|Singin' in the Rain
|Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
|Once upon a Time in America
|Some Like It Hot
|Cries and Whispers
Singin' in the Rain
Still the best example of a musical pastiching a musical, while advancing the musical in regard to story, comedy, historical context, and high quality, memorable routines. And a moral and ethical stance too - dignity, always, dignity…
Once upon a Time in America
Perhaps De Niro's greatest performance and in despite of the iconic endurance of his spaghetti westerns, Leone's finest achievement as a film-maker, offering a take on time and memory as powerful as any by Tarkovsky, and a rumination on masculinity as incisive as Hawks or Anderson. When critics use the term 'operatic' or 'epic' it seems often inappropriate, but both can be applied here without reservation.
Some Like It Hot
Still one of the sharpest and funniest of Hollywood comedies, with playful and ironic performances by Lemmon, Curtis and Monroe, and some of the wittiest observations about gender and sexuality, some of which remain highly pertinent in the contemporary era.
Any of 'The Seven Samurai', 'Rashomon', 'Throne of Blood', 'Ikuru' or 'The Bad Sleep Well', might have featured here, but 'Ran' remains outstanding not merely for its set piece battle sequences, its central 'Macbeth'-styled relationship, and highly inventive adaptation of Shakespeare's 'King Lear', but for its philosophic rumination on the folly and fate of humankind. 'Chaos' still remains the most pertinent term for worlds - then and now - gone mad.
Though it might be more pertinent in a poll of this kind to choose one of the great Hayao MIyazaki films like 'Spirited Away', Satoshi Kon's oeuvre, including the extraordinary 'Paprika', in my view, works with the creative freedoms of animation itself to more persuasive effect. Kon re-invents representations of reality, conflating perceived and material worlds, dream and nightmare, and conscious and sub-conscious experience. As such, he plunders the surfaces of animated artifice and illusion to create commentaries on personal identity and social purpose in complex and revealing ways.
Pixar might legitimately have several contenders to appear in a Top Ten poll, including 'Toy Story', still one of the best cinematic engagements with the emotion of 'jealousy'; 'Up', a brilliant confection on finding late-life meaning and purpose; or boldest of all, 'Coco', with its fundamental warning that unless someone remembers you, you cease to exit. Pete Docter's 'Inside Out', though, is not merely Pixar's greatest film, but the 'Citizen Kane' of animation itself, managing to combine conventional narrative with metaphoric and symbolic story-telling in equal measure, while depicting a child's descent into breakdown. Only in the acceptance of the mutuality of joy and sadness in any one experience, or memory, or bond, can life be lived in a truly honest and fulfilling way - a powerful message in a film that exploits the figurative and abstract freedoms of the animated form in highly inventive ways.
I watch all of Michael Haneke's films, 'on edge' - he has the capacity to provoke, surprise and challenge, making the viewer survey and interrogate the self-conscious construction of his cinema, with its implied critique of the viewer's own culpability, consensus, complacency and conformity in accepting film images - of any kind - that are placed before them. 'Hidden' is the best example of this, with some genuinely shocking imagery, but in its provocation to watch more closely and critically.
Cries and Whispers
Arguably, one of the most miserable films of all time, 'Cries and Whispers' is nevertheless an extraordinary engagement with the more complex emotions of suffering, self-loathing, grief, compassion, and resilience, with a range of affecting performances by Bergman regulars, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullman. On another day, the choice from Bergman's oeuvre might have been 'Wild Strawberries', 'The Seventh Seal', 'Fanny and Alexander', 'Persona' or 'Smiles of a Summer Night', but 'Cries and Whispers' represents Bergman at his most empathetic, intense and insightful in drawing out the despair and desperation of humankind, yet also its willingness to endure and love.
Zelig is Woody Allen's most accomplished film in combining his love for cinema (here pastiching documentary and bio-pictures); his interests in social milieu and historical period; his comic take on the nebbish, intellectual perspectives, and identity; and his enduring belief in the power and affect of love. Allen - now perhaps permanently out of fashion because of his reported personal life and the seeming decline and repetitiveness of his later work - is here at the top of his ability as a screenwriter, director and actor, but also as someone who successfully and consistently made American art cinema for mainstream audiences.
No Top Ten poll should be without a Hitchcock film, and though I might have other 'favourites', 'Vertigo' remains his best because it remains his most troubling as a tale of sexual obsession and compulsion, that seems to become more challenging as social attitudes about gender politics and identity continually change. As usual, Hitchcock uses the language of film inventively, and is deliberately provocative in his themes and their expression. James Stewart seems so brilliantly 'miscast' in the role yet so pertinent in embodying the masculine angst, stress, self-doubt, and proud urgency of so many of his performances from 'It's a Wonderful Life' to 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence'.
I gave myself the criteria of only one film per director, and the choice of a film that I would count as both a personal favourite and a film that any film critic might reasonably value and see as at least competitive to be on such a list. As a writer about, and of, animated films, I also wanted to properly recognise the form in the list, so chose two which would stand up against my best choices of art cinema and accomplishments from Hollywood.