#20 It’s a Wonderful Life

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Clarence

Frank Capra’s tale of the affect that everyone has on the people around them is a timeless Christmas classic that begs to be rediscovered by every generation.

This film observes the life of George Bailey (James Stewart), a good and selfless man who has put his life on hold for the good of his town. He had many dreams for his life that he had to sacrifice in order to prevent the takeover of his town by Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a relentless man who is obsessed with the complete ownership of Bedford Falls.

George is so important to the town because his building and loan company is the only thing that stands in Mr. Potter’s way. But when George’s 8,000-dollar deposit goes missing, George not only faces the possibility of serving jail time, but also the complete collapse of his company. This would allow Mr. Potter to finally take over the town.

Stricken with grief George decides that his family, and his town, would be better off without him. George brings himself to the town bridge, and is about to end his life, but he is visited by an angel.

This angel (Clarence, played by Henry Travers) offers George a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the ability to see what his life would be like if he had never been born.

The result is a trip down memory lane for George as Clarence leads him through the various deeds in his life that have benefited those around him.

Frank Capra’s dedication to this film was obvious. Everything about this film was put together meticulously in order to create a believable town, as well as believable characters to inhabit it.

Capra’s vision of the town of Bedford Falls is one of the most complete creations of any society on screen (perhaps with the exception of Kevin Smith’s “Askewniverse”). Characters had relationships that were son intertwined it would seem that they were real people that Capra was filming.

Perhaps it is due to the genius mechanism of George re-experiencing the prior events of his life, but nothing feels forced in this film. Nothing is said for the benefit of the viewer. This adds to Copra’s complete vision of the characters. Because there is no one needlessly explaining anything to the viewer, the reality of the characters remains firmly intact.

It is unclear as to how Capra, along with the various credited and un-credited writers, was able to create such a clear vision in this film, but whatever he did, he did it well.

Something that definitely didn’t hurt this sense of realism was the superb performance of James Stewart. This was his first performance after serving in world war two and, though he thought it was too soon for him to be making a film, the affect the war had in his performance was clearly beneficial. That is not meant to sound glib, but it is worth speculating that the scenes of overwhelming emotion would not have been as powerful had he not been in this emotional state.

This film looks good, sounds good, and is good. It deals with themes that are both universal, and timeless. More importantly, it doesn’t fall into the trap of making every decision George made into a positive one. So often films like this go too far in their search for inspiration. They toy with the notion that everything happens for the benefit of everyone. This film manages to not give off this sugar-coated sense of optimism, while simultaneously creating a sense of inspiration for the viewer.

Some people will feel that this movie has become a cliché of itself. After all, nearly every cartoon, sit-com, and family drama has copied the plot of this film at least once. But this should serve as nothing more than a testament as to how important this film is to the industry.

So, if you watch this film for the first time and bells are going off due to how familiar it seems just smile, cause every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

#19 On the Waterfront

“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!”
Father Barry

Elia Kazan’s tale of a Mob-run group of waterfront union workers hits all its bases, and it hits them hard.

At the centre of On the Waterfront is Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a well-meaning, late-twenties, former boxer, errand boy for the mob.

The film opens with Terry, on one of his mob errands, leading Doyle, a fellow union worker and friend, to a rooftop rendezvous with some less than savory characters. Doyle is to be punished for talking to the cops about the mob’s illegal involvement in union affairs. Terry, being not the most intellectually gifted union worker, assumes that the mob simply wants to “lean” on young Doyle. But the mob had other plans. Instead of simply threatening the young man these “less than savory characters” throw Doyle off the roof.

Immediately it can be seen that this does not sit well with Terry, but due to the fact that his brother is the mob leader’s right-hand-man, Terry keeps his mouth shut, and he is not alone in this. No one seems to be willing to say more than two words to the police abut anything related to the waterfront. That’s the thing about people who have grown up around the mob, a different code dictates their actions.

It is not until a zealous priest, and Doyle’s younger sister, make their way to the docks that there is any real hope for change. The priest calls a meeting in the church basement for all dock-workers who are tired of the oppression they are forced to deal with on a daily basis. The mob quickly gets wind of this though and sends Terry in to keep any eye on the would-be uprising. But when a group of people from the mob decides to violently end this meeting, Terry is forced to escort Doyle’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), to safety.

What ensues is a fledgling romance between Terry and Edie, and the result is the development of a conscience for young Terry. Terry quickly realizes that he can not keep living a life of service to the mob, and hope to enter a relationship with Edie, so he is forced to choose between his code of honour, and his new-found sense of morality.

