Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder)
My full review
Funny enough, my first exposure to the narrative of Sunset Boulevard was an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures. The episode was titled “Sepulveda Boulevard” and put Montana Max in the William Holden role while Elmyra played the Norma Desmond analog. Hampton the Pig served as the stand-in for Otto Preminger’s faithful butler. So when I was an adult, I already understood the general narrative of this fantastic film. Billy Wilder delivers a tremendous variation on the noir film by reframing it as a Hollywood movie.
Holden plays a down on his luck screenwriter avoiding the debt collectors, leading him to hide out on the estate of an aged & forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond. Learning he’s a screenwriter leads Desmond into demanding he pen her magnificent comeback. The more he gets to know of this fallen star, the more empathy he feels for her, but it also leads to him exploiting her goodwill towards him. There’s so much satisfyingly dark and biting about this movie; it feels like a picture made ahead of its time. Because it references so much of the movie-making system in Hollywood, that also makes it feel savvier than many films of the day. It’s dealing in a milieu that the filmmakers are incredibly comfortable in, and as a result, the audience feels like they are glimpsing a secret world.
Being There (1979, dir. Hal Ashby)
My full review
This film came across my radar when I was a college student in a Mass Communications class. We watched this film, and another one coming up later on the list, and read great books like White Noise by Don DeLillo and Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. Being There appealed to me so strongly because of the central performance by Peter Sellers. He plays Chance, a middle-aged mentally handicapped man who has grown up in the isolation of Washington, D.C, working as a gardener. The death of his employer/possible father sends Chance out onto the streets, where he wanders in search of a place to watch television, his favorite pastime. Instead, he ends up in the good graces of the Washington elite, who think he is some sort of wry philosopher using gardening metaphors. Even the president of the United States (Jack Warden) is eager to get Chance’s insights. Being There felt like a perfect encapsulation of the Bush Jr presidency, but it has remained timeless for me in the following years. The lesson here is that when something feels like it captures the time you live in yet was made decades prior, it means you are living through something that has happened many times over. Being There skewers the media class so perfectly, showcasing how the messages we’re given and that the leaders we are presented with are spouting empty platitudes possessing empty heads.
The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
My full review
Phillip Seymour Hoffman delivers a magnificent nearly final performance here, and the film serves as a bitter reminder of the acting talent we lost. I consider the film part of a trilogy alongside There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, where Anderson chooses to deconstruct the myth of the “Great Man.” Here he uses Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard as the basis for Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a traveling movement called “The Cause.” The story is told through the eyes of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II vet who has become an alcoholic with few prospects. The relationship that grows between Lancaster and Freddie is contentious and loving. Freddie becomes the one person who sees through Lancaster’s blustering pomposity. Phoenix has this strange energy throughout the film that makes him so fascinating to watch. He develops weird ticks due to his alcoholism and has such an odd demeanor that is ultimately endearing. Once again, Johnny Greenwood provides a gorgeous musical score in contrast to his tense strings in There Will Be Blood. Here his string section is evoking a sense of wistfulness & sadness. The Master is my favorite film of the 2010s. It’s something timeless, and I expect it will endure as one of the great films for centuries to come.
Fargo (1996, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
Fargo permeated pop culture so much so that homeschooled, insulated fifteen-year-old me knew about it quite extensively at the time. I didn’t actually watch the movie until I was in college, but Marge Gunderson was already iconic. The impact Fargo had was incredible to the point an entire tabletop game, Fiasco, explains its premise using Fargo and the work of the Coen Brothers. Despite being titled Fargo, most of the movie takes place in Minnesota as used car dealer Jerry Lundegaard commissions two criminals in North Dakota to kidnap his wife so Jerry can make money off the ransom his father-in-law will turn over. This criminal duo makes some mistakes along the way, which leaves enough clues for pregnant police chief Marge Gundersen to begin investigating. The Coens do an exceptional job in blending comedy and noir, never shying away from finding the humor in people but not flinching when it comes to showing the brutality of violence. There are even great small moments, especially the Mike Yanagita scene that seems disconnected from the rest of the narrative but actually serves as a critical piece of the mystery narrative. The Coens are in their sixties, and I’m hoping we have two more decades at least from them because they certainly have more great films to make.
Rear Window (1954, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
My full review
In Rear Window, Hitchcock does several brilliant things that help immerse the audience in his story. The first is that he makes the oppressive summer heatwave taking place throughout the film palpable. He does that through the beads of sweat on characters, showing neighbors doing whatever they can to get solace from the warmth, and he uses the heatwave as a way to build tension. The second technique Hitchcock employs so expertly is making sure we see the film through the eyes of LB Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), the photojournalist trapped in his apartment due to an injury in the line of duty. The apartment complex (built on a soundstage in Los Angeles) is one of the great pieces of film production design that has ever been. There’s no camera trickery being done with the scale of this construction; it’s a beautifully made facade that allows each neighbor to have a sense of an inner life though we don’t get to hear from many of them directly. And then that finale, it’s so tense and exciting with Raymond Burr playing a near-wordless antagonist who finally catches on to Jeffries’ spying on him. You can also step back and see Rear Window as Hitchock playing with themes of voyeurism, something he frequented so often in his work.
