audience's heads, making it even more refreshing to see a wee Scottish film like this make it onto such a list.

18. The Man Who Wasn't There
Another curiously underrated Coens film, though obviously not underrated by the New York Times. Perhaps it's because it's in black and white, that seems to be a reason alongside subtitles for many to not watch a film. Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber who blackmails his boss in order to raise money for an investment in a dry cleaning business. Things get somewhat complicated along the way. The best looking Coens film by a country mile, and packed with many of the customary writing traits that make their early scripts so difficult to surpass.

17. The Train
A German officer is trying to get a train loaded with a collection of the world’s finest priceless paintings out of France into Germany before WWII comes to an end. Burt Lancaster has to think up increasingly audacious and imaginative methods of sabotage to prevent that train making it. I really enjoyed this, they clearly went to great expense and effort in the making of the action sequences, and it’s a proper thrill-ride with many of the same perilous qualities that made Wages of Fear so good. It also raises some interesting questions about the value of art against the value of human life. Explosions, derailments, hostages, subterfuge, guns, fine art and philosophy. What's not to like?

16. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A poignant, sentimental and exceptionally well acted story about a mother trying to raise her poverty stricken family in a small New York apartment. Added to this, her husband is an unemployed alcoholic, yet his fantasist daydreamer personality makes him unusually likeable. Sounds heavy, but in fact is a deserved Oscar winner of real heft, and the performance of the daughter is exceptional considering her age. My highlight was the father singing the old Scots folk song Annie Laurie - not a dry eye in the house.

15. The Hill
Another gem from Sidney Lumet, and one that gave Sean Connery an opportunity away from 007 to really show what he could do. Even as a massive Bond fan, I'd say this is comfortably his best role and performance. Within a military prison camp looms a huge man-made sandbank that the camp commanders use to punish/torture the inmates. Taken to breaking point, Connery leads a rebellion against their treatment, continuously ratcheting up the tension until the brilliant conclusion. Top class filmmaking.

14. On the Beach
A couple of sci-fi gems now. It's the aftermath of World War III, a nuclear war that's killed off almost the entire planet. Only Australia is yet to succumb, and the radiation cloud is headed that way. In the submarine that might just ensure their survival, Gregory Peck and his team receive a strange signal from a previously thought to be deserted San Francisco, and head over to investigate. Intelligent, slow paced and sobering, as you'd expect from a Gregory Peck film, it's one of cinema's finest visions of Earth's apocalyptic finale.

13. Starman
My favourite sci-fi film in the book, however, features Jeff Bridges as an alien who crashes to Earth after his spacecraft is brought down by the military. He takes the form of a human, kidnaps a woman, and together they try to reach a particular destination before his only means of escape departs the planet. Think E.T. crossed with Thelma and Louise, and you're somewhere close. Bridges' robot-like mannerisms and curiosity about human behaviour really make this something to see. I'd never heard of this before, again underlining why trawling through these lists is worthwhile.

12. Rififi
The greatest heist film I've ever seen. The story tracks a group of men planning and then attempting to break into a vault and make off with a fortune's worth of jewels, and the inevitable complications that follow. The heist section ratchets up the tensions to a level rarely achieved in movies of this type, perhaps only surpassed by the masterpiece prison escape film Le Trou. The heist section itself is incredible, a wordless half hour of unbearably taut silence and meticulous thievery. What a film.

11. Ghost World
Now this is one film I never thought I'd see in such a list, but I'm very glad it is. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannsen play a couple of cynical teenagers fresh out of school, whose lives are entirely changed by an encounter with an oddball loner played by Steve Bucemi. In the coming-of-age genre I'd put this right at the top, such is the quality of writing, and the performances really get across the disillusionment and uncertainty of that age. The haunting piano track adds a special melancholy tone to proceedings, and it's also stashed with plenty of humour. Again, I'm so surprised to see this film in the list, but it really merits it's place.

10. Local Hero
A second Scottish classic from Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl). An American oil man is sent by his boss, Burt Lancaster, to a small Scottish fishing village with intention to buy out the land to make way for a new refinery. The quirkiness of the locals and beauty of the location soon has the man questioning his motives. I love this film to bits, it perfectly captures coastal life in my wee country, and the gentle humour and warm characterisation make the little fishing village of Ferness one of cinema's most likeable places. Utterly charming.

9. Tender Mercies
A washed-up country singer, Robert Duvall, is aimlessly drifting through life until he happens upon a motel. He falls for the owner (who Breaking Bad fans will recognise as Jesse Pinkman's mum) and settles down, until his past catches up with him. From the pen of Pulitzer prize-winning writer Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Trip to Bountiful), this is one of the gentlest and most subtly moving films I've had the pleasure of watching. Some of the dialogue towards the end, aided by the magnificently withdrawn acting masterclass from Duvall (winning him his only Oscar), I believe has rarely been bettered in American drama. He can also hold a note or two.