Kazan proved his skill as a director in this film. Not only was the story well told, but it was told in a way that allowed the viewer to dig deeper, and find meaning in the carefully selected imagery.

After Doyle’ death, which Terry feels responsible for, Terry begins to look after Doyle’s pet pigeons. This simple act may not seem like much, but when Terry reveals the necessity for guarding the pigeons from hawks it becomes quite clear that Terry cares about more than just pigeons.

With Doyle, the only person who had been willing to stand up to the mob, dead, the task will soon fall on Terry to take over, just as he did with Doyle’s pigeons.

But Doyle wasn’t the only Shepard to come before Terry. The Zealous priest (Karl Madden) was the first audible voice of opposition against the mob. Notice in the film that he constantly is asking dockhands for a cigarette, but he never actually lights one. This shows the priest’s dedication to the union workers while never actually succumbing to their vices.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme in the film though, is the idea of self-sacrifice. The most obvious reference to this in the film is that of Jesus. It is important to notice the physical changes in Terry as he begins to understand the need for this sacrifice.

Almost immediately after Terry agrees to cooperate with the police he is cut with a piece of glass. Normally this would be insignificant, but Terry was cut in the wrist (the exact place that those who were crucified received their nails). He continues to gain more physical similarities to Jesus as the film goes on. Not only does he take a flogging from a group of mob henchmen, which pretty much destroys his face, but he also is forced to take one last walk along the docks in front of the rest of the union workers, a task that is not made easy due to the fact that he could barely stand under his own power. This one final act of sacrifice served as a symbol that was able to set the other union workers free of the mob.

This is a film that was based on a book, which was inspired by newspaper articles, which are (of course) based on true events. More importantly, as one of the detectives in the film said, this is a story that the public has a right to be told. We so often take for granted our rights in this country but we never actually think about where they come from. The military seems to get its due credit, probably about eight or nine times on this AFI list for instance, but men in arms weren’t the only ones that suffered to make our lives better. Countless people had to go hungry, cold, or homeless so that we could enjoy the labour standards that we have today, but they don’t seem to get any credit (as far as I know there are two films on this list that celebrate the achievements of union workers: On the Waterfront and The Grapes of Wrath). Well this is their epic. This is a film that those in the past can be honoured by. And, it is a film that we can still enjoy today.

#18 The General

“There were two loves in his life. His engine, and–”
Narrator

Buster Keaton’s comedy romance set during the American civil war, is at times funny, at times epic, and at times a little boring.

The story is based on a true story, though, as Keaton is playing a confederate, history tells us that his real life counterpart was not so likeable.

When Johnny Gray (Keaton), a locomotive engineer, realizes that is favourite train, along with his favourite girl, has been stolen by Yankees, he sets out on a one man rescue mission to reclaim the only two things that he cares about in the world.

While trying to recover his beloved train, Johnny stumbles upon a union plot to, through destroying confederate telegraphs and support lines, destroy the confederate uprising. Johnny, who does not care about this war nearly as much as he cares about Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), inadvertently becomes an invaluable contributor in the war for the south.

While trying to save Annabelle, Johnny ends up striking a major blow against the North and earning himself a prestigious spot in the confederate army. More importantly to Johnny though, he is also able to win the heart of Annabelle.

Keaton was a perfectionist, and that showed in this film. When you consider the time that this film was made in, some of these shots would seem nearly impossible to achieve. One scene, in which a bridge collapses under the weight of a speeding train, was the most expensive scene to ever be shot for any silent film.

But a huge budget wasn’t all that Keaton had to work with. To get a cannon ball to shoot the exact right distance in one scene Keaton had to count out gunpowder grains with a set of tweezers.

That being said, it is no longer 1927. These shots are not nearly as impressive to a modern audience as they would have been to pre World War II audience. So, like most films from an older time, the value of this film rests on certain timeless qualities. This film, unfortunately, does not seem to have these qualities.

The film, which deals with themes such as love, and social status, is basically one long chase scene. There are a few things that break this up, a union meeting and a final battle between the North and South for instance, but most of this film is either Johnny chasing confederates or the confederates chasing Johnny.

One major area in which this film fails is its inability to draw the viewer in. The characters are difficult to truly invest yourself in. The love interest, whose love is conditional on Johnny enlisting in the military, is hard to sympathize with. More importantly, Johnny himself is difficult to sympathize with.
As a physical comic Keaton is good, but he is no Chaplain. His movements are not as hypnotic as Chaplain’s, and his sense of timing, at least in this film, is not quite as tight. This is very important due to the fact that certain scenes could have been drastically improved had the slapstick physical comedy been more engaging.

