OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.
I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.
It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.
We tend to remember long takes that call attention to themselves as such: the opening shots of "Touch of Evil" or "The Player"; the entrance to the Copacabana in "GoodFellas"; all those shots in Romanian movies, and pictures directed by Bela Tarr and Jia Zhangke... And then there are the ones you barely notice because your eyes have been guided so effortlessly around the frame, or you've been given the freedom to explore it on your own, or you've simply gotten so involved in the rhythms of the scene, the interplay between the characters, that you didn't notice how long the shot had been going on.
For this compilation, "Deep Focus," I've chosen eight shots I treasure (the last two I regard as among the finest in all of cinema). They're not all strictly "deep focus" shots, but they do emphasize three-dimensionality in their compositions. I've presented them with only minimal identifications so you can simply watch them and see what happens without distraction or interruption. Instead, I've decided to write about them below. Feel free to watch the clips and then re-watch (freeze-frame, rewind, replay) the clips to see what you can see. To say they repay re-viewing is an understatement.
If all the year-end and decade-end lists (even though we realize the decade isn't actually over until 2011) have left you dizzied and depleted, take heart! Perhaps you've missed out on some of the more invigorating, far-sighted list-based ventures. Over at Some Came Running, for example, Glenn Kenny conducted an ingenious and fascinating project, going back and taking a look at the late Manny Farber's Best Films of 1951. Meanwhile, at The Crop Duster, Robert Horton is engaged in surveying the year's best -- in non-chronological order -- from, oh, about 1919 or so, to the present, posting a new list every Sunday. What fantastic delights are to be found in these itemized accounts...
From the opening shot of "Cutter's Way" -- my favorite movie of the 1980s.
... and speaking of critical "best of" movie lists, here's a swell one called "50 Lost Movie Classics," from The Guardian. I might quibble with the terms "lost" (how "lost" can they be, when so many of them are available on DVD?) or "classics" (a "masterpiece" can be lost or overlooked, but can a "classic"?). But it is what it is. A group of British critics and filmmakers chose 50 movies (I have no quibbles with either of those terms) that... well, allow Philip French to explain: This isn't just another list of great movies. It's a rallying cry for films that for a variety of reasons -- fashion, perhaps, or the absence of an influential advocate, or just pure bad luck -- have been unduly neglected and should be more widely available. You know that feeling when someone hasn't heard of a film you've always loved and you want to show it to them? Or, in a different way, when you get annoyed because a picture hasn't been accorded the position you think it deserves in cultural history or the cinematic canon? That's the sort of film we have included on this list.And now, please permit me to add my own huzzahs for a few of the selections, several of which have also been featured on my personal "ten-best" lists over the years -- or would have been, in the event that I had made one that year. (And some were released before I was born, OK?) Several of these have already been discussed here at Scanners. Here are just a few of the choices I'd particularly like to second:
"Petulia" (Richard Lester, 1968) -- use the link to read about the opening shot."The State of Things" (Wim Wenders, 1982) -- one of the best movies about movies ever. And "Stranger Than Paradise" was made using the leftover b&w stock."Newsfront" (Phillip Noyce, 1979) -- charming account of Aussie newsreelers."Fat City" (John Huston, 1972) -- best boxing movie ever (and, yes, I include "Raging Bull" and "Rocky")."Ace In the Hole" aka "The Big Carnival" (Billy Wilder, 1951) -- no excuse for this to still be unavailable on DVD."3 Women" (Robert Altman, 1977) -- just watched it again the night Altman's death was announced and was thrilled to find it as mesmerizing as ever..."Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" (David Lynch, 1992) -- although I think the series is by far the best work Lynch has ever done, I didn't "get" this one when it came out. Now I think it's genius (and should be double-billed with "Mulholland Drive")."Safe" (Todd Haynes, 1995) -- my choice for best movie of 1995."Housekeeping" (Bill Forsyth, 1987) -- my choice for best movie of 1987."The Parallax View" (Alan J. Pakula, 1974) -- NOT "Alan J. Parker" as The Guardian has it, fer cripes sake!!! Gripping paranoid thriller -- with a fight atop my beloved Space Needle!"Dreamchild" (Gavin Millar, 1985) -- nice double-bill with "Pan's Labyrinth," I think."The Ninth Configuration" (William Peter Blatty, 1980) -- I see a big moon risin'..."Cutter's Way" (Ivan Passer, 1981) -- my choice for the best movie of the 1980s."Wise Blood" (John Huston, 1979) -- I don't think I've ever fully recovered from the scars this one left on me."Two-Lane Blacktop" (Monte Hellman, 1971) -- this does qualify as a cult classic."'Round Midnight" (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986) -- Dexter Gordon as a version of Dexter Gordon, in gorgeous widescreen. One of the best evocations of cinema as jazz, and vice-versa."Grace of My Heart" (Allison Anders, 1996) -- pop music history mix-and-match (not unlike "Velvet Goldmine" in that respect) with terrific songs co-authored by Brill Building vets and contemporary artists. I watch this one over and over. Made me fall in love with Illeana Douglas.
