Ace in the Hole, Being John Malkovich, Billy Wilder, Brian De Palma, David Lean, Goodfellas, Jane Campion, John Huston, Lawrence Of Arabia, Martin Scorsese, Michael Caton-Jones, Rob Roy, Robert Altman, Short Cuts, Spike Jonze, The Piano, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Untouchables, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen
As happened with my music lists, since publishing my Top 10 movies I’ve been haunted with second thoughts. Rather than substituting items and endlessly tinkering as I did with music (until I’d rewritten the majority of the list), I’m simply going to publish another list.
Two further points about these film lists: firstly, I am aware that real film boffs might well Roger Moore an eyebrow at the likes of Rob Roy and The Untouchables below, while classics such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Jackie Brown (1997) are unlisted. The reason for this is that I simply really enjoyed these two movies (I’ve seen them both several times) but also I include them for being such perfect templates of Hollywood movies, as it seems to me — rather like perfect pop songs, ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ or ‘Dancing Queen’, say, you just have to admire the perfection and simplicity of such creations. Moreover, I think it really means something that hundreds of millions people have seen your movie and have come away from the event feeling they’ve been involved a really good story. (And in any event I have already listed works by Billy Wilder and Quentin Tarantino.)
The second point I wanted to make about this list has to do with its organisation: this time, instead of listing the films chronologically according to their release dates (as I did with the previous one), I’ve listed them chronologically according to the periods in which the narratives are set, so 1700s, then 1800s, and then 1900s, and, correspondingly, 1920s, then 1940s, then 1960s and so on.
1. Rob Roy (1995, dir. Michael Caton-Jones; screenplay Alan Sharp, based on the Walter Scott novel).
In the Scottish Highlands in the 1700s Rob Roy McGregor (Liam Neeson) tries to steer his highland tribe through the post-Union world with its commercial realities and political uncertainties (the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united in 1707 following the financial collapse of Scotland). Rob borrows money from a money-lending aristocrat (John Hurt) with which he plans to buy cattle and fatten them on McGregor land for resale. However, the money is stolen before it gets to Rob (stolen by associates of the people that loaned it) and because of this Rob finds himself on the hook for the money and, eventually, on wrong side of the law (but of course the authorities are the real crooks). Also starring Brian Cox, Jessica Lange, and Tim Roth (with Roth giving one of the best bad guy performances of all time).
2. The Piano (1993, dir. Jane Campion; screenplay Jane Campion)
Sent from Britain in an arranged marriage type scenario, a mute woman, Ada (Holly Hunter), and her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), are left with all their belongings, including her prized piano, on a New Zealand shoreline. The man who becomes her husband (Sam Neill) is a good man (if a little dull) but life as a first generation settler in New Zealand has no place for a sodding grand piano! However, the piano is how Ada expresses herself and without it she wilts. George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is like a Maori mulatto or a Brit ‘gone native’ or something along such lines, manages to get the piano off the seashore and back to his place (Ada’s husband sold it to George who is a neighbour — a woman, of course, having little or no property rights in such a world — he traded it for a load of timber). Ada then begins to give George elementary piano lessons (just so she can come and play her own piano) and just as dawn follows night one thing leads to another which creates tense, life-altering conflicts for all concerned. Powerful, moving, a work of art (with what I think the best sex scenes in any film — which, by the by, are not at all graphic, on the contrary, their impact comes from restraint and splendid story-telling construction and really wonderful performances).
3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, dir. David Lean; screenplay Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, based on the writings of T.E. Lawrence)
All-star cast including Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Quayle, in a classic epic narrative which tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, the maverick British officer who successfully untied and led the diverse and sometimes warring tribes of the Arabian world in the fight against the Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire) during the First World War. (Actually, the movie made stars of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif who were totally unknown before this — the movie was a huge success, taking 7 academy awards altogether, including best film, best director, best cinematography and best editing.)