The film wasn’t all bad though. Saying Keaton is no Chaplain isn’t the worst insult in the world. His performance is still strong, it just left some room for improvement.

The film did generate quite a few genuine laughs, and, in the end, isn’t that all you really need from a comedy? Moreover, this film’s contibution to the film industry is invaluable. It raised the bar for what could be shown on the screen much the same way Gone With the Wind did thirteen years later. It is likely that this film will not change anyone’s life in any profound way in today’s age. However, this film still has the ability to be enjoyed by viewers, and, eighty-five years later, that is quite impressive.

If you want to check out this film, it is available for free (100% Legal) download by clicking here

#17 The Graduate

“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
Ben Braddock

The Graduate is a story that is old as time. Boy meets woman. Boy is awkward around woman. Boy is seduced by this much older woman. Boy falls in love with much older woman’s daughter. And finally, boy is entrapped into telling much older woman’s daughter about his affair with her mother. All right, maybe the story isn’t so common.

The Graduate focuses on the recent college grad’s experiences. Ben, a track star and debate team captain, returns home after graduating college to a warm welcome, high expectations, and a shiny new Italian sports car, from his parents. The problem for Ben is that he really doesn’t want to do anything. He has no clear picture of what he wants his life to become. But, on the night of his homecoming Ben is trapped into driving his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson, home.

Upon reaching the Robinson household Ben is duped into joining Mrs. Robinson for a late night drink. Alone in the house, Mrs. Robinson plants a seed of seduction in young Ben’s head, and a torrid love affair ensues.

Not all is well for young Ben though. He quickly realizes that Mrs. Robinson does not love him, or even care for him. Unfortunately for Ben, the allure of steady sex without commitments is too much for him to overcome, and both the affair, and Ben’s quite obvious self loathing, continue. That is until Ben’s father forces him to take Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, out on a date. This is of course a strict violation of the only rule that the overbearing Mrs. Robinson has given young Ben.

In an attempt to not anger Mrs. Robinson, and maintain his steady sex-life, Ben attempts to show Elaine the worst possible time he can. Ben is quite successful in his attempts too. Elaine eventually ends up leaving the date in tears.

This is when Ben become truly likable for the first time. He explains to Elaine that he was intentionally trying to repel her because he is already seeing someone. He proceeds to tell her his story (a slightly censored version of course), takes her out for burger, and saves the date. Unfortunately for Ben a fatal error occurred while trying to cheer Elaine up, he fell in love with her.

This leads Mrs. Robinson to give Ben an ultimatum. He either has to leave Elaine of his own volition, or Mrs. Robinson will revel their affair. Not to give too much of the plot away, Ben chooses the latter and spends the rest of the movie trying to get Elaine to forgive him.

This is a romantic comedy that isn’t so romantic. It is raw and bleak, and in spite of the fact the Ben finds hope for his future through love, he never fully overcomes the morose state that he finds himself in at the start of the film.

There are few key themes to this movie that, if missed, could prevent the viewer from truly understanding this film. Ben, who is afraid of the future, returns home to seek comfort and he finds it in the much older Mrs. Robison. This sets up the first main theme of this film.
Many of the images in this film depict a need for motherly love. Ben’s return home, and his constant need to reside in his parents’ pool, shows his longing to return to the comfort of the womb. Clearly lacking a certain degree of confidence, this state would have been ideal for young Ben as babies are generally blindly loved by their parents before they accomplish anything. Ben, who has accomplished quite a bit, fears that his parents’ love is dependant on his continual success. Every thing, even the physical act of love with Mrs. Robinson, demonstrates this need in Ben.

Ben’s dependence on parental acceptance is finally overcome when he meets Elaine. He quickly casts aside his days enveloped in the pool, and his nights with Mrs. Robinson, for the proposition of romantic love rather than platonic. This is further illustrated when Ben flees his parents’ house and takes up residence at Berkley College. Sadly, all is not well for Ben.

The love that inspired him to grasp his independence was fleeting. And, while the couple lasted until the end of the movie, the looks on the faces of Both Elaine and Ben as they iconiclly ride away from the church in a bus, demonstrates the fleeting nature of love, and the need to grasp independence through one’s self, rather than through others.

