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You Must Remember These

Metroland’s critics pick 10 films that have stayed with them over the years

By Laura Leon, Ann Morrow, John Rodat and Shawn Stone

 

Laura Leon

Most of the movies that truly matter to me are those of a bygone era, something that will be apparent when looking at my list. This is due, in part, to the fact that from my earliest memories, I watched one old movie a day, courtesy of the three New York City channels that my hometown of Great Barrington, Mass., got in the late 1960s and early ’70s; this enabled me to catch the likes of Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and the like in all their glory. Newer movies on my list are primarily those that I saw on my own, on Saturday afternoons at the Mahaiwe Theater or, with my family at the drive-in. The unifying factor probably is that almost all of these were movies that were shared with people I loved the most. One note: I did not include any films by my favorite director, John Ford, because I just couldn’t narrow it down to one; I couldn’t choose between They Were Expendable and The Searchers. Nevertheless, both of these haunt and comfort me to this day. So, in order of issue:

The Unknown (1927)

Freaky, creepy and highly entertaining movie about a criminal (Lon Chaney) on the run from the law who hides out in a circus show, pretending that he has no arms. He falls for a very young Joan Crawford, who likes the safety she feels with a guy who isn’t always pawing her.

One Way Passage (1932)

This is what is known as a three-hankie picture. Fugitive William Powell romances dying (and spectacularly dressed) Kay Francis aboard ship. It’s absolutely lovely.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

I’ve spent years perusing the TV listings in hopes of having the chance to see this lovely, moving picture again. A shockingly frank look at how younger generations treat old parents, here played beautifully by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. It’ll leave you one weepy, guilt-ridden mess.

Mannequin (1937)

Like Baby Face, a movie that, at least initially, isn’t afraid to put a spotlight on the grim realities faced by poor, working woman. Granted, Mannequin catapults lead Joan Crawford from the tenements to high fashion, but its earliest scenes, depicting squalid living and working conditions, defeated women, and a shabby wedding lunch, speak volumes about the need for escape, and how we haven’t really come that far after all.

War hangover: Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I’d watch this postwar drama with my father every time it was on TV; he was a World War II vet who came home to a world entirely unlike anything he could have imagined, or would have wanted. Scenes such as the one in which Fredric March tries to reconnect with his family, or when Dana Andrews remembers combat from the cockpit of a retired fighter plane, are just a memorable as those in which an elderly father tenderly cares for his crippled vet son.

Force of Evil (1948)

Another one of those gems for which I search, usually in vain, in the TV listings. I love this film noir not so much for its cult status, but for its rich, textured dialogue and photography, and, of course, for the troubled visage of star John Garfield.

Caged (1950)

Eleanor Parker plays a young woman sent to prison for a first-time offense. While there, she is thoroughly victimized—she must give up her newborn, she gets her head shaved, and even her kitten gets killed. The vaguely lesbian overtones exhibited by prison matron Hope Emerson add a weird sexual vibe to the whole thing. As a child, I was titillated. As an adult, I still am.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Call me shocked to see perennial good guy Henry Fonda as a cruel and manipulative gunslinger. Director Sergio Leone’s shrewd use of Fonda’s famous baby blues is as provocative as the sight of Claudia Cardinale, bare shoulders exposed, delivering water to hundreds of railroad workers.

Death Wish (1974)

A surprise, perhaps, but I saw this at a time when my family was being torn apart by various internal and external forces, and my view of the world was increasingly dark and troubled. It’s not so much the vigilantism of Death Wish that’s stayed with me, but the evocative sense of a decaying city and increasingly soulless civilization.

Days of Heaven (1978)

A beautifully filmed love triangle in which Brooke Adams has to choose between Richard Gere and an equally yummy Sam Shepard, set at the turn of the century amid the wheat-filled plains of this country. It’s a movie that I cannot bear to see on television, for fear that its majesty will be lost, but I’ve replayed it in my mind for nearly three decades.

 

John Rodat

Barton Fink (1991)

This magnificent skewering of the artistic ego is not only visually sumptuous but also bleakly, hysterically funny—like an artistic collaboration between Sartre and Terry Southern.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Another movie about a writer in peril, though more bodily than existentially. Billy Wilder directs like he’s working from a textbook, but his effect is bang on; and William Holden’s voice alone makes him one of film’s great antiheroes.

