Top 100 Films (Centenary)
(in four parts)

from Time Out Film Guide

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Time Out Film Guide
Top 100 Films (Centenary)

from Time Out Film Guide

(part 2, ranked)

(26) Napoleon (1927), d. Abel Gance, Fr
To see Napoleon with a full orchestra performing Carl Davis' score is an almost unimaginably thrilling experience. The 'concert' aspect heightens the sense of occasion, and the Beethoven-based score fully equals Gance's own grandiloquent poetry. The film itself is a paradox. Presumably nobody applauds it for its politics: it offers a crudely psychologized vision of Bonaparte as a 'man of destiny' (said to have inspired De Gaulle in 1927), and ends on a note of fascistic triumph with the invasion of Italy. It is nonetheless a great film, the work of a man with a raving enthusiasm for cinema. Purely visual storytelling had reached a peak of sophistication by the mid-1920s, but Gance pushed the 'language' of cinema further than anyone else: he moved easily between lyricism, bombast, intimacy and dementia, mixed vivid performances with daring montage experiments. No superlative is enough.

-- Rear Window (1954), d. Alfred Hitchcock, US
Of all Hitchcock's films, this is the one which most reveals the man. As usual it evolves from one brilliantly plain idea: Stewart, immobilized in his apartment by a broken leg and aided by his girlfriend (Grace Kelly at her most Vogue-coverish), takes to watching the inhabitants across the courtyard, first with binoculars, later with his camera. He thinks he witnesses a murder...There is suspense enough, of course, but the important thing is the way that it is filmed: the camera never strays from inside Stewart's apartment, and every shot is closely aligned with his point of view. And what this relentless monomaniac witnesses is everybody's dirty linen: suicide, broken dreams, and cheap death. Quite aside from the violation of intimacy, which is shocking enough, Hitchcock has nowhere else come so close to pure misanthropy, nor given us so disturbing a definition of what it is to watch the 'silent film' of other people's lives, whether across a courtyard or up on a screen. No wonder the sensual puritan in him punishes Stewart by breaking his other leg.

(28) Battleship Potemkin (1925), d. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR
What more can be said about Potemkin - the celebrated re-creation, in documentary style, of the key events of the failed 1905 Kronstadt revolution against Tsarist oppression - re-issued (in 1998) in a new print, with music by Shostakovich replacing Meisel's original score. It exemplifies, we know, Eisenstein's fascination with 'montage' (the use of dialectical forms of editing to create meaning) and 'typage' (non-actors cast for physical characteristics). This, however, is propaganda, just as much as art, and looking back after more than 70 years there's something cold, academic, even manipulative about the meticulous compositions, schematic characterizations and complex choreography of massed movement. It lacks the genuinely fiery passion of Eisenstein's earlier Strike, not to mention the lyricism of Dovzhenko or the perky wit of Vertov. Edward Tisse's camerawork remains impressive, and there's no doubt that the whole is a technical tour de force, but the obsession with forces of power, as opposed to individual experience, is ultimately oppressive.

-- It's A Wonderful Life (1946), d. Frank Capra, US
An extraordinary, unabashed testament to the homely small-town moral values and glossy studio production values that shaped Capra's films so successfully in the late '30s and rapidly disappeared thereafter. It's a film designed to grab your cockles and warm them till they smoulder, particularly at the end, with its Christmas card setting, its whimsical angel sent down to save the despairing do-gooder (Stewart) from doing evil by committing suicide. Capra has total command of his cast and technical resources, and a touching determination to believe that it is indeed a wonderful life.

