Thursday, May 27, 2010

Best of the Decade - The Forties

We've all heard some things can be a blessing in disguise. My plans for the evening were pretty well set, but after someone canceled on me and later I got an email from Doc Films telling me that tonight's screening of Song of Sparrows was also canceled I figured let's make the most of a bad situation, and get cracking on the next decade. Nearly every decade seems monumental because a lot can happen in ten years. As far as the 20th Century is concerned the 40s are probably the defining decade, after all WWII was no small ordeal. I'm not going to get into world history because I'm horribly under qualified for that, however we can talk a bit about cinema.

The early part of the decade is very problematic for international cinema. Very few countries outright stopped making movies but the quality and quantity of those pictures dropped off in nearly every film producing country aside from the good old US. For this seemingly self explanatory reason the war years were a time of some rather fantastic Hollywood offerings and some rather forgettable or unseen foreign offerings. Simply ignoring the output of anything but domestic film from this period would be incredibly short sighted of me. Japan and Germany certainly weren't the only nations making flag waving propaganda during the war. Sure films like Jud Suss might seem appalling today, but there's nothing Nazi-esque about Veit Harlan's second best known film Opefergang, which was quite a prestige picture in glorious color. Fellow German Helmut Kautner made slightly less offensive films and at least in the case of Under the Bridges a quite respectable art film that recalls Vigo's L'Atalante at times. Still German film is problematic from this period because aside from foreigners even the Germans seem rather complacent to forget their generic offerings. So it's hard for anyone (at least in the US) to be any sort of expert on the subject, but perhaps we'll get a revival one of these years. It would be another two decades before a new wave of German films would begin to draw outside attention.

The other great Axis power, Japan didn't stop making films but again their output is problematic from this time. Most of their films were certainly patriotic and either blatantly (Kurosawa's The Most Beautiful) or paradoxically (Mizoguchi's 47 Ronin) all their films seemed to be about the undying Japanese will. I've never been a fan of the films from Japan I've seen from this period, although Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata is certainly a cut above. When US forces occupied Japan immediately after the war most of the wartime films were banned, and the industry was a bit erratic. Mizoguchi did make a few interesting films and Yasujiro Ozu returned to filmmaking and by decade's end produced one of his very finest with Late Spring.

It was the Italians though that made the largest splash of the decade with their Neo-Realism. This is a touchy subject for me in the simple regard that this movement is largely known more by reputation than the actual films. Sure everyone knows Open City, Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, etc but it seems a whole movement is being judged by the few films circulating. A recent retrospective of nearly every classic neo-realist film made it's way to New York but sadly I'm still waiting in Chicago for films like Outcry, To Live in Peace, The Tragic Hunt, Under the Sun of Rome, and In the Name of the Law to make their way here. Perhaps I'll cross my fingers and hope the good people at Eclipse will smile upon us, but I'll just have to rely on "reputation" to judge this movement. The available films though certainly can attest to a tremendous quality of Italian cinema in the immediate post war period. Even such war time films as Luchino Visconti's Ossessione and Vittorio De Sica's The Children are Watching Us show that the Italians could deliver. It was this wartime generation and the "big four" (Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, and Visctonti) that would help define Italian cinema for the next several decades.

If we've started to notice anything from the dawn of cinema, it's that France doesn't seem to go through too many extended period of mediocrity. During the occupation they managed to produce a few classics like Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir, Bresson's Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and Hernri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau. Their post war output though would be very exceptional, with Children of Paradise topping many critics list of the greatest of all French films. Like Italy the post war period would generate a whole new generation of French filmmakers who would move away from Carne's poetic realism and foreshadow the New Wave, directors like Bresson, Jacques Tati, Jacques Becker, Jean Pierre Melville, and others.

Britain seemed to recover quite well from the loss of Alfred Hitchcock who went to America and got off to a great start with the Selznick produced Rebecca. Britain would develop two new filmmakers who would help add prestige to their national cinema with Michael Powell (and his partner Emeric Pressburger) as well as editor-turned-director David Lean whose later conquering of Hollywood couldn't have been predicted by even his most ardent admirer back when he co-directed Major Barbara in 1941. British film also made Academy history when Laurence Olivier's Hamlet became the first foreign produced film to win a best picture Oscar.

