Last January we put together the first Portland Film Review’s One (Hundred) Year(s) of Film to celebrate the New Year and our one year anniversary. We had so much fun picking favorites from the preceding hundred years that we have decided to do it again. Below you will find a shortlist of our choices of the most inspirational, enjoyable, or important films from the last 100 years, as well a few upcoming films we’re particularly excited about.
Devin: A Day’s Pleasure
A Day’s Pleasure is the movie that Charlie Chaplin made to fill time and help pay the bills while working on his masterful The Kid (1921), and it shows that the piece is simply a bit of filler. And yet, even in his least impressive work, Chaplin always finds ways to get a handful of full-belly laughs out of you. Here he does some ingenious comic work at war with a deck chair which he cannot quite get open, and it worth the watch for that bit alone.
Nathan: No pick
Jane: No pick
Devin: Man with a Movie Camera
During the late 1910’s and spilling over into the 1920’s, Soviet filmmakers laid the groundwork for both the theoretical models, such as Montage Theory, and practical advancements that propelled the medium’s artistic growth during the 20th century. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is an impressive entry that displays a dizzying number of cutting edge filming techniques, for the time at least, and explores the developing relationship between man and machine in the early 20th century.
Nathan: Un Chien Andalou
Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s 17-minute surrealist film is cemented into my memory. After viewing it for a film course, I ended up watching it four or five more times through, and I find it a perfect film. The inexplicable story, the mysterious box, the piano, the priests and the monkey, the juxtaposition of Wagner’s “Liebestod” and “Tango Argentino,” the iconic eye-cutting switch-cut… everything adds up to an overwhelming experience. The short format heightens the film’s effectiveness, allowing each shot to tell its own story. Don’t try to interpret this film. Psychoanalysis, poststructuralist theory, decoding, anecdotes about the directors: these have all been used to “explain” the film, but this precisely misses the point. Un Chien Andalou is a film without a plot; its very purpose is not to be interpreted.
Jane: No pick
Devin: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
There is something infectious about the way that Jimmy Stewart plays the wholehearted joy that his character Jefferson Smith feels at arriving in Washington D.C. as a newly elected U.S. Senator. His performance suffuses the whole movie, and succeeds at both critiquing the subterfuge and backstabbing that goes on in Congress and championing those like Mr. Smith who care deeply about their country and constituents.
Nathan: The Rules of the Game
With the exception of 12 Angry Men (1957), Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is the best theatrical film I have seen. Renoir, son of the Impressionist painter, does double duty in this film, directing and acting (as Octave, a loveable aristocrat). The Rules of the Game takes place almost entirely within a large estate, as various aristocrats, decorated generals, and even the servants fight amongst themselves. Jealousy, spite, desire, and self-interest coincide, and in a real upstairs-downstairs fashion, we see the universality of human interactions. What blew me away was the quick-witted dialogue and the timing: like the best farces, the characters in The Rules of the Game seem to be always one door from the thing they seek; and like the best of theatre, they always have something interesting to say about it.
Jane: The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz is an obvious classic in many ways, especially because it retains its spirit of fun and enchantment year after year, no matter how many times you watch it. It it silly, entertaining and strange enough to be delightful each time I go back to view it.
1949 saw the release of these two captivating thrillers-by-way-of-character-study that also happen to be lesser-known works by major 20th century filmmakers: Akira Kurosawa and Michael Powell. Stray Dog follows a young police officer who loses his gun and must embark on a perilous quest to recover it after it is used to undertake a string of murders. The Small Back Room focuses on a team of bomb experts employed by the British government during World War II, and probes global and personal pressures for those serving during the conflict. Both are fine examples of how artistry blends with tension when sculpted by master craftsmen.
Nathan: The Third Man
I almost feel bad for Carol Reed. The Third Man is probably one of the most frequently misattributed films of all time–and there’s a reason. The moment Orson Welles’s half-grin is illuminated from below halfway through, the film is his. Despite Joseph Cotten’s stellar performance as Holly Martins, an American novelist, Welles steals the show here as Harry Lime, a mysterious figure from the past lurking around postwar Vienna. Rumor has it that Welles only has five minutes of screen time, but they’re some of the best minutes of Welles’s, or anyone’s career.
Jane: No pick
Devin: North by Northwest
It was my first Alfred Hitchcock movie, and remains a favorite for me amongst his impressive filmography. While watching Psycho (1960) or The Birds (1963), both masterclasses in tension and horror, it is easy to forget that Hitchcock was also a maestro of mining comedy from his stories and performers. His trio of films with Cary Grant are all great movies, but the work they both put into North by Northwest are what make it a watermark of the comedic thriller.