-- Performance (1970), d. Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell, GB
Roeg's debut as a director is a virtuoso juggling act which manipulates its visual and verbal imagery so cunningly that the borderline between reality and fantasy is gradually eliminated. The first half-hour is straight thriller enough to suggest a Kray Bros. documentary as Fox, enforcer for a London protection racket, goes about his work with such relish that he involves the gang in a murder and has to hide from retribution in a Notting Hill basement. There, waiting to escape abroad, he becomes involved with a fading pop star (Jagger) brooding in exile over the loss of his powers of incantation. In what might be described (to borrow from Kenneth Anger) as an invocation to his demon brother, the pop star recognizes his lost power lurking in the blind impulse to violence of his visitor, and so teases and torments him with drug-induced psychedelics that the latter responds in the only way he knows how: by rewarding one mind-blowing with another, at gunpoint. Ideas in profusion here about power and persuasion and performance ('The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is one that achieves madness'); and the latter half becomes one of Roeg's most complex visual kaleidoscopes as pop star and enforcer coalesce in a marriage of heaven and hell (or underworld and underground) where the common denominator is Big Business.

(31) The General (1927), d. Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman, US
Keaton's best, and arguably the greatest screen comedy ever made. Against a meticulously evoked Civil War background, Buster risks life, limb and love as he pursues his beloved railway engine, hijacked by Northern spies up to no good in the Southern cause. The result is everything one could wish for: witty, dramatic, visually stunning, full of subtle, delightful human insights, and constantly hilarious.

(32) A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) (1959), d. Jean-Luc Godard, Fr
Godard's first feature spins a pastiche with pathos as joyrider Belmondo shoots a cop, chases friends and debts across a night-time Paris, and falls in love with a literary lady. Seberg quotes books and ideas and names; Belmondo measures his profile against Bogart's, pawns a stolen car, and talks his girlfriend into a cash loan 'just till midday'. The camera lavishes black-and-white love on Paris, strolling up the Champs-Elysees, edging across cafe terraces, sweeping over the rooftop skyline, Mozart mixing with cool jazz riffs in the night air. The ultimate night-time film noir noir noir..until Belmondo pulls his own eyelids shut when he dies. More than any other, this was the film which epitomized the iconoclasm of the early Nouvelle Vague, not least in its insolent use of the jump-cut.

-- Mean Streets (1973), d. Martin Scorsese, US
The definitive New York movie, and one of the few to successfully integrate rock music into the structure of film: watch Keitel waking to the sound of the Ronettes, or De Niro dancing solo in the street to 'Mickey's Monkey'. Mean Streets is also pure Italian-American. Charlie (Keitel), a punk on the fringes of 'respectable' organized crime, ponders his adolescent confusions and loyalties. Beneath the swagger, he's embarrassed by his work, his religion, and by women and his friends, particularly Johnny Boy (De Niro), who owes everyone money. Scorsese directs with a breathless, head-on energy which infuses the performances, the sharp fast talk, the noise, neon and violence with a charge of adrenalin. One of the best American films of the decade.

-- Once Upon a Time In The West (1968), d. Sergio Leone, It
The Western is dead, they tell us. Long live Leone's timeless monument to the death of the West itself, rivalled only by Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for the title of best ever made. We're talking favorite films here, so only superlatives will do. Worth starting at the beginning: a stakeout at a deserted station, Jack Elam and a fly - the most audacious credit sequence in film history. A soundtrack never bettered by any Dolby knob-twiddlers - unnatural sounds of 'silence' and Morricone's greatest score, handing Bronson his identity with a plangent, shivery harmonica riff, carrying Leone's crane shots upwards over a railhead township, clip-clopping Robards into the rigorous good/bad/ugly schema. Countercasting (sadist Fonda) and location choice (Monument Valley) that render an iconic base for Leone and collaborators (Bertolucci and Argento, no less) to perform their revisionist/revolutionary critique of the Classic American (i.e., Fordian) Creation Myth. And more, too. Critical tools needed are eyes and ears - this is Cinema.