4. The Untouchables (1987, dir. Brian De Palma; screenplay David Mamet).
Legendary crime boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) rules Chicago. A large part of the Capone empire has to do with bootleg alcohol (which in the era of Prohibition is virtually a licence to print greenbacks). Prohibition agent Eliot Ness’s (Kevin Costner) best efforts to take Capone down fall short, mostly due to widespread corruption within the city’s police and local government agencies but also because of a certain lack of ruthlessness on his part (i.e. he does things four square too much). Recruiting an elite group of lawmen who will not be swayed by bribes or fear, including Irish-American cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) and Italian-American Giuseppe Petri/George Stone (Andy Garcia), Ness renews his determination to bring Capone to book. The film is a perfect exemplar of the ‘Somebody wants something and has trouble getting it’ storytelling template.
5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston; screenplay by John Huston, based on a novel by B. Traven)
A pair of American ne’er-do-wells (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) with a get-rich-quick scheme in Mexico: they convince an old prospector (Walter Huston) to take them up into the Sierra Madre range in search of undiscovered seams of gold (because gold was mined up there a long time before). They do find gold, eventually, but they also find that their real problem in life is not lack of good fortune or of good prospects but rather their own characters (which is to say, their inability to manage good fortune).
6. Ace in the Hole (1951, dir. Billy Wilder; screenplay Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman).
Unscrupulous newspaper man Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) goes way beyond the pale to max up a story about a man trapped in a mine in New Mexico. Tatum has worked his way half way across the country going from from job to job (and territory to territory), most of the time in a downward trajectory, but with this story (which he manipulates to create a media sensation) he sees an opportunity to put him right back on top again. But the circus metastasises into a horror show (when the gods wish to destroy you they first give you everything you desire).
7. Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese; screenplay Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, based on the book (Wiseguy) by Nicholas Pileggi).
A young man grows up in the New York and New Jersey mob world and works hard to advance himself through the ranks of the crime system. He enjoys his life of money and luxury, but is oblivious to the horror of it all. However, drug addiction and resultant carelessness ultimately unravel his life’s work. The ultimate mobster movie, really, for it captures the shabbiness and pettiness and paranoia of this world while also clearly understanding why it would have such powerful allure. Great performances from Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta and from an altogether wonderful cast.
8. Short Cuts (1993, dir. Robert Altman; screenplay Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on the writings [sketches & stories] of Raymond Carver)
A day in the life 22 people in LA (a day in which the earth trembles in the late afternoon). Also these storylines interact with one another (loosely). All-star cast: Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Mathew Modine, Robert Downey Jr., Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormond, Andie MacDowell… A really wonderful weave of storytelling, film-making, and ensemble acting. In my view, a contender for the ultimate portrait (film representation) of what it was like living in the last decades of the 20th century.
9. Being John Malkovich (1999, dir. Spike Jonze; screenplay Charlie Kaufman)
In this quirky cult-favorite comedy, unemployed New York City puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) reluctantly takes a temp job as a filing clerk for the eccentric Dr Lester (Orson Bean). While at work, Craig discovers a portal that leads into the mind of renowned actor John Malkovich. When he lets his attractive co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) in on the secret, they begin both an unusual business scheme and an odd relationship that involves Craig’s restless wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz). The first time I saw this movie I did not know anything about it (and had not heard anything of it) and I remember thinking ‘wtf is going on here?’, but in a nice way, it was a really wonderful, super-funny trip (just my kind of comedy).
10. Vicky, Christina, Barcelona (2008, dir. Woody Allen; screenplay by Woody Allen)
Two Americans, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), arrive for a stay at a friend’s place in Barcelona. Visiting an art gallery, they meet seductive painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them to make a visit to his part of the country. Sparks really ignite when his fiery former lover (Penélope Cruz) arrives on the scene. Sexy, funny, classy, beautifully scripted, wonderfully filmed, and great performances throughout.