So pardon my flag waving nationalism, but this is once again an American dominated list. However they had a near five year head start on every other country and well the US did produce what is in my opinion the greatest film ever made by anyone. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, read on and proceed to smack yourself in the head if you didn't guess it. Hollywood too was changing and in 1948 the Paramount decision was passed and Hollywood's legal monopoly was soon to be broken up, thus giving rise to the independents and spelling the destruction of the classic studio system. In case you were worried, Hollywood did seem to recover from it quite fine but the industry would be forever changed. Roughly half of this list was produced before that decision which says something for the extraordinary quality of those studio produced gems.

With each passing decade it seems to get harder and harder to limit my choices to just ten. I haven't resorted to cheating, there are still only ten films but keep in mind (yet again) that just because a film isn't on my list doesn't mean it doesn't deserve to be. Unlike the previous two lists I even did some last minute research (rewatched Laura, The Red Shoes, and Late Spring) before settling on my final list. At times I wish I could make a top 40 of the 40s, but well we said right from the start that this would be a top ten, and no sense deviating from that plan now. So feel free to complain (for the third time) but keep in mind that my future decade lists are bound to raise even more eyebrows. Without further ado:

10. White Heat (1949) US Raoul Walsh

It was not easy to leave off my favorite gangster films from the 30s list. Both William Wellman's Public Enemy and Howard Hawks' Scarface could have easily gone on, but sadly both missed the cut which may have made my 30s list a little comedy friendly, but well you can't blame me for preferring the Marx Brothers or Bringing Up Baby. Raoul Walsh who started his directing career in the 1910s seemed the perfect Hollywood tough guy filmmaker. He made "men's movies" and I'm not sure if White Heat is his manliest (What Price Glory and The Bowery certainly make strong cases for themselves), but for my money it is his finest hour as a director. Even though James Cagney hated it (and would subsequently avoid gangster roles in the future) I could easily rate this as his finest performance. It falls into that part noir quality of the post war films with that fascination with character psychology and Cagney is one of the most multi-faceted gangsters we've ever seen with a serious Oedipal conflict. As a gangster film it may not have the same bite as the pre-Code gems of Warner Bros. but it more than makes up for in depth and stands out to me as the finest in the genre. An absolute must for anyone who loves gangster movies or James Cagney, it doesn't get much better than this.

9. The Philadelphia Story (1940) US George Cukor

Screwball comedies might seem like a uniquely 30s phenomenon and truth be told there isn't much "screwy" about this film. However it is easily one of the funniest film Hollywood ever produced and features a trio of stars that would probably be on Hollywood's Mt. Rushmore (Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katherine Hepburn). Forget that this resurrected the career of Hepburn and helped her continue to rule Hollywood for another four decades. Forget that it brought Stewart his one and only Oscar. You can even forget that it reunited Grant and Hepburn for their greatest film yet. This simply is a great movie. It is the third time Cukor would work with Hepburn and Grant, and this definitely was the charm, as evident with the very first sequence which is probably the best silent breakup in movie history. The loveable exes is nothing new in Hollywood, Grant himself wound up making a bit of a name for himself in the subgenre with Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. However unlike that film this offers a rather remarkable other other with Stewart who is neither the front runner nor the suitor but still finds himself complicating matters. This trio is unlike any other in film and wouldn't be seen again until the film was remade with another trio of great stars who somehow just couldn't fill the monolithic shoes of their predecessors. It indeed is mighty "yargh".

8. Oliver Twist (1948) UK David Lean

Alfred who? David Lean was certainly on a roll in the 40s. After scoring a best picture nomination with In Which We Serve (co-directed with Noel Coward) he made Brief Encounter and Great Expectations (which also received Oscar nominations). Oliver Twist was his second Dickens' adaptation and for my money the best film he made from the 40s. I find it much better than Olivier's Hamlet but not without similarities. Like Olivier's film this is taken from a rather large source and trimmed generously. Like Hamlet, Oliver Twist has been filmed easily over a dozen times (including Carol Reed's appalling musical abortion of the story which inexplicably won a best picture Oscar in 1968) but perhaps both films had their best adaptation in '48. Shakespeare purists will probably forever deride Olivier's version, but I love it's expressionist touches. Speaking of expressionism, the opening storm sequence in Oliver Twist looks like the best moments of a German silent and recalls the use of deep focus compositions that made Citizen Kane so acclaimed. Lean was completely in his element and I'm sure Dickens' enthusiasts would complain about how much of the novel is missing from the film, but that's nothing new for adaptations of this period. What Lean has managed to do is make a purely cinematic story that doesn't ever feel like a novel adaptation, but a completely unique and original work of art, which certainly isn't easy for such a well known source.