The Graduate is an excellent study on the affect that love and sex have on a young man. The film is slick with comedic dialogue, and is well acted. The soundtrack, which was done exclusively by Simon and Garfunkel, was perfect for the mood of this film. And most importantly the story progresses naturally, with one exception. Ben’s love for Elaine seemed a bit accelerated, but lets face it, who wouldn’t fall in love with a crying, burger eating, joke telling Katharine Ross.

#16 Sunset Blvd.

“The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.”
John Gilles

Strong performances, sharp dialogue, and brilliant narration drive Billy Wilder’s story of love, imprisonment, rejection, and murder.

Sunset Blvd. focuses on John Gillis (William Holden) a washed-up screenwriter who, while on the run from some very tenacious debt collectors, blows a tire and seeks refuge in a seemingly abandoned house. Once it becomes clear that his pursuers have moved on, John investigates the Sunset Boulevard mansion and quickly finds out that it is not as abandoned as he had thought.

The resident of this house is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star who, twenty years after her film career has effectively died, has become a recluse. With only her butler, and a recently departed chimpanzee, for company, Norma is all too excited at the prospect of having a young writer for company.

Norma quickly puts John’s skills as a writer to use editing a script she has written that she is quite confident will be her return to the spotlight. John, who is not impressed with any aspect of the script at all, sees this as an opportunity to ease his financial woes. So, naturally, he agrees to ghostwrite for her.

John begins to regret this decision almost immediately though when he realizes that it is not his skills as a writer that Norma is after. Rather, Norma seeks John’s love, his youth, even his freedom. This becomes particularly problematic for John when a romance begins to bloom between himself, and Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a script reader for Paramount Pictures.

Ultimately Norma’s obsession with John leads to both John’s murder (don’t worry that’s not a spoiler), and one last moment in front of the cameras for Norma.

This film does so much right. The most obvious and impacting aspect of this film is the narration. Right form the start the powerful voice, and moving words, of William Holden draw the viewer in to the story while creating an atmosphere that accurately reflects the mood of the film.

Also adding to the mood of this film is the impeccable job that is done by the four leading actors. William Holden’s performance could most easily be compared to Humphrey Bogart’s in Casablanca. Every second that he is on the screen he demands the complete and undivided attention of the viewer.

Gloria Swanson is like nails on a chalkboard. As the aging film star, every word that comes out of her mouth causes the viewer to grind their teeth, and this is exactly what was needed of her, and her character.

Much the opposite of Swanson, relative newcomer Nancy Olson was an absolute delight as Betty, the love interest to John. It is hard to see how any one would be able to resist falling in love with this script reader with a knack for inspiring washed up writers. What she does best of all though is provide some sense of hope to this story, which is otherwise quite bleak.

Together these three actors are a force that grab the plot by the reigns, and allow director Billy Wilder to accomplish exactly what he intended to with this film. This is no easy task considering what he intended to accomplish was not a simple murder/love story.

There are many themes that Wilder explores in this film. The various shots of decaying landscapes, as well as the death of Norma’s pet chimpanzee, eerily reflect the mortality of every earthly thing. It also reflects the impact that time inevitably has on each of these mortal things. This sentiment is further illustrated in both the life, and the actions, of Norma throughout the movie.

The second major theme that Wilder explores is imprisonment. Everything in this film, from the barred front door of Norma’s mansion, to the way that characters hold each other (a pool side scene in which Norma tightly wraps a towel around John’s neck comes to mind), demonstrates captivity. Everything in this film, even words in films, holds the characters in a state of imprisonment. More specifically, these subtle images show just how much of a strangle hold the trappings of wealth hold over humanity

The journey out of captivity for these characters is not a hopeless one though. Both John and Norma are able to achieve a sense of freedom through love. This is demonstrated in John’s ability to leave the barred mansion for his late night script writing sessions with the woman he loves, Betty. More subtly this sentiment is displayed when Norma carelessly tosses her tiara to the floor so she can rest her head on John’s shoulder. Sadly the two characters’ love is ultimately not for each other.

Love being an escape from imprisonment is certainly not a new idea. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of modernist literature, and, while this film was made just slightly after that era, the influence of modernist writers is clear in this film. What is special about this film is the way that it presents this theme. It is not the actions of this film that are important. What is important is how these actions affect the characters that inhabit the film (another influence of the modernist movement).

Because of this subtle difference the film is able to use a variety of powerful visuals, dialogue, and narration that creates a work of art that is complete in nearly every aspect of the word.

