Oh, sweet half-accomplishments…

According to a very rough count I just did on the train from Washington, DC to Connecticut, “Spring in a Small Town” was the 501st film I have seen of the list that makes up my 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.* You can see my progress through the project at Lists of Bests.

So, hurrah! Halfway through! I thought I would celebrate this momentous occasion by noting some of the films I am most happy to have discovered through this project so far:

1) “A Trip to the Moon” (1902)

A truly bizarre piece of early sci-fi filmmaking. This was the first film on my "1001 Movies" list, and it really got the whole project off on the right foot. [The second was "The Great Train Robbery," which ends/begins - it was shown both ways - with an extraordinary shot of a bandit shooting his gun point blank into the camera. Sort of terrifying even in today's media-savvy culture, this shot is constantly quoted in later films.] The director, Georges Meliés, burst through the boundaries of the conventional (at the time) two minute film in this epic 14-minuter, while experimenting with special effects in a way that makes it clear that cinema will be a breakthrough for the science fiction genre (Meliés was clearly just as interested in film's power to express the fantastic as its ability to record actuality). Particularly excellent is a section of the film in which, after a batty professor (played by Meliés, naturally) convinces his people to undertake a voyage to the moon, they crash directly into the eye of the man in the moon. You can watch it in an ever so slightly shortened version (and, oddly, with someone narrating the events of the film to you, if you have your sound on) at this Google Video link. I highly recommend the experience!

2) “Intolerance” (1916)

Having recently come face to face with some popular distaste for the racism at the core of his 1915 film, "Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith sunk all his money into the lavish and intricate epic, "Intolerance," which weaves four story lines together to form one long meditation on the theme of embattled love. It is the art of juxtaposition that makes this film brilliant, but it is also statistically remarkable. Estimated to have cost $2 million of Griffith's personal fortune ("Birth of a Nation" had been - to our eyes, dismayingly - successful) to produce, its Babylon sequence alone involved monumental sets and 3000 extras.

3) “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919)

I was sorry to see that, in Filmspotting's recent Silent Movie Marathon, "Caligari" emerged as one of Adam and Sam's least favorites of the films they saw. How could they not be impressed by the low-budget expressionist masterpiece that was the production design on this film? Frustrated by the resilience of light to attempts at human manipulation, the artists behind the film (which was directed by Robert Wiene) painted the play of light on the set in explosive and threatening patterns. And how could they not have been fascinated (as my Theatre Studies students were) by the question of the "frame story" which was added at a rather late stage, to turn the whole oddity of the film into [SPOILER!!] the ramblings of a madman? Does this make the film more, or less, expressionistic? Does there really need to be a logical explanation for the angular intensity of the film?

4) “Sherlock, Jr.” (1924)

This is one of my favorite discoveries of the project. I have now seen films by all three of the great silent comedians (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin), and Keaton is by far the most inventive and accomplished. All of his films have a caliber of stunt-work that is gasp-inducing; "Sherlock, Jr.," which focuses on a movie projectionist who fantasizes about leaping into the screen and becoming a film detective, couples this with an extraordinarily complex meta-cinema. Amazing.

5) “Sunrise” (1927)

Another favorite of my students, who were studying Expressionism at the time, this hard-to-get-your-hands-on silent masterpiece by F.W. Murnau is by far my favorite of his work. The film, about a man who is convinced by his sophisticated lover to kill his wife, evokes Vermeer and the abstract allegories of Expressionism with equal success, and features brilliant performances from the heavy-footed George O'Brien and the disastrously wigged Janet Gaynor.

6) “The Unknown” (1927)

After seeing this Lon Chaney/Tod Browning collaboration, I spent several weeks doing nothing but describing the brilliant plot to anyone who would listen. Here, if you don't mind some plot-spoiling (and I don't think it will diminish the wacky brilliance of the film at all), is what I told them:
"My absolute favorite for sheer absurdity, if not for quality, is "The Unknown," directed in 1927 by Tod Browning (famous for his film "Freaks") and starring Lon Chaney as an armless circus knife thrower. Lon in fact is only pretending to be armless, because he is in fact an eleven-fingered thief and murderer hiding his distinctive hand-prints from the police (I am referring to his character as Lon, but in reality of course Lon Chaney had arms and had a armless stunt double who played his bottom half throughout the movie, performing such maneuvers as fighting off an armed [no pun intended] opponent, smoking a cigarette and swirling a glass of wine before holding it to his nose -- all with his feet). However, he falls in love with the woman he throws knives at in the circus (played by an astonishingly young and lovely Joan Crawford), who likes him because she has a vicious phobia of being held in a man's arms. Great! So Lon is the man for her. Except he fears that on their wedding night she may notice that he has arms when he takes off all his clothes. So he does the only thing a man in his situation could be expected to do: he goes to a shady doctor and has his arms cut off. Sadly for Lon, by the time he has finished his long recuperation from this operation, his lady love has recovered from her phobia and married the circus's strongman.
Is that not the best plot you have every heard? It even went on from there, but I will allow you to see what happens for yourselves. How can talkies possibly have anything to compete with the armless (armed) circus knife-thrower and his touch-averse lady-love?"