7. The Bicycle Thief (1948) Italy Vittorio De Sica

Well it would seem daft if I completely ignored the contributions of Italy in the 40s. In the case of some of the "Neo-realist" films their very attributes can be their flaws. Bad sound recording, deteriorated film stock, etc but in the case of de Sica's masterpiece there is enough technical know how to bypass the gritty drawbacks. As a story it's depressing as all hell, but would you expect anything else? By the time De Sica made Umberto D in 1952 neo-realism seemed to be into self parody. It still seemed sincere and genuine here. There is no welfare or unemployment compensation. Simply an out of work father whose sold about everything he could who finally gets a job and in desperation has to search for his only means of living. It is the father-son dynamic that makes the film so compelling and universal. We might not know what it's like to look for work in post-war Italy, but we can sympathize with the feelings of helplessness when it comes to raising a family. Somehow it doesn't feel sad for the sake of wringing tears, but as a genuine record of a rather troublesome time and what people had to go through. There are no easy solutions and we only have to assume that life will in fact just have to go on, good or bad.

6. Children of Paradise (1945) France Marcel Carne

The fact that this epic was produced under the noses of occupying Nazis makes people sometimes overlook just how great a film it is. Described by some as the French Gone With the Wind it is the final triumph of the poetic realist school that first drew attention in the late 30s. Uncharacteristically epic for a mid-40s French film its sheer audacity would warrant mention in the annals of film history. Like Gone With the Wind it feels almost like two complete films and by the end of the first part you wonder just how that's going to be topped, but they certainly find a way. It's a film despite it's length needs to be seen as much as possible. For us English speakers the French dialogue flies so fast that it's very easy to miss something the first time around, but the more you see the better it gets. The grandeur of the story, the massive crowd shots, and the trio of people that make it all so compelling. The ultimate culmination of the Carne and Prevert team and one that would effectively signal the end of the classic style of French filmmaking. The industry was changing and it's hard to imagine anyone trying to make a film like this, and doing any better. Luckily it at least is available, and in glorious condition too which is making me think about perhaps revisiting it yet again, after all for a film that seems to get better with each viewing, why not go back to it, hard to think of a better way to spend three hours.

5. They Live By Night (1949) US Nicholas Ray

Of all the legendary cult directors to try their trade in Hollywood perhaps none were as talented and interesting as Nicholas Ray. Unfortunately it would be awhile before Ray would be able to live up to his promise (although the next year he would make In a Lonely Place). This film (which was later remade as Thieves Like Us by Robert Altman) is just your standard lovers on the run story to a point. The difference is that rather than the psychosis of the couple in Gun Crazy or Bonnie and Clyde, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) seem like genuine innocents who seem more like victims than perpetrators. It is this quality that makes them instantly more compelling and sympathetic than those other two couples. In particular it is O'Donnell who absolutely breaks your heart here, something she was surprisingly quite good at in films. It's worth noting that amidst all this idyllic compassion and doomed lovers are some trademark Ray flourishes including some of the earliest helicopter shots used in film that give this frantic getaway movie such a unique flair. Ray would expand greatly on these touches in subsequent films, but even from the earliest he seemed to be pushing things. Unfortunately the box office failure of the film pushed Ray away from independent productions for awhile and he became a bit of a hired gun for RKO pictures where he made flawed but interesting pictures for the next several years. As for me, I'll actually take this over Johnny Guitar or Rebel Without a Cause and this is the first place someone should go when they want to know what the cinema of Nicholas Ray is all about.

4. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) US William Wyler

Before Kane there was Wyler and Toland. Cinema's first great proponents of deep focus composition had nearly perfected the style by the beginning of the decade (look at The Letter or Little Foxes), but it was Welles who wound up getting most of the credit. The war temporarily broke up their happy marriage as Wyler went to serve following the release of the best picture winning Mrs. Miniver. This was their reunion and easily their finest collaboration. In addition to those great compositions that Wyler and Toland were known for the film featured three equally compelling stories about three very different veterans coming home. Frederic March won his second best actor Oscar for the film, one of seven the film took home as well as a special honorary Oscar for real life amputee Harold Russell. It's slightly ironic that March did win the Oscar considering both Dana Andrews and Russell give more impressive performances. The trio of women (Myrna Loy, Theresa Wright, and Cathy O'Donnell in her film debut) are equally impressive yet each failed to receive even a nomination. O'Donnell is the standout from this group who began her career under Wyler here and made her last screen appearance in Wyler's Ben-Hur 13 years later. Much of the films heart was lost on me when I first saw the film (I did like it) but catching it a few years later it really hit me just how incredible a picture it is and remains one of the smarter choices the Academy ever made for best picture. Ambitious and unflinching it unfortunately took some heat for what were considered "leftist" leanings in the 50s but all's well that ends well.