It is funny how a seemingly simple story of love and murder can carry with it so much else. That is the power that love has over people. For John, Love was late night writing with Betty. For Norma, love was a bit more confusing. She thought she wanted John, but all she really wanted was one last moment in the spotlight. And the world had a funny way of granting her one final close-up.

“I am big, it’s the pictures that have become small”
Norma Desmond

#15 2001: A Space Odyssey

“This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.”
HAL

2001: A Space Odyssey is different than anything you have ever seen. Many aspects of the film, such as the score, will be instantly recognizable to nearly every viewer. And many aspects of this film will be more foreign to viewers than anything they have ever seen.

Keep one thing in mind before watching this film. This is not a movie that can be fully understood. It is not meant to be fully understood, and it is possible that there is no ultimate meaning to it. This can cause the film to be a frustrating watch and create an unsatisfied feeling when the film is over. That being said, the artistic merits of this film cannot be disputed.

Every shot director Stanley Kubrick made was a deliberate shot with a specific purpose. Each shot was designed to create a specific emotion, and the result is magnificent. Similar to Hitchcock’s meticulous nature on the set of Psycho, Kubrick seemingly would stop at nothing to create exactly the images needed to set the perfect tone for the film.

Kubrick’s vision differed from Hitchcock’s in a fundamental way though. While Hitchcock did whatever he could to invite the viewer into the twisted world of Norman Bates by shooting at angles that the viewer is used to seeing, and with lenses that are similar to the human eye, Kubrick did whatever he could to isolate the viewer. The visual artistry did not stop there though.

2001 has been described as a Sci-Fi epic, and this description could not be more apt. Somehow Kubrick was able to create a journey through space that was both visually grand, and intellectually plausible. And unlike most works of science fiction that were around during this film’s 1968 release date, the special effects still hold up.

Visually the film was quite impressive, but Kubrick’s job was not finished with just what was seen. So much of this film’s story is transmitted through sound. For much of the movie all that can be heard is breathing, and the affect this has on the psyche of the viewer cannot be overstated. The film creates steady uneasy feeling of isolation.

The film takes place over four very distinct and separate acts. The first act centres on a fictional representation of the dawn of man. When a monolith appears over night outside the den of a group of sleeping apes an unspoken challenge from the universe is issued. The apes respond to this challenge by creating weapons out of the bones of dead animals. They use these weapons to drive a rival group of apes away from their watering hole, and almost overnight, the tool is born, and evolution takes flight.

The second act focuses on a crew that has discovered an artifact buried forty feet below the surface of the moon. It is a similar monolith as the one that spurred the apes to create their tools 4 million years prior.

When the humans discover this monolith they also discover that it is sending a pulse towards Jupiter, and once again, a challenge is issued.

The third act takes place eighteen months after the discovery of the monolith on the moon. Humanity has accepted the unspoken challenge of the monolith and has sent a crew of five men, and one really smart computer to Jupiter. The afore mentioned, “really smart computer” is an artificial intelligence unit named HAL. To date he is humanity’s greatest tool, and our only real hope for reaching Jupiter. He controls the ship’s life support, lights, doors, and basically everything that is mechanical on the ship. I don’t want to give anymore of the plot away, but I bet you can tell where that battle between man and technology goes.

The fourth act is what will turn most people off of this movie. The end is completely ambiguous, and that is the point. Sadly this leaves the viewer with a hollow feeling when the credits appear. Desperate for answers most people will probably resent the film and simply write it off as pretentious nonsense. But this would be a mistake.

There is no real ending to this film. How could there be? For there to be an effective ending to this film Kubrick would have to possess a complete understanding of the universe, something that he does not have. Instead Kubrick left the ending open to speculation. This was a wise choice by Kubrick as the themes that were dealt with in this film were too complex to be explained by any one revelatory statement.

This film deals with themes that range from man evolving, not just from apes but within themselves, to our dependence on technology. The most important thing to consider about this film though is its release date. This film was released one year before the moon landing, and with all eyes on space it seemed inevitable that our future lay among the stars.

Ultimately this film is about who we are as people, where both technology and curiosity will lead us in the future, and what will happen when that technology, as well as our physical bodies, fails us.

Who we are and where we are going are the most universal questions humanity has, and this film shows that. What this film does not do is provide any answers to these questions, but how could it?

It is possible to speculate that the monoliths that appear throughout the movie represent an architect of intelligent design. A being that created in all living things a subconscious knowledge of itself. A being that spurred the intellectual development of all living things, and created in these things a desire to seek it out. This would just be speculation though.

Kubrick himself said that there was no one correct interpretation of his film. The film does not act