7) “The Crowd” (1928)

This is a film about absolute ordinariness, shot with such a searing sense of beauty that discrete images from it remain seared in my memory a year and a half later. Later movies are constantly quoting it, in particular two of my favorite scenes, in the first of which the hero examines himself critically in a mirror, and in the second the camera pulls back vertiginously to reveal him obliterated in the midst of his work by row after row of anonymous desks. Its plot is so purposively average as to defy explanation (on Wikipedia it only takes two sentences to summarize the whole film), but don't let that put you off. It is a stunner. And I am a plot-and-character sort of girl.

8) “Un Chien Andalou” (1928)

I am not sure whether I can add anything to the extensive and justified praises that have been lavished on this short surrealist masterpiece by Luis Bunuel. It has exerted an extraordinary influence on the horror, comedy and music video genres, so when you watch it, it will feel very familiar to you. Right before you go into visceral shock. You can watch it at Google Video.

9) “Love me Tonight” (1932)

This is the single most delightful discovery I have made while pursuing this project, and virtually every day since I first watched it, I have wished that I had it in front of me to watch over again. Starring a young (ha! he was in his forties) Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, and the luminous Myrna Loy in a smaller role, this is quite possibly the finest musical ever made, at a time when the mechanics of filming made it difficult to pursue the genre. But it is also quite unlike later film musicals, buoyed by the wit of the script, the charm of the actors, the cinematic innovations of its director, and the addictiveness of its tunes. Particularly fine is the long "Isn't it Romantic" sequence, which follows the addiction of this famous song as it is passed from character to character, each of whom, upon hearing it, can't help but add their own verse. If you haven't seen this yet (and even if you think that musicals aren't your bag), you MUST rush out and see it immediately.

10) “Stagecoach” (1939)

This was John Ford's first talkie Western, John Wayne's breakthrough film, and the film that made the Western a mainstream genre. The stunts are amazing, the location shooting (also paradigm shifting, since westerns were being shot on sound stages before this) in Monument Valley is stunning, and John Wayne as the Ringo Kid is silent and charismatic. But most of all, this film convinced me to love the western (I never thought I would) for what it does best: bring together people of all different types, classes and backgrounds in a perilous situation (confined to an imperiled stagecoach, in this case) and force them to act out the metaphorical struggles of democratic nation-making.

11) “Le Jour se Leve” (1939)

"Le Jour se Leve" is at the top of the list of movies I want to return to when I am done with this project, because it had an immediate and profound emotional effect on me, but I can't remember it nearly as well as I would like. It is a claustrophobic, intense film about the motivation behind a murder, and won me over eternally to the magnetic Jean Gabin.

12) “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947)

My favorite (and I am not in the majority here) of Charlie Chaplin's films is actually a talkie, and a talkie in which the Little Tramp is transformed into a serial killer, no less. The gossip behind this film is that Orson Welles sold the rights to it to Chaplin, and it is one of those wonderful alternative history delights that film provides us with so often to imagine the dark and cynical film Welles would have produced given the same plot. With Chaplin, instead, we get a warm social-message film, in which the full brunt of his charm wins us over to a truly macabre point of view.

13) “Red River” (1948)

My other favorite western, featuring some truly spectacular homoerotic tension, "Red River" explores the relationship between cruelly stubborn Thomas Dunson (played spectacularly by John Wayne) and his adopted son (Montgomery Clift), as they struggle to protect their interests on a perilous cattle drive. OK, so it goes a bit astray with its happy ending, and the lone female character has an appalling effect on the plot, but this is a masterpiece of overwrought subtext.