8. The Trip to Bountiful
“I guess when you've lived longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough.” An elderly woman, stuck living with her son and nightmarish daughter-in-law, has one last wish to fulfil: return to her old home in Bountiful, Texas, one last time before she dies. When they won’t agree to her wishes, she decides to board a bus and make it happen for herself. Adapted by Horton Foote from his own acclaimed and long-running stage play, it's a seemingly simple story that reveals it’s depth as the old woman shares her life story with others she encounters on the journey. It is quite sentimental, some might find it too much so, but Geraldine Page (who won a best actress Oscar for her performance) portrays the woman with such warmth and humbleness that you can’t help but root for her to make it.

7. Judgment at Nuremberg
Slow, methodical, meticulous and exceptional in every regard, this is filed alongside 12 Angry Men as one of the best courtroom dramas I’ve ever seen. The second world war is over, Hitler is dead, and Germany is now occupied territory. Four high-ranking Nazi judges are being tried within the American legal system for war crimes relating to the mass murder of millions of civilians in the concentration camps, and it is up to Chief Judge Dan Haywood to preside over the case. Spencer Tracey plays the judge, and it’s a real tour-de-force performance, his ragged face and worn-out demeanour perfectly expressing the weight of the decision he is going to be faced with and the political pressure he’s coming under. By the end of the eight months of testimony, rousing speeches, accusations and graphically upsetting details of what occurred in those camps (including harrowing actual footage), he just seems shattered by it all. In all honesty I was too, it is difficult to absorb three full hours of this and not be affected by it. This isn’t fiction, it really happened, and forevermore people will wonder how on earth these people could have got away with such atrocities for so long before the world came to realise. Masterpiece is a word used too often in the description of movies, I likely overuse it myself, but I can’t find any other word that could do this film justice. 

6. Amélie
Or, Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, to give it it’s full title. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s wondrous comedy romance follows a young woman on a flight of fancy around the fable-like streets of Paris, as she manipulates and toys with her neighbours and work colleagues for her own amusement. If someone is rude, she sets out for revenge in her own uniquely funny way. If she sees two people in need of a bit of matchmaking, why she just steps in and melds them together. But then she gets whacked by the love bug herself, and sets out to lure the man into her life through a series of creative endeavours. But will he get the message? A film that has zero interest in the realities of life, this is pure fantasy in terms of how people behave, live, and what the suburbs of Paris are actually like. All the better for it. I’m not especially keen on Jeunet's other films, but he got the tone of this just right - maybe the incredible piano score had something to do with it. So funny, imaginative, perhaps a little sad in spots, and dare I say, probably the most charming film ever made. If you need your spirits lifted, there are few better films in existence to make you feel better about life. An absolute joy.

5. Il Postino
The setup here is similar to another Italian classic, Bicycle Thieves. An unemployed man spots an ad for a job as a postman, bicycle required. He is tasked with delivering the mail to a famous Cuban poet living in exile on the island, and when he falls for a beautiful local woman, he hooks the poet into helping woo her with words. It's a genuinely beautiful film, using poetry and metaphors to create a romanticised and moving story that you only really find in the movies, particularly Italian ones. Yet the most poignant aspect of the film lies not within the script, but in the real story of the lead actor Massimo Troisi; he collapsed three days into filming, and discovered he needed a heart transplant. He decided to return to filming instead, risking his life in order to finish the film, and scheduled the surgery for immediately after shooting was due to finish. It was completed, and he died the following day. Now knowing this, it is a profoundly moving film to rewatch, but even leaving that aside, it will last as one of Italian cinema's finest works. This was the last film in the list I watched, and a perfect way to finish this epic experiment.

4. The Pawnbroker
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Need I say more? Yet another masterpiece from him, and one of his very best. It tells of an old man still haunted by his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, and memories of what happened to his family there. Now running a pawn shop and living day to day, his understandable bitterness and disdain towards humanity is immensely powerful, and like his character, Rod Steiger in the lead role just seems shattered by it all. I don't know how Lumet drew performances like this out of his actors, few other directors get this good this often, and it really is something to see. Exceptional doesn't come close.

3. Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring
Gerard Depardieu plays a hunchback outsider who inherits a countryside house in Provence, France. He innocently moves his family there with the intention of farming the land, only to be driven to the point of madness by the jealous locals who attempt to force him out by sabotaging his water supply. This delightful, funny and moving story was released as two separate films, but is actually one continuing story. If you don’t like spoilers please don’t read anything about the second part, Manon des Sources, it’s events are entirely dependent on the prior Jean de Florette. That's why I don't really want to say any more about what unfolds. Really something special, if you consider yourself a fan of cinema you simply have to see these. And oh god that music.

2. Seven Up / 28 Up (Up Series)
"Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man". A groundbreaking series of documentary films in which director Michael Apted gathered a group of 7-year-old children from an array of backgrounds and social classes, and interviewed them about their lives, hopes and expectations for the future. In Seven Up we see them as sweet, funny kids with wild imaginations, and get an insight into how planned out the lives of certain classes actually are. What happens next is remarkable. Every seven years that follow, they are brought back together to find out how their lives have changed (7 Up and 28 Up were released together cinematically, hence the inclusion in the book). 7 - 14 - 21 - 28 - 35 - 42 - 49 - 56. Imagine being fifty-six years old and being able to look back at how you grew through your entire life. That's what the folk in these films can do now. I got hooked on their stories very quickly and had to keep watching, eager to find out what happens to them next, it's such a unique experiment and makes for fascinating viewing. Some become everything they said they would be, eerily accurate in fact, others go in an entirely different direction, not always a happy one. That aspect of it is so deflating to see, because even though you know it's already happened, you can't help but root for them. If documentary films are about capturing people's lives, telling their stories, then there's an argument for saying that the Up series does this better than any other documentary ever made. Roger Ebert reportedly said he'd put the series collectively in his top 10 films of all time, and I'd certainly go along with that. But what beat it to top spot?…

And the winner is…
1000 films ticked off, and it came time to pick my favourite. I could quite happily have selected almost any of the above films in top spot, but it came down to this: what film had the biggest emotional impact on me by the time the credits rolled? What film would I most want to watch again if I could only pick one out of my top 40? And that film is… 

1. The Straight Story
David Lynch made a normal film! And it’s exceptional! Who knew? We’re back in old person road trip territory again, something the New York Times seems just as keen on as I am, and this is my standout selection. A scruffy old man named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) receives news that his brother, who he hasn’t spoken to for years, is seriously ill. He decides to bury the hatchet and travel to visit him, hundreds of miles away. Yet without a driving license to his name, there is only one obvious solution: go the whole way on a lawnmower. It is indeed a David Lynch film, but you’d never know - it's poetic, melancholic, funny, deeply touching, and doesn't feature any dwarves talking backwards. It’s such a simple tale, and the riding a lawnmower thing would suggest it’s going for quirk over substance, but it’s quite the opposite - I would challenge anyone not to be moved by it. The looping music by Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch’s regular music collaborator, also fits the pace and tone of the story down to a tee, surprising when they’re usually soundtracking horror weirdness. 

"There's no one knows your life better than a brother that's near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth. My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but, I'm trying to put that behind me... And this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I'm not too late... A brother's a brother."

The characters have real depth and wonderful dialogue, screenwriters Mary Shelley and John Roach deserve the credit for that, particularly in the scenes where Alvin ruminates on life, his brother and his days in the war. Lynch brings all this together perfectly, showing a level of restraint that has never been hinted at in any of his other work. It's a film that has you thinking about getting old, and what you'll be like at that time of life. If, when the time comes, I have the opportunity to decide what will be the last film I see in my life, there’s a very strong chance that The Straight Story will be in the running. It's as good as that.

- You don't think about getting old when you're young... You shouldn't.
- Must be something good about gettin' old?
- Well I can't imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time but, still at my age I've seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away.
- So, uh, what's the worst part about being old, Alvin?
- Well, the worst part of being old is rememberin' when you was young.

Thanks, and goodbye (for now) 

As I was watching all these movies, I began to wonder... could I do that? I mean, could I write a film? And if I could, would it be any good? So that is where my movie-watching obsession over the last few years has now taken me. I'm now attending screenwriting classes, and they're great fun, but there’s so much to learn. I had no idea how difficult it is to write a film, with so much plotting, characters and dialogue to invent, so much planning and research to do, and so many script formatting rules that absolutely must be adhered to. It’s a fascinating thing to try though, and who knows where it will lead?

With that in mind, I think this is a good time to call a halt to my film blogging days, at least for now. Rather than write about other people’s movies, I now feel like I want to write my own. Perhaps one day bloggers will be tearing to shreds a 1-star rated film that I’ve written? We can but dream.

Thanks for reading the blog, I’ve rather enjoyed writing it. Maybe one day I’ll get the urge to start again.

Until then, cheers.

"It's been a genuine pleasure having you here, Alvin. Write to us sometime."