-- Rio Bravo (1959), d. Howard Hawks, US
Arguably Hawks' greatest film, a deceptively rambling chamber Western made in response to the liberal homilies of High Noon. Here the marshal in need of help is Wayne, desperately fending off a clan of villains determined to release the murderer he's holding in jail until the arrival of the state magistrate. Unlike Cooper, however, he rejects rather than courts offers of help, simply because his supporters are either too old (Brennan), too young (Nelson), female (Dickinson) or alcoholic (Martin). Thus the film becomes an examination of various forms of pride, prejudice and professionalism, as the various outcasts slowly cohere through mutual aid to form one of the director's beloved self-contained groups. Little of the film is shot outdoors, with a subsequent increase in claustrophobic tension, while Hawks peppers the generally relaxed and easy narrative - which even takes time out to include a couple of songs for Dino and Ricky - with superb set pieces: Dino's redemptory shooting of a fugitive villain; the explosive finale in which Duke realizes he needs all the help he can get. Beautifully acted, wonderfully observed, and scripted with enormous wit and generosity, it's the sort of film, in David Thomson's words, which reveals that 'men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.'

(36) Once Upon a Time in America (1983), d. Sergio Leone, US
In 1968, Noodles (De Niro) returns to New York an old man after 35 years of exile, ridden by guilt. His cross-cut memories of the Jewish Mafia's coming of age on the Lower East Side in 1923, their rise to wealth during Prohibition, and their Gotterdammerung in 1933, provide the epic background to a story of friendship and betrayal, love and death. While Leone's vision still has a magnificent sweep, the film finally subsides to an emotional core that is sombre, even elegiac, and which centers on a man who is bent and broken by time, and finally left with nothing but an impotent sadness.

(37) All About Eve (1950), d. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, US
Davis plays the successful actress, ageing and fundamentally insecure, who employs Baxter in exchange for her flattery. From there the scheming Baxter connives her way to the top at the expense of her employer, who realizes what is happening but is powerless to do anything. Mankiewicz's bitchy screenplay makes the most of the situation, being both witty and intelligent. The young Monroe gets to have a stairway entrance (introduced by cynical critic Sanders as a 'graduate of the Copacabana school of acting').

-- My Darling Clementine (1946), d. John Ford, US
Like many Hollywood directors, Ford's claims for his films are very modest. For him the key thing about My Darling Clementine is its authenticity: 'I knew Wyatt Earp...and he told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So we did it exactly the way it had been'. For viewers, however, the film's greatness (and enjoyability) rests not in the accuracy of the final shootout, but in the orchestrated series of incidents - the drunken Shakespearean actor, Earp's visit to the barber, the dance in the unfinished church - which give meaning to the shootout. Peter Wollen's comment on the significance of Earp's visit to the barber's and its outcome makes clear just how complex the ideas contained in these incidents are: 'This moment marks the turning point of Earp's transition from wandering cowboy, nomadic savage, bent on revenge, unmarried, to married man, settled, civilized, the sheriff who administers the law'.

-- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), d. Stanley Kubrick, US
A characteristically pessimistic account of human aspiration from Kubrick, this tripartite sci-fi look at civilization's progress from prehistoric times (the apes learning to kill) to a visionary future (astronauts on a mission to Jupiter encountering superior life and rebirth in some sort of embryonic divine form) is beautiful, infuriatingly slow, and pretty half-baked. Quite how the general theme fits in with the central drama of the astronauts' battle with the arrogant computer HAL, who tries to take over their mission, is unclear; while the final farrago of light-show psychedelia is simply so much pap. Nevertheless, for all the essential coldness of Kubrick's vision, it demands attention as superior sci-fi, simply because it's more concerned with ideas than with Boy's Own-style pyrotechnics.

(40) The Piano (1993), d. Jane Campion, NZ/Fr
Nineteenth century Scotland: Ada (Hunter) hasn't spoken since she was six. She communicates with hand signs, and doesn't consider herself silent, thanks to the joy she takes in playing her piano. But when she arrives in New Zealand for an arranged marriage, her husband (Neill) insists the piano is too unwieldy to be carried from the beach. So, when Baines (Keitel), a neighboring settler turned half-Maori, buys it, Ada agrees to give him piano lessons, unaware that he intends eventually to give her the instrument in return for small but illicit sexual favors. Campion's Gothic romance is notable for its performances and Michael Nyman's score. The writer/director offers something more starkly, strangely beautiful than most costume dramas, and the whole film puts a fresh spin on the traditional love story. The characters are stubborn and inward-looking, and it's the refusal to sentimentalize that makes this harsh tale of obsession so moving. Campion never underestimates the power physical obsession exerts over human souls, and, for once, a modern film treats erotic passion honestly.