The Cruise (1998)

A documentary about Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a half-cracked aesthete/philosopher/performance artist/Manhattan bus-tour guide. He’s both Oscar Wilde and Woody Allen, and an absolute inspiration. Or a dire warning—tough to tell.

American Movie (1999)

Passion trumps talent in Chris Smith’s documentary about low-budget horror-film maker Mark Borchardt. If ever there were an illustration of the journey being more important than the destination, this guy is it.

Danes setting limits: The Five Obstructions.

The 5 Obstructions (2003)

In this documentary, Lars Von Trier challenges his former mentor, Jorgen Leth, to remake one of Leth’s early short films, but with conditions—the titular obstructions—designed to frustrate. The idea is that limitations are integral to art. It’s an argument worth having; and, at any rate, it’s great fun to watch Von Trier torture the older filmmaker.

Kicking & Screaming (1995)

I first caught a fragment of Noah Baumbach’s directorial debut at some obscene hour on cable TV. Over the course of the month or so that it was playing on that channel, I assembled it in collage, never able to get it from beginning to end in one sitting. The fact that there’s a Will Farrell movie of the same name made it tough to find in local video places. I became slightly obsessed. I think the movie itself is only slightly better than average, but, man, have I spent a lot of time with it.

Naked (1993)

Mike Leigh’s Naked is one of the most divisive movies I’ve ever had conversations about. David Thewlis evokes an absolutely loathsome character—a relentlessly exploitive man who seems bent on a self-fulfilling prophecy of the pointlessness of existence—who is, nevertheless, completely compelling. Unless you disagree, in which case he and the movie are merely repellent.

Troubled in Paradise (1932)

Shawn Stone hipped me to this comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I still owe him for pointing out this delightfully amoral crime caper/romantic comedy.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Dumb and/or grandly self-deluded people struggling heroically. Gets me every time. Plus, a totally bonkers, kitschy, tripped-out party scene. Maybe the last movie Dustin Hoffman should have been allowed to make.

City of Lost Children (1995)

Beautiful, and dreamlike in the best sense of the word. It’s weird and dark and only loosely logical. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunot cast faces like individual artworks.

 

 

Ann Morrow

Alien (1979)

Simply put, Alien is on the list because it’s frightening. The sci-fi plot—astronauts are picked off one-by-one by a slowly revealed monster—is elevated by the imaginatively creepy production, especially the bizarrely machinelike yet disgustingly animalistic monster (based on H.R. Giger drawings), and its suspenseful pacing. Alien is also memorable for its believable, fully dimensional woman hero (Sigourney Weaver).

Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s multi-Oscar winner is another movie that I’ve watched several times with new appreciation. That’s because I’m a history buff, and also because of the authentic and evocative cinematography, and especially because of the love story, and finally because of how it shows the tragic, bloody consequences of war, whether for conquest or for freedom.

Broken Lizard’s Club Dread (2004)

This farcical lampoon of teen slasher flicks cracked me up more than any other comedy in recent years. The ridiculous plot, involving an island resort owned by a Jimmy Buffet send-up (Bill Paxton), is amusingly ribald, but it’s the sight gags—such as a gaggle of vacationers dressed as fruits (and one cheese-dipped pretzel) and running for their lives from a serial killer in a shrubbery maze—that make Club Dread a funnier trip than all the Scary Movie and Scream movies put together.

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

I haven’t seen John Schlesinger’s adaptation since I was a teenager, but I remember how strongly I felt at the time that the landscapes and interiors were familiar to me—a feeling that was even more vivid than when I had read the Thomas Hardy novel. I recently found out a possible reason why: The film was shot on locations in Dorset that once belonged to many generations of my English ancestors. Hardy, who lived nearby, used the estate as a setting in all of his Wessex novels.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

There really isn’t much left to be said about Peter Jackson’s triumphant adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. After several viewings, I still think Fellowship is the most imaginative of the three epics.

Vermeer's mystery: Scarlett Johansson in Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003)

This fictionalized biography of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer creates a persona for the model for his most famous works in the form of his beautiful assistant (Scarlett Johansson), who is not, contrary to cliché, his mistress. Director Peter Webber captures Vermeer’s life and times with exquisite finesse; it’s also notable for Alexander Desplat’s superlative score.