Magnolia (1999, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
When I first saw Magnolia in 2000, I hated it. My personal education in cinema had only just begun, and my brain had never really been exposed to anything so enigmatic, with so many moving parts, and made in a way that demanded my attention. As time passed, I revisited Magnolia multiple times, and now it’s one of my favorite films ever made. While creators, like J.J. Abrams, like to say they create puzzle boxes, Magnolia is a moving living puzzle that actually makes sense. This is a movie about how people are connected even if they don’t realize it, how we can find connections with seeming strangers, and that there are things in the universe that just don’t make sense. Coincidence and chance are a big part of life, and while we search for meaning to these events, it’s fruitless. Weird stuff happens, and it can create a focal point where we stop being distracted and suddenly wake up. The surreal rain of frogs that occurs near the conclusion of Magnolia provides this clarity. Characters suddenly stop being caught in endless miserable loops and see each other and themselves. The editing in Magnolia is brilliant and helps underline the tension as the film is structured like musical movements. The score by Jon Brion and Aimee Mann punctuates the picture so that when Anderson wants to build to a crescendo as the music slowly creeps in and builds & builds. This is one of the few films where Tom Cruise delivers a stunning performance, showing layers to a character that could so easily have been a joke. And then that opening prologue, a short film unto itself! Magnolia is so much, and it can be a daunting film to undertake, but I promise it is worth the effort.
No Country For Old Men (2007, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
I don’t know how many people thought the Coens directing a Cormac McCarthy novel would be as good as it was. I had read the book in advance but didn’t know how they would match their directing style to McCarthy’s prose. The result is one of the best American films ever made that captures the creeping unease a person feels when they wake up to America’s horror. On the surface, this seems like a neo-noir Western. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers a drug deal gone wrong and steals the bag of money at the bloodbath in the middle of the desert. He goes back to the scene that night and is spotted by parties interested in getting that money back. Hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is hired to find Moss, kill him, and bring the money back, but they quickly realize Chigurh is an insane man. Always a few steps behind is small-town sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), and it is this character’s thoughts to what he sees that make the movie hit so hard. By the end of the film, he’s watched a level of violence he never expected to see, and the viewer/reader of the novel can infer this is the fallout of the Vietnam War. Something dark was awakened in the American psyche, with Chigurh representing this as a Vietnam vet. The world is something evil, maybe it always has been, but now that Bell has seen it with his own eyes, he doesn’t know what he should do next.
Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
My full review
Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most brilliant film, both thematically and in presentation. Once again, the director returns to themes of voyeurism and delivers a masterpiece. It’s not just Hitchcock’s direction but Bernard Hermann’s musical score that helps set the atmosphere of this psychological noir. Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is a police detective injured while chasing a criminal across a San Francisco rooftop. While idling during his time off, Ferguson is contacted by an old school friend whose wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), has begun behaving strangely. He pays Ferguson to trail her and the detective, despite his best efforts, falls in love with Madeline. Eventually, he pretends to be a stranger and introduces himself, and they begin an emotional affair. Things go awry with her husband, and Madeline throws herself from the roof of a mission building and dies. However, Ferguson runs into Judy, a woman who bears a striking facial resemblance to Madeline, and the detective becomes obsessed. It doesn’t take long for us to learn the secret of Madeline and Judy’s connection, but the fallout from this dark twist is felt long after the credits roll. Vertigo is clearly an inspiration to David Lynch with its questions about identity and examination of the fragile psyche of people. Every time I watch this movie, I am blown away by the experience of it, feeling it is both of its time but also something far ahead of the other pictures coming out in cinemas.
Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet)
My full review
I don’t think there has ever been a better film about the mainstream news media and why it became nothing but another form of entertainment in the late 20th century. Brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky wrote his masterwork here, telling the story of a fictional national network and the members of its news division dealing with the fallout of anchor Howard Beale’s on-air meltdown. Beale says he’s going to kill himself on the air, but the next night switches gears and becomes a ludicrous prophet of the airwaves. The network leans into sensationalism which leads to the entire news hour becoming a circus sideshow. Meanwhile, Max Schumacher (William Holden), the aging news division president, strikes up an affair with the young head of programming Diana (Faye Dunaway). Their personal life and the well-being of the network become so intertwined that it’s hard to see the difference between the two. Seeing this for the first time around 2001/2002, it hit me like a brick wall. It was such a perfect distillation as to why mainstream news feels off and why there is no exploration of the issues to any meaningful depth despite having 24-hour cable news channels. Ned Beatty has a magnificent performance in the third act of the film as the president of the parent company to this network, delivering a counter-proclamation to Beale, positioning himself as the voice of the Burning Bush, claiming heresy against Beale’s words. Network is a movie that rewires how you interact with the news, leaving you questioning the underlying corporate purpose of a story being reported from a particular angle.
Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese)
My full review
The question I ask myself when I get to this part of the list is, “why is this movie number one?” Having recently rewatched Taxi Driver, I feel very confident in choosing it for this spot. On the surface, it’s the story of Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), a mentally disturbed man who works as a taxi driver at night but seems to have no purpose in life. This leads to him becoming a force of destruction. But it’s not as simple as that. What we see on screen is suspect. The lines between what Travis genuinely experiences and what he imagines in his daydreams are so blurred that we’re unsure of what he has done by the end. The film feels embarrassed for Bickle with the camera panning away from him during a phone call with a woman (Cybil Shepherd) he made feel extremely uncomfortable on a date. Bickle doesn’t seem to understand social norms, taking her to a porn film in Times Square on their first date. As if by magic, he meets a teenage sex worker (Jodie Foster) who provides an opportunity for him to be a white knight. But is any of this real? Is he inventing pieces of these conversations to justify what he does in the third act? Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schraeder capture New York City at a particular time when things were getting worse, the world is covered in grime, and everyone seems angry all the time. Taxi Driver, though often mimicked, has rarely been matched. It provides an unsympathetic window into the mind of a kind of person we should be scared of, someone who has gotten chewed up by the military machine and spat out onto the city streets without the skills needed to cope in society. America is full of Travis Bickles, and no one seems to know what to do about that.