3. The Maltese Falcon (1941) US John Huston

There was something in the water with directorial debuts in the 40s. Screenwriter John Huston whose father was a well established leading man (who received a best actor nomination that year in The Devil and Daniel Webster) had served time as a screenwriter before becoming the third director to adapt Dashiell Hammett's best known pot boiler. In completely coincidental news the day I'm typing this is actually Hammett's birthday. Huston tried as best he could to stay faithful to the original material, which would probably explain why its vastly superior to the two previous adaptations. Humphrey Bogart who took over for George Raft firmly establishes himself as a preeminent movie star with his role as Sam Spade and it set up one of the better director-actor partnerships in film. The story is compulsively re-watchable and sets up many of the trademarks of future film noirs without so much low key lighting. If someone wants to ask me of a film that I could literally watch every day this would probably be it, not sure if I'll ever get tired of this. The cast is remarkable throughout with Mary Astor as a rare femme fatale (compared to the motherly roles she typically played at MGM), Peter Lorre as the eternally creepy and effeminate Joel Cairo, and Sydney Greenstreet with the ironic name of Gutman in his film debut. Huston also preferred some extended takes before they were en vogue and allows his actors to play out incredibly lengthy portions of the film without interruption. As good a detective film as there will probably ever be.

2. Casablanca (1942) US Michael Curtiz

Well if we can have a 1-2 punch with Cathy O'Donnell why not Humphrey Bogart? I can't imagine having to justify my ranking of this film to anyone. Absolutely required viewing by any cinephile and the film that holds some special place in my heart as the one that started it all. Perhaps another film would have triggered my near 12 year obsession with cinema but Casablanca was the one I watched that made me go out and check out every acclaimed classic I could find. The film that saved me from a lifetime of summer blockbusters and garbage horror remakes, one that opened the door to the finer things in life. I'm sure if my family would have known the monster that would be unleashed they would have done something, but well it is what it is. I can't even count how many times I've seen Casablanca since that summer in 1999 when I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Amazing to think how many people who still haven't seen the movie, I have no problem being the one to introduce it to them. Iconic in nearly every way without a shot or line of dialogue out of place. The ultimate Bogie, the finest work from workhorse director Michael Curtiz and perhaps the finest example of the classic Hollywood factory in action. You'd be hard pressed to find a better film anywhere . . .

1. Citizen Kane (1941) US Orson Welles

If you're surprised then slap yourself, hard! There's a reason why this has topped nearly every greatest film list made in the past 50 years, because simply put it IS the greatest film of all time. Seriously I challenge anyone to name me a better film. You may have one that you like more, but is it really "greater"? Orson Welles is the third director to have a debut feature in my top ten and it's sad to say that it would be all downhill for him (and to a lesser extent Huston and Ray), but well there's no shame in not being able to follow up the greatest cinematic achievement of all time. In fact not just Welles but no one has done any better than this. It would be like a new band trying to be better than The Beatles, just not going to happen. From its structure, cinematography, editing, score, wow there's no getting better. Anytime I even foolishly think that maybe All Quiet on the Western Front or The Godfather are better within 10 minutes I'm thoroughly reminded of just why Kane is simply the best there is. I'm lucky if I can hold out to the "News on the March" sequence before re-crowning this. Any serious cinephile who hasn't seen the film at least 5 times should get re-acquainted with this. Few people will instantly declare a film the greatest ever after one viewing, but the more you watch Kane the more you realize there's a reason why it's been so universally acclaimed almost to the point of overkill. In fact its tendency to be over analyzed may make you want to use the phrase overrated but again ten minutes into it should change your mind. So just so we're on the same page, none of my future top ten lists will feature a better film. Feel free to email me if you think there's a piece of cinema greater, go for it, just try.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Best of the Decade - The Thirties

My apologies for a rather unproductive April. I'd make excuses, but well life happens. Over the last few weeks I've spent most of my film viewing catching up on some of the better reviewed foreign films to be released in the US over the past couple of years. I'm still trying to refine and already overstuffed top ten of the past decade that will come after I plow through the next few decades, but alas another entry is upon us and another step closer to being contemporary (at long last). So we turn our sites from the glorious jazz age to the decade sadly associated with the Great Depression, yet ironically one of the most joyous ages for Hollywood cinema (which will be reflected in numerous elections).