Blue (1993)

The most affecting of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, White and Red trilogy, Blue follows a grief-stricken young woman (luminous Juliette Binoche) as she recovers from the deaths of her composer husband and child and begins a new, grim life in a Paris apartment. At the urging of her husband’s musical assistant, she completes his last work and is renewed by art. Kieslowski masterfully takes the film from the depths of devastation to a joyous conclusion.

Millions (2004)

A heartwarming fable about a motherless little boy who dreams of the lives of the saints, discovers a bag of stolen money, and uses it to do good works. It’s an unexpected delight from director Danny Boyle.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Alfonso Cuaron’s vision of Hogwart’s School of Wizardry contains an admirable amount of the enchantment and mischievousness of J.K. Rowling’s writing, well deserving its two Academy Award nominations, for visual effects and John Williams’ original score.

The Lion King (1994)

Don’t call it a cartoon: Disney’s animated yet Shakespearean classic about the line of succession (and the circle of life) in the savanna is truly a film for all ages. Among its many grown-up virtues are the zippy songs by Elton John, Jeremy Irons’ voicing for the sinister uncle Scar, Nathan Lane’s voicing (and singing) for a comedic meerkat, Hans Zimmerman’s African-choral inspired score, and the amazing color palette.

 

 

Shawn Stone

I may have cooked up the idea for this feature, but I had a hell of a time picking just 10 films. So, in the order that I discovered them, here’s my list—and these aren’t my absolute favorites:

The Black Cat (1934)

I grew up on Universal horror movies. Here, Boris Karloff is a Satanist architect and Bela Lugosi is his deranged nemesis; they battle for the soul of an American girl on an icily beautiful Bauhaus set. There’s kinky sexual subtext galore and—as a bonus—a black mass. The things they used to broadcast on Saturday afternoons as kids’ entertainment.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

W.C. Fields is a Yukon denizen who, in the course of two reels, sings a tuneless song about his errant son, tries to milk an elk, explains the finer points of eating sled dogs (they’re “mighty good with mustard”), shares a morose dinner with his grim wife, and stares offscreen periodically, intoning “and it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” It’s the goddamndist thing I’ve ever seen.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

This epic Sergio Leone western was heavily edited for TV in the 1970s. I saw it uncut in 1986, in Paris, where it was getting a theatrical rerelease. Dubbed into French (which I don’t speak), sans subtitles, this widescreen ode to revenge against capitalist cruelty still knocked me out.

Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)

I only saw this on VHS video, but Chantal Akerman’s muted, episodic look at the life of an alienated 30-something filmmaker haunted me for weeks after I saw it. Akerman’s use of sound, in particular, affected me—it got into my dreams, and made me experience other movies in a different way.

The Docks of New York (1928)

Some think this is one of the most visually beautiful films ever made. It’s the usual Josef von Sternberg-directed stew of romantic cynicism, set in Paramount’s vision of a seedy waterfront. The images, saturated with smoke, captured through filmy fabrics or composed in baroque frames-within-frames, are dazzling. And the acting is Hollywood at its star-powered finest.

Gone and forgotten: Honey's Nancy Carroll

So This Is Paris (1926)

This Ernst Lubitsch sex comedy skewers the bourgeoisie while, simultaneously, letting them triumph. You know, like in real life. A middle-class doctor cheats on his wife with a dancer; the dancer’s husband pursues the doctor’s wife; and it all ends in a dizzy, stupendous Charleston contest at a massive Parisian ball.

Before Sunrise (1995)

Before Sunset (2004)

These two Richard Linklater-directed gabfests feature Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as dithering would-be lovers who jabber away as they wander around Vienna and Paris. Smart, especially in the way youthful idealism gives way to middle-age ennui.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Wong Kar-Wei’s moody romantic tone poem flopped because there were no sex scenes, but if you can’t appreciate the eroticism in the way Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung relate to each other, you might as well be dead.

Honey (1930)

I could have picked one of any number of pre-1940 Hollywood musical comedies, but this bauble, in particular, is everything I love about the genre: tuneful, forgettable songs; cheerfully terrible jokes; paper-thin plot; and a cast loaded with appealing personalities. And it stars one of the most criminally forgotten of all forgotten stars, Nancy Carroll.


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