14) “The Snake Pit” (1948)

If John Wayne was my biggest surprise among classic actors during this project, Olivia de Havilland was my great conversion among the actresses. She is extraordinarily good in both "The Heiress" and "The Snake Pit," the latter of which was a ground-breaking portrayal of severe mental illness and its institutional treatment. De Havilland plays a woman suffering from a severe psychosis that has many of the hallmarks of schizophrenia, and is committed by her loving but bewildered husband to a state psychiatric facility. This is a portrayal of psychotherapy in its most triumphalist Freudian mode (a mode few Freudians now would endorse): the therapist is an omnipotent sleuth who, once he has solved the puzzle of the patient, can provide a miraculous cure. But, apart from this, the film (directed by Anatole Litvak) takes few easy paths, and remains one of the more sober and innovative portrayals of both the experience of illness itself (the film begins with a startling filmic approximation of aural hallucinations) and the failures in the way our society treats the ill.

15) “All about Eve” (1950)

I think I did in fact see "All About Eve" long ago, but I had forgotten it so completely that it emerged as a VERY uncomfortable surprise when I returned to it through this project. I love a good backstage story, and all the elements are perfectly gauged here, but the perfection yields a claustrophically depressing experience. If you haven't seen this most famous tale of mimetic envy, go out and savor the discomfort.

16) “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

Another excellent meta-tale in which Hollywood reflects on what it is to be an entertainer. This classic tale of the delusional, washed-up silent star Norma Desmond is rife with gossipy Hollywood mise-en-abymes: Cecille B. De Mille shows up in the film's most famous scene, playing himself, of course, but the incomparably wonderful Erich von Stroheim plays a more significant role as Desmond's butler/ex-husband/former director (von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson, who plays Desmond, had a notoriously stormy past as a director/actress pair). Like "All about Eve," "Sunset Boulevard" is both witty and marvellously constructed.

17) “The Big Carnival,” a.k.a. "Ace in the Hole" (1951)

My other favorite of Billy Wilder's oeuvre, this also showcases the finest performance I have seen the histrionic and savage Kirk Douglas give yet. It is a satire on a media-saturated culture that has aged very well: in it, Douglas plays an unscrupulous, disgraced reporter who, eager to claw his way back up to the top of the profession, manipulates and prolongs a disaster in order to create a better story. The final shot of the film is one of the best (and most actor-bruising) I have seen in some time.

18) “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

I have never been a tremendous fan of Tennessee Williams, but "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Suddenly Last Summer" have forced me into a wholesale reconsideration of the man's work. All the major players here are at their best, and the result is a heady, humid film.

19) “Forbidden Games” (1952)

A gleaming tale of the amorality of childhood, and its self-sufficiency. "Forbidden Games" follows the integration of a little girl into a new family after both her parents are killed by bombs as they fled the ravages of WWII. Now that I have read "Suite Française" by Irene Nemirovsky, I am reminded of it when I think of this film by René Clement: both works have cynical moments of horror couched within tales of great tenderness and sympathy. It is also worth noting the very high quality of performance that Clement drew from his two child actors, who very much carry the film.

20) “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

I just can't seem to resist the meta. Or Gene Kelly for that matter. "Singin' in the Rain," like "Sunset Boulevard," makes much of the difficult transition from silence to sound that wrenched apart Hollywood hierarchies a few decades before. I went into this movie for the first time a few months ago prepared for a sugary confection of pure sentiment - the filmic equivalent of dimples - but instead I was surprised by its wit and (what Kelly always brought to his projects) a superhuman enthusiasm that absolutely demands a response from the spectator.

21) “Tales of Ugetsu” (1953)

Halfway through this film, I felt despair: I was somehow inert in the face of Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece. By the film's end, I was transported. I can't tell you what happened to convert me, because I don't want to deny you the experience that I had. So I will just send you in search of this startling film.

* I should note that there were a number of films from the list before beginning this project, and am not revisiting films unless I can’t remember them at all. So, although I have been working on this project for several years now (since 2005, I believe), I haven’t watched all 501 of these films in that time. Just most of them.

3 Responses so far.

  1. kookie says:

    It's amazing that you've made the halfway point on that list. I've only seen 1 of the films you listed (probably 60 from the total list). "Singin' in the Rain" is great, but not nearly as wonderful as "An American in Paris". Gene Kelly (besides being as handsome as can be) is such an athletic and enthusiastic dancer, I just sit spellbound through all of his movies.

  2. Isn't Gene Kelly dreamy? [Sighs like schoolgirl]. I love every moment of "An American in Paris" that involves him, but much else about the movie leaves me cold.

    If you like movie musicals, you MUST see "Love me Tonight" and let me know what you think....

  3. kookie says:

    I'll put it on my Netflix list when my hubby and I sign up for it next month. (I know, we are the last humans on Earth to get it. Hopeless.)

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