Some of the choices I haven't seen: "Ride Lonesome," "Jeremy," "Under the Skin," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Let's Scare Jessica to Death," "The Low Down," "Quiemada!," "The Hired Hand," "Le Petomane," "Bill Douglas Trilogy," "Babylon," "Day Night Day Night" (just missed it in Toronto!), "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," "The Mad Monkey," "Terence Davies Trilogy" (not sure what individual titles they mean to include, but "The Long Day Closes" was my best movie of 1992 -- or was it 1993 in the US?). And there are others the list reminds me to revisit (like Monte Hellman's "Cockfighter") because it's simply been too long.
Take a peek and let us know which ones you treasure (or don't) -- and maybe suggest some additional titles for such a list...
From Robert Horton, film critic, The Herald, Everett, WA:
How technical do you want to get about "opening shot"? Is the opening shot literally the very first thing that appears onscreen? Or is it the first shot proper, the thing that tells the people behind you to stop talking and pay attention? In the 1931 "Dracula," the former is a wonderfully archaic credits plate with an art-deco bat, accompanied by a scratchy, mood-setting snippet of "Swan Lake" (without that bat and the music the movie that follows would somehow not be the same); the latter is the post-credits shot of a lusciously suggestive Transylvanian crossroads. Both count in "Dracula."
Most movies now begin with credits over a shot, making it hard to define the beginning-proper (and making it hard for the people behind you to know when to shut up already). The credits play over the opening shot of the 1981 film "Cutter's Way" (aka "Cutter and Bone"), a film very people have heard of, let alone seen, but which is nevertheless one of the key American films of the 1980s (a crucial film in connecting the post-sixties hangover and the corporate runamuck of the eighties).
The opening shot is dreamlike, stylized, drained of color—quite the opposite of the remainder of the film—and looks dead-center down a warm Santa Barbara street as an Old Spanish Days parade approaches the camera. It begins in black-and-white and bleeds slowly into color, and it's in slow motion; the odd music by the late great Jack Nitszche seems to be running in slow motion, too. A band marches, banners wave, and front and center is a blonde in a white dress, like a bride, dancing in the Fiesta. Nothing really unusual about a blonde in a small-city parade, but when you watch the movie, you realize that this might be the kind of pretty girl who could end up dropped in a dumpster on a side street in the middle of the night because she made a bad decision about which rich guy to blow.
The camera has watched this, panning finally to accommodate the blonde's sideways movement. The whole thing has the drowsy long-lens shimmer of midsummer. The blonde has gotten close enough to the camera to pass out of the frame, but as we peer at the people in the distance, now coming into focus, she abruptly passes by again—and as her white ruffled dress rustles by, the image in the background is wiped away and replaced by a whole new shot…if you like, the first shot proper of the story: an exterior, in the magic hour of dusk, of the outside of an unmistakably Southern California hotel.
TELLURIDE, Colo.--At some point early in his life, Michael Moore must have found himself wearing a baseball cap, a windbreaker, and a shirt hanging outside his jeans, and decided he liked the look. That's what he was wearing when I met him at the Telluride Film Festival in 1989, and that's what he was wearing here Saturday. It is also what he wears in "Bowling for Columbine," his new documentary film, when he goes calling on K-Mart executives and Charlton Heston, the spokesman for the National Rifle Association. He is not necessarily wearing the same shirt and jeans, you understand. His closet must look a lot like Archie's and Jughead's, with rows of identical uniforms. The clothes send a message: Here is a man of the people, working-class. He may be on television but he is not of television. In his films, he is a huge hulking presence at the edge of the screen, doggedly firing questions at people who desperately wish they were elsewhere. His face is usually in shadow because of the baseball cap.