Cinema probably evolved more in the thirties than any other decade. You can make a case for the first decade of cinema but well that was a time when cinema was still figuring out exactly what cinema was. The thirties saw a great number of changes some good and some bad. My list of the twenties best was incredibly international. Numerous film movements sprung up and for a brief period of time it seemed like a unified Europe could compete with Hollywood. That dream would largely fall through in the 30's at the hands of talking pictures and the inevitable language barriers that would present. Many other film movements of that decade lacked the notoriety and distribution of the previous decades all important first waves. Of all foreign countries France appeared to be the least affected (although plenty of evidence suggests a shaky French film industry for the early part of the thirties). However in the grand scheme of historical perspective France appeared to actually produce better films this decade and numerous filmmakers who first made their mark in the silent era honed their skills the next decade. Jean Renoir clearly stands out as France's most preeminent director of the decade and he can easily make a case as the most important director from any country in the thirties.

Unfortunately most other European countries began to fall a bit this decade. Germany began the decade with a bang but by the time National Socialism took over the film industry lost nearly all of its best filmmakers. Sure the work of Leni Riefenstahl is still a marvel to behold (propaganda aside) her work also falls into the category of being documentary so as previously stated elsewhere doesn't qualify for this particular list. Very few films from the Soviet Union made in the thirties made their way to the US and we're left with a few random selections that seem rather stale and tame compared to their experimental counterparts from a decade earlier. Japan was probably the last major film producing country to adopt talking pictures (1936) and sadly they didn't seem as dedicated to film preservation as other countries and a great many Japanese films of the period are only known by reputation. Of the handful I've seen none have managed to impress me enough to make this list (although Osaka Elegy got a long look). The one thriving Scandinavian film movement was nearly non-existent by the time the thirties began and Sweden wouldn't draw much international attention until Mr. Bergman started making movies a decade later.

So welcome to Hollywood. A hotbed for immigrants throughout most our history, it saw a huge influx of European talent come ashore partially to escape Nazi Germany, but also because Hollywood really liked to spend a lot of money. Fritz Lang made his eventual splash and the decade ended with David O'Selznick signing Britain's best known filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Selznick had a marvel of a decade eventually forming his own production company and becoming the model for producer-auteur-moguls of all generations. He helped produce numerous now legendary films including King Kong, A Star is Born, and arguably the most successful film of all time Gone With the Wind.

For many people 1934 was a huge turning point for film and in particular Hollywood, because this is when the infamous production code finally was enforced. A curious bit of "naughty" Hollywood that took us from roughly 1929-1934 was now over. Many of these films disappeared for a few decades and have become the stuff of legend today. The gangster film arrived with a bang (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface) before eventually being watered down and cleaned up. Universal began a remarkable string of monster movies with Frankenstein and Dracula and beat each and every monster franchise into the ground until they were laughable parodies of themselves (Horror of Dracula, The Mummy's Ghost), but those disasters were for the next decade. Both genres were around in the silent era and even saw a few shining examples however there was only one new genre that was not possible before sound. I'll refrain from building more suspense and let the cat out of the bag, it was the musical. A genre that saw a tremendous amount of near deaths and resurrections from nearly unwatchable Revue films of 1929-1932 to sophisticated stage musicals like 42nd Street and a quartet of Busby Berkeley choreographed masterworks (Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Dames). Numerous teams popped up (Astaire and Rorgers, MacDonald and Eddy) and through a few variations musicals became a serious motion picture force.