Nathan: The 400 Blows [Les quatre cents coups]
One of my favourite films of all time, The 400 Blows is one of the greatest directorial debuts in film history. François Truffaut went on to direct twenty more feature films, including several using the same character, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), but The 400 Blows stands in a league of its own. Léaud was 14 when he starred as the precocious Antoine, a Parisian boy whose familial relations lead him into delinquency. Truffaut’s connection to Antoine, who is often seen as a semi-autobiographical character, is clear in the nostalgic way he treats the boy’s childhood.
Jane: North by Northwest
North by Northwest is so maddeningly enticing because for much of the film, we have no idea what is happening or why our protagonist has been suddenly abducted or questioned. We aren’t even sure whether we can trust him ourselves, so the viewer’s loyalties shift as the film progresses.
The 1960’s were an artistic high point for the Western as a genre. John Ford gave us The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) while Sergio Leone released his “Dollars” trilogy, making Clint Eastwood a bona fide star. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came at the tail end of this period, and a virtuoso screenplay by legendary novelist and screenwriter William Goldman [The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men (1976)] propelled the creative partnership between Robert Redford and Paul Newman squarely into the cultural zeitgeist. The movie is as much a study of friendship as it is a destabilization of the line between cowboy and criminal. Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford) are criminals by trade, but remain gallant cowpokes by disposition. As a bonus, it is the movie that provided Redford with a memorable name for his Sundance Film Festival.
Nathan: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
I haven’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service since I was a kid. The fleeting memories of the film’s misogyny make me fairly certain that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much the next time around, and to be honest, I’d rather let it rest in my memory the way it is. When I watched it, George Lazenby’s version of James Bond was the pinnacle of action: the car chases, fist fights, ski chases on the slopes of the Swiss Alps–this was pure fun.
Jane: No pick
The 1980’s may have been the heyday of the action blockbuster, but years before Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were running, punching, and shooting their way across screens, Alien delivered Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, badass-astronaut extraordinaire. Fighting xenomorphs and cultural expectations in turn, Weaver became the focal point of Ridley Scott’s commanding horror-thriller. With a tag-line like “in space, no one can hear you scream…” and chills to back it up, Alien helped pave the way for a reinvigorated slate of extraterrestrial thrillers. Forty years later, it remains a nerve-shredding experience that is held together by Weaver’s performance and a blend of ingenious effects. Aliens (1986) was a worthy sequel, but it is shame that Scott and company have seen the franchise go off the rails in recent years.
Stalker is a high-stakes thriller. In a post-apocalyptic world, three men sneak into a protected, mystical area known only as “The Zone.” Making their way through the booby-trapped environment, they near the wish-granting centre of “The Room,” and the inexplicable events that occur throughout the film keep you focused. But Stalker is also incredibly slow: there’s a shot near the end of three men sitting in a cave as it rains outside that lasts for several minutes. They do not move or talk. There’s a unique tension created out of this: instead of watching the protagonists race against time or battle on the rooftops, Stalker’s conflict comes from the emotional weight of a father-daughter relationship that isn’t ever quite made clear. Adding to this is beautiful cinematography, featuring blues and greens I never knew existed before.
Jane: Apocalypse Now
The plot of Apocalypse Now seems relatively straightforward: head upriver, infiltrate Colonel Kurtz’s troops, and terminate his reign. However, like in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which inspired the film, as the narrator progresses upriver, he comes face to face with the horror and despair that led Kurtz to madness and everything loses all semblance of simplicity.
Dead Poets Society and Do the Right Thing, different as they may be in style, tone, and filmmaking, occupy a similar space in my memory because my first times watching each movie rank among the most effecting viewing experiences I have ever had. For Dead Poets Society, I watched it with my family at the turning point in a year that had seen me at my physical and mental low-point, and the movie served as a moving wake-up call to find help. With each re-watch, I have come to appreciate its candor more and more, and I sustain that Robin Williams does some of the finest work of his career. While Dead Poets Society was an emotionally visceral experience, watching Do the Right Thing was equally as visceral but instead in terms of awe at the filmmaking, writing, and performance on display. The way that Spike Lee constructs his film to explore issues of race, family, gender, and American identity, all while toying with the bounds of film as medium, is breathtaking.
Nathan: Kiki’s Delivery Service
Miyazaki’s films unite both the young and old. I didn’t watch Kiki until I was 20, but I still felt a childlike joy. This is a subtle film, one without bad guys or morals. It’s a film about growing up, discovering who you are, and reveling in your own confidence. The hand-painted quality of the film gives it an older feel: not out-of-date, but actually refreshing.