-- Pierrot le Fou (1965), d. Jean-Luc Godard, Fr/It
'Put a tiger in my tank' says Belmondo to an outraged Esso pump attendant...and the voyage begins. Pierrot le Fou was a turning-point in Godard's career, the film in which he tried to do everything (and almost succeeded). It's the tragic tale of a last romantic couple fleeing Paris for the South of France. But then again, it's a painting by Velazquez (says Godard), or the story of a bourgeois hubby eloping with the babysitter; a musical under the high-summer pine trees; or a gangster story (with Karina the moll and Belmondo the sucker). She was never more cautious about her love; he was never more drily self-aware; and the film agonizes for two hours over a relationship that is equal parts nonsense and despair. In desperation he finally kills her and himself while the camera sweeps out over a majestic Mediterranean sea. And a voice mockingly asks: 'Eternity? No, it's just the sun and the sea.'

(42) Bringing Up Baby (1938), d. Howard Hawks, US
One of the finest screwball comedies ever, with Grant - a dry, nervous, conventional palaeontologist - meeting up with madcap socialite Hepburn and undergoing the destruction of his career, marriage, sanity and sexual identity. The catalyst in the process is Baby, a leopard that causes chaos wherever he goes and finally awakens Grant to the attractions of irresponsible insanity. Fast, furious and very, very funny.

-- The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) (1959), d. Francois Truffaut, Fr
Truffaut's first feature, and although not his best, infinitely better than the self-indulgent, increasingly compromised work he was turning out towards the end of his career. Revealing a complicity with downtrodden, neglected and rebellious adolescence that is intensely moving but never mawkish, shot on location in Paris with a casually vivid eye that is almost documentary, it still has an amazing freshness in its (quasi-autobiographical) account of 13 year-old Antoine Doinel's bleak odyssey through family life, reform school, and an escape whose precarious permanence is questioned by the final frozen image of the boy's face as he reaches the sea - freedom or point of no return? Still one of the cinema's most perceptive forays into childhood, and fun for spotting the guest appearances of such Nouvelle Vague luminaries as Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jacques Demy and (in the funfair scene) Truffaut himself.

-- Gone With The Wind (1939), d. Victor Fleming, US
What more can one say about his much-loved, much-discussed blockbuster? It epitomizes Hollywood at its most ambitious (not so much in terms of art, but of middlebrow, respectable entertainment served up on a polished platter); it's inevitably racist, alarmingly sexist (Scarlett's submissive smile after marital rape), nostalgically reactionary (wistful for a vanished, supposedly more elegant and honorable past), and often supremely entertaining. It never really confronts the political or historical context of the Civil War, relegating it to a backdrop for the emotional upheavals of Leigh's conversion from bitchy Southern belle to loving wife. It's also the perfect example of Hollywood as an essentially collaborative artistic production center. Cukor, Sam Wood and Fleming directed from a script by numerous writers (including Scott Fitzgerald and Ben Hecht); William Cameron Menzies provided the art designs; there's a top-notch cast; and producer David O. Selznick oversaw the whole project obsessively from start to finish. Yet, although anonymous, it's still remarkable coherent.

-- The Lady Eve (1941), d. Preston Sturges, US
A beguilingly ribald sex comedy, spattered with characteristic Sturges slapstick (Fonda can hardly move without courting disaster) and speech patterns ('Let us be crooked, but never common,' urges Coburn's conman). Fonda and Stanwyck are superbly paired as the prissy professor and the brassy card-sharp who meet on a liner for a ferociously funny battle of the sexes in which she proves triumphantly that Eve and the serpent still have the drop on poor old Adam. The glittering screwball comedy of love's labors that ensues - denounced as a brazen gold-digger and cast off, Stanwyck vengefully seeks revenge by reconquering Fonda's heart while masquerading (inimitably) as a flower of English society - is not just funny but surprisingly moving, given the tender romantic warmth of the early shipboard scenes in which, with Stanwyck's veneer slowly melted by Fonda's vulnerability, the pair first fall irrevocably in love. Very nearly perfection, and quintessential Sturges.

-- Last Year in Marienbad (1961), d. Alain Resnais, Fr
Something of a key film in the development of concepts of cinematic modernism, simply because - with a script by nouveau roman iconoclast Alain Robbe-Grillet - it sets up a puzzle that is never resolved: a man meets a woman in a rambling hotel and believes he may have had an affair with her the previous year at Marienbad - or did he? Or was it somewhere else? Deliberately scrambling chronology to the point where past, present and future become meaningless, resnais creates a vaguely unsettling mood by means of stylish composition, long, smooth tracking shots along the hotel's deserted corridors, and strangely detached performances. Obscure, oneiric, it's either some sort of masterpiece or meaningless twaddle.

-- Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), d. Max Ophuls, US
Of all the cinema's fables of doomed love, none is more piercing than this. Fontaine nurses an undeclared childhood crush on her next-door neighbor, a concert pianist (Jourdan); much later, he adds her to his long list of conquests, makes her pregnant - and forgets all about her. Ophuls' endlessly elaborate camera movements, forever circling the characters or co-opting them into larger designs, expose the impasse with hallucinatory clarity: we see how these people see each other and why they are hopelessly, inextricably stuck.

(48) The Battle of Algiers (1965), d. Gillo Pontecorvo, It/Alg
The prototype for all the mainstream political cinema of the '70s, from Rosi to Costa-Gavras. It relegates the actual liberation of Algeria to an epilogue, and focuses instead on a specific phase of the Algerian guerrilla struggle against the French, the years between 1954 (when the FLN regrouped, recruited new members, and tackled the problem of organized crime in the Casbah) and 1957 (when French paratroopers under Colonel Mathieu launched a systematic - and largely successful - attack on the FLN from the roots up). Some fifteen minutes were cut from prints shown in both Britain and America, removing the more graphic sequences of French torture methods, but it seems clear that even these would not have altered the film's scrupulous balance. Pontecorvo refuses to caricature the French or glamorize the Algerians; instead he sketches the way a guerrilla movement is organized and the way a colonial force sets about decimating it. There's a minimum of verbal rhetoric: the urgent images and Ennio Morricone's thunderous score spell out the underlying political sympathies.

(49) The Gold Rush (1925), d. Charles Chaplin, US
The Little Tramp is here the Lone Prospector, poverty stricken, infatuated with Hale, and menaced by thugs and blizzards during the Klondike gold rush of 1898. Famous for various imaginative sequences - Charlie eating a Thanksgiving meal of an old boot and laces, Charlie imagined as a chicken by a starving and delirious Swain, a log-cabin teetering on the brink of an abyss - the film is nevertheless flawed by its mawkish sentimentality and by its star's endless winsome attempts to ingratiate himself into the sympathies of his audience. Mercifully, it lacks the pretentious moralizing of his later work, and is far more professionally put together. But for all its relative dramatic coherence, it's still hard to see how it was ever taken as a masterpiece.

-- La Grande Illusion (1937), d. Jean Renoir, Fr
Renoir films have a way of talking about one thing while being about another. La Grande Illusion was the only one of his '30s movies to be received with unqualified admiration at the time, lauded as a warmly humane indictment of war, a pacifist statement as nobly moving as All Quiet on the Western Front. Practically nobody noted the irony with which this archetypal prison camp escape story also outlined a barbed social analysis, demonstrating how shared aristocratic backgrounds (and military professionalism) forge a bond of sympathy between the German commandant (von Stroheim) and the senior French officer (Fresnay); how the exigencies of a wartime situation impel Fresnay to sacrifice himself (and Stroheim to shoot him) so that two of his men may make good their escape; and how these two escapees (Gabin and Dalio), once their roles as hero-warriors are over, will return home reduced to being working class and dirty Jew once more. The Grand Illusion, often cited as an enigmatic title, is surely not that peace can ever be permanent, but that liberty, equality and fraternity is ever likely to become a social reality rather than a token ideal.

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