So enough of an overview let's get to the list:

10. 42nd Street (1933) - US Lloyd Bacon

Did someone just say something about musicals? It's hard to think that by 1933 musicals seemed like they might be on the way out. Now I'm not sure how much of this is fabricated by an over simplification of film history. Sure anyone whose ever had the "pleasure" of sitting through MGM's snorefest Hollywood Revue of 1929, and it's countess spawns was probably popping a bottle of champagne when the revue film rode off into the sunset. So going back to the musical's first subgenre (the backstage musical) Warner Bros. made 42nd Street, the first of four films choreographed by Busby Berkeley and starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Now I think everyone has their own favorite of the bunch but I'm not sure any of it's spawns would have happened if this hadn't been such a huge success. The plot is as predictable as a backstage musical can be. We see a play go from casting to opening night. Along the way we get a few production numbers that couldn't possibly ever be performed on a real Broadway stage, but therein lies the magic of movies and Berkeley. What separates this film to me is some excellent songs that stick in your head much longer than you'd like I'm sure and an incredibly witty script that redeems a tacky premise with so much great dialogue and jokes that it's plot seems like an ironic joke today.

9. Bringing Up Baby (1938) US Howard Hawks

I may have left out the screwball comedy in my introduction. The next step in the evolution of screen comedy following the end of the era of silent daredevils. Sure Harold Lloyd continued making some very good films (with all his death defying in tact) but they seem to suffer from all the faults associated with the technical difficulties early sound films had. The new comedy was either stage performers with in tact personas doing their thing (W. C. Fields, Mae West, The Marx Brothers) or of the screwball variety. Sure I'm oversimplifying film history yet again, but there really isn't enough space to discuss all the many faces of comedy in the thirties here. Howard Hawks was one of the first to get on this new style, and for some his Twentieth Century is the first true screwball comedy. However a few years later he would team up Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant (who previously worked together in Sylvia Scarlett and the same year appeared in Holiday). This dynamic duo surprisingly seemed to be a nasty combination together at the time and Bringing Up Baby was a disaster upon release. This only adds to the cult appeal of it which decades later remains one of the decades funniest films with a plot so ludicrous and laughs so effortless it seems like a near perfect film. Despite her four Oscar wins, I'm not terribly convinced Hepburn was ever better than as Susan here. Hawks seemed born for screwball comedy and his fast paced dialogue heavy style makes this stand out as the prototypical screwball film.

8. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) US James Whale

Not going to lie, I think I've seen this about 20 times more than any other film on this list. James Whale's best film is the high water mark in the monster movie universe and the perfect blend of atmospheric horror and the delightful camp typically associated with later and lesser monster movies. Whale seemed determined not to take this too seriously but without cheapening out on then shocking moments. The monster became a human and for the first time we had a sequel to a horror movie where the monster clearly appears to have been killed after the first film. Perhaps every horror movie sequel owes this film a debt of thanks, and for that reason maybe we shouldn't be praising it, but let's face it Hollywood would have found another monster to bring back before too long. For that reason Whale's film might be the only good horror movie sequel the genre's ever known (certainly the best at any rate). Whale even seemed to have his own stand in with Dr. Praetorius (Ernest Thesiger) who is delightfully over the top and supremely blasphemous. Sadly almost the entire monster movie franchise would start to suffer after Bride. Since it didn't make as much money as its predecessor Universal stopped putting good money into what they saw as cheap kiddie films. In it's place were a ton of follow ups most of which lacked any purpose for existing. It wasn't until 1943 when Universal staged a Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera did they actually take their monster movies seriously (and after that the cycle got even worse). However this is truly a perfect gem of a movie and one that I could watch any day and probably find myself reciting countless lines of dialogue from.

7. M (1931) Germany Fritz Lang

Wow, that was all I could say after I first saw this film. Fritz Lang seemed to get more and more pretentious with every silent film he made. Routinely going over two or even three hours. Sets were extravagant subplots were incredibly complex and with every release he seemed hopelessly determined to top himself (a task which got even harder after Metropolis). So it would seem shocking that Lang could put together such a simple and effective film about a child murderer and the dual pursuit for his eventual capture. The film seems to fit right at home with his film noir crime films he made Hollywood, but certainly a shock coming after the epics he produced prior. The film is loaded with metaphors (police and criminals intercut side by side with similar methods) and was one of the first to effectively use sound as more than a means to hear people talking. Overlapping calls for a daughter with an empty stairwell and a lost balloon, as well as Lorre's whistling Peer Gynt. Funny to think Peter Lorre was best known as a comedic actor before this film. Like Lang he would come to America where despite getting steady work he would never really have a chance to shine quite like he did here, although many cultists frequently site his first American film Mad Love/Hands of Orlac (which was constantly referenced in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano) as one of his best performances. Still any and every film about criminals or serial killers should take a long look at this film which still packs a punch and remains my favorite Fritz Lang film.