Jane: The Little Mermaid
To be fair, some of my love for The Little Mermaid is nostalgic, as it was the first film I ever saw in theatres. But its variety of classic songs (Part of Your World, Under the Sea) as well as cranky Sebastien always make it worth a watch.
Devin: Analyze This
Having been raised by parents who are both psychotherapists, I have a soft spot in my heart for any movie that explores the way that therapists operate beyond the bounds of the professional setting. Add to that a satirical edge that plays with the tropes and archetypes of the mob movie, and you have Analyze This, an uproarious comedy that I would argue is incredibly undervalued. With Billy Crystal as the neurotic therapist Dr. Ben Sobel and Robert De Niro as his anxiety-riddled mob boss client, director Harold Ramis and company put together a comedy that holds up to many re-watches. After years and years it remains one of, if not the, most quoted movie in my household and I see no indication that that will change anytime soon.
Nathan: Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut has slowly become my favourite of Stanley Kubrick’s films (sorry, Dr. Strangelove). It took two or three viewings for me to get past the more bizarre aspects of the film–the surrealist and the cult stuff–and start to appreciate the film’s unique status. Despite the opulent palaces and grand music (one of my favourite film scores), Eyes Wide Shut is a minimalist film. The dialogue is stripped down; the plot and action are at a minimum (try describing what happens in the film to someone who hasn’t seen it–it’s no easy task); the acting is authentic. And once you move beyond the darker moments of the film, it becomes a film about human interactions in the most real way imaginable.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is my absolute favorite film in Matt Damon’s oeuvre (and as anyone who knows me will tell you, I love Matt Damon, so this is a big statement). His Tom Ripley becomes dangerous by degrees, slowly deepening until his horrific final scene in which he laughs maniacally. The film also features wonderful performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Iron Giant is one of my favorite children’s films ever, one that is massively under-rated. It is the early work of Brad Bird and features a gigantic metal robot who crashlands into a small Maine town in 1957. The film is brilliant, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Devin: State of Play
State of Play is by no means the best political/newspaper thriller out there. It does not rise to the same level of filmmaking and storytelling that make All the President’s Men (1976) and Zodiac (2007) sterling examples of the genre, and yet, I am head over heels for it. State of Play tells the story of how veteran reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) hunts down the truth about a murdered aide with connections to his close friend Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). It is a fine plot that unfolds with plenty of twists and reveals to keep you engaged, and stays away from the more overused tropes about reporters and politicians. What seems to keep bringing me back, however, is the stupidly talented cast that all seem to be having the time of their lives working through the cogs of the plot. Accompanying Crowe at the newspaper are Helen Mirren and Rachel McAdams while Robin Wright plays Affleck’s wife with the cast being rounded out by the likes of David Harbour, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman, and Jeff Daniels. Each one turns in wonderful work, and they seem to be having such fun with the pulpy material that it is hard not to come back to it again and again.
Nathan: Star Trek
J.J. Abrams’s reimagining of the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is without a doubt my favourite reboot to date. Star Trek (2009) doesn’t take itself too seriously, it knows when to nod to the original series and when to do its own thing, and, above all, it’s fun. The casting is phenomenal: Chris Pine seems born to take over William Shatner’s role; Zachary Quinto’s Spock is an homage to Nimoy. The most impressive part is Abrams’s integration of the original storyline. By setting Star Trek (2009) in a parallel (and even adjacent) universe and actually explaining how we got there, Abrams opens up the possibility to recreate the original stories in a fresh way. The best comparison for this is perhaps BBC’s adaptation of Sherlock (2010-), which takes up Doyle’s stories and alters them just enough to enthrall those who know the original material.
The world that Coraline inhabits is unpleasant, filled with distracted parents and gross crunchy bugs, but it turns out that the alternative (with her Other Mother and Other Father) is far worse. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline uses beautiful stop-motion animation to create a film that is creative, adventurous, and fun, although it is nonetheless the stuff of nightmares.
2019 looks like it will be a burgeoned continuation of the horror and science-fiction renaissance we’ve been in for the last decade or so. In terms of horror, Us will be Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out (2018), while It: Chapter 2 looks to build upon the bone-chilling success of It (2017). Captive State, on the other hand, promises a dose of allegorical sci-fi with the added bonus of co-star John Goodman.
Nathan: No pick
Jane: Under the Silver Lake
David Robert Mitchell has already been lauded for his thriller It Follows (2014), but his latest film, Under the Silver Lake, appears much more colorful. After his neighbor mysteriously disappears, Andrew Garfield goes searching for her in a maniacally vivid Los Angeles.