6. Duck Soup (1933) US Leo McCarey

Well if all this talking about a child murderer has put you in a sour mood this ought to help. The Marx Brothers ultimate film (even more than A Night at the Opera) is pure anarchy and one of the most compulsively watchable and hilarious films ever made. One of the reasons you may need to watch this over and over is because sometimes the jokes fly too fast to even catch. You wind up laughing too hard at one remark and miss the next. Like all the Marx Brothers' films you can technically call this a musical comedy, but the songs are little more than a chance for you to catch your breath before anarchy takes over again. Duck Soup is the only Marx film that doesn't feature an extended harp solo from Harpo or one of Chico's piano segments. For many that's why the film is their best (great musicians they were these moments typically did slow their films to a crawl). Here we just have a few songs about Freedonia and it's back to a silly war and Harpo's epic battle with a street vendor. The ill advised military conflict could be seen as a satire on Europe's growing militarization and seems to ring very true for those who never supported our involvement in the Middle East, but politics aside it's just as funny a film as you will find. The end of an era for the Marx's and Paramount, the studio that first brought them from Broadway. After the financial failure of the film Zeppo left and the three remaining brothers went to MGM were they were paired with a couple of lame young lovers and their films would continuously get more and more unwatchable, this however is them at their peak and the first recommendation I would give for anyone wanting to check out the Marx Brothers for the first time.

5. The Grand Illusion (1937) France Jean Renoir

I've never been really sure what the hell "Poetic Realism" really means. I can however tell you that France was on an absolute roll in the 30's. Jean Renoir made a few worthwhile films in the 20's (Charleston is brilliant), but it seems as soon as he got some sound he hit a stride. Unfortunately some of his earlier films exist in awful condition but with La Chienne (which was later remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street) Renoir made his first certifiable masterpiece. He followed with Boudu Saved From Drowning which seemed to epitomize the idea that we are all human's none of us terribly good but none of us are all bad. Throughout the decade he seemed to be on cruise control making one classic after another. Grand Illusion however was a step above even his best work. About the same time Abel Gance remade his own J'Accuse for the sound era (which just barely missed this list) Lang made his own World War I film which says more about the human condition than nearly any other war film. It is such a typical Renoir film in its characters, its humor, an ever roaming camera, but it has such a universal appeal while somehow being grand yet simultaneously simple. Every time I see the film I marvel at another aspect of it (last time I finally realized how hilarious the film is at times). Renoir's film was so incredible that it became the first foreign language film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar (previous Academy rules prohibited nominating foreign product). Perhaps the fact that it would be several decades until the next nomination says even more about how unique this film was. Sure every Sight and Sound poll is going to point out Rules of the Game as his ultimate film, but I've seen that three or four times and although great it never really came close to beating this film in my mind. Lang's greatest and a film so fresh it seems to be something new every time I watch it.

4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) US Frank Capra

If France belonged to Jean Renoir than Hollywood was Frank Capra's town in the 30's. From lowly director at a poverty row studio (Ladies of Leisure, Dirigible) to the toast of the town and three time Oscar winner for the same studio now a major player he truly seemed to live the American dream in the toughest decade in US history. Perhaps that's why his films showed such a resounding optimism. They were their own brand of cheese, which is both mockingly and affectionately referred to as "Capra-corn". I'll admit I was a little on the "man that's cheesy" side of things but with each film of his I saw I suddenly discovered a filmmaker that just seemed to get better and better. It Happened One Night may be the film that skyrocketed his career to the A-list, but despite being a near perfect screwball comedy (and nearly making this list) it doesn't really embody the Capra style in quite the same way his next Oscar winner (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) does. Sadly Capra was rolling around in his grave when Gary Cooper's beloved yokel turned millionaire was being remade as an Adam Sandler film (I'm shuddering as I type this just thinking about the travesty that was). However that displayed that wide optimism and the belief (which Renoir often shared) that people would eventually do right if given the opportunity. You Can't Take It With You was even better and wound up beating Renoir's Grand Illusion for best picture. However Capra's best film might very well be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I watched it again fairly recently expecting it to be a corny piece of mush that wouldn't hold up well to a closer inspection. What I found was a film that seemed even better than the last time (and I loved it the last time). I saw myself rooting for Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) all over again and falling in love with Clarissa Sanders (Jean Arthur). It's a fairy tale worth believing in that our politicians might deep down still be good people, especially in Illinois but far fetched or not this is still a perfect film in nearly every regard for me.

3. Gone With the Wind (1939) US Victor Fleming

Well it's very tempting to name a film as perfect as Mr. Smith as the best of 1939, but this is 1939 we're talking about. A year that for many remains Hollywood's all time best. Not hard to make a case for it with The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, The Roaring Twenties, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a whole lot of others. Selznick's monumental production has got to be the best though. I can make a fair case for this being the best film of the decade, hell I know a few people who would argue this is the best film of all time. I can honestly say no film clocking in at over 220 minutes ever moved so fast. It's incredibly epic yet it seems to just fly by before you know it. The cast seemed to have descended from Mt. Olympus to play roles that they were destined for. The mere search for Scarlet was enough to monopolize Hollywood gossip for nearly two years before the film was finally cast. Vivian Leigh made a legendary debut in Hollywood with what can easily be called the best role any actress will ever have. Clark Gable was one for the ages and Hattie McDaniel made Oscar history (as did the rest of the film with a record breaking ten Academy Awards). The film still never ceases to amaze first time viewers who finally get a glimpse of what perfection looks like. Not until James Cameron did any filmmaker obsess so much over an epic. Selznick's perfection paid off but it was his never ending drive to top this success that would eventually lead to his downfall. However this is Hollywood at it's peak and still one of the richest uses of three strip Technicolor.

2. City Lights (1931) US Charlie Chaplin

Well this film obviously sticks out on this list. In case you haven't been keeping score this is the only silent film on the list. Hollywood converted, but Chaplin thought talking pictures were a passing fad (why in God's name he thought this is a mystery that will probably never be answered) however he released this film without useless dialogue. He incorporated some sound affects into Modern Times but kept his characters from speaking. City Lights is without a doubt in my mind Chaplin's greatest film and based on it's placement on this list one for the ages. A remarkable romantic film that is both hilarious at times but incredibly moving. Chaplin could romanticize the lower classes but here you almost weep for his selflessness. Virginia Cherrill may have never appeared in another film for all I know (she did periodically before marrying Cary Grant in 1932), but she'll remain one of Chaplin's finest discoveries. Her blind girl is so sweet it makes you wonder if you wouldn't give your own eyes for her. Even the suicidal millionaire is compelling and much more tolerable when drunk, however it is the ease at which he merges these two story lines that make the film culminate in such a satisfying conclusion. It's amazing to think I actually didn't care much for the film the first time I saw it, on a second viewing I wondered what the hell was wrong with my own eyes, this is the best Chaplin would get. Although it might not be his funniest film (I probably laughed the hardest watching The Circus) it is the best example of his physical comedy, social satire, and heart wrenching pathos and a film for the ages.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) US Lewis Milestone

Sorry if this list seems a little too Hollywood happy (I did warn you), but anyone whose ever heard me talk about films for more than a minute has probably heard me mention All Quiet on the Western Front. I have often wondered whether or not this might be the greatest film of all time. This absolutely destroyed me the first time I saw it. I literally couldn't speak for an hour after the film ended, I was just in a daze. I couldn't believe how incredible the film was, I was even scared to watch it again. Not only was I a little afraid it wouldn't be as good, but I was also worried I wouldn't be able to take the incredibly grim story over again. World War I was no picnic by any stretch, but despite numerous attempts at making "anti-war" films this is possibly the only film I've ever seen that truly feels "anti-war". Most wind up saying killing is stupid but a whole lot of fun. This film isn't fun, a laugh here or there in training turns into heartache and deplorable conditions at every turn in war. The film is also benefited from the time of it's release. Being before the production code director Lewis Milestone could get away with a lot more violence than would be allowed just a few years later (try finding a severed limb in a film from 1936). In 1930 non-diegetic music was very uncommon. Go back a bit, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Virginian, The Front Page, none of these films have scores. Countless other films from the period have the same style, which is one reason why the ending of William Wellman's The Public Enemy is so effective. However no ending in the history of cinema is as poetic and poignant as the conclusion to All Quiet on the Western Front. From a technical standpoint Lewis Milestone helped liberate the camera and took it out doors. We got field shots, a camera that never ceased to track, pan zoom, and crane all over the place, so much for the reputation of early talkies and their static camera positions. It's still probably the best film to ever win a best picture Academy Award and well there is no excuse why anyone could have not seen this film by now. Simply put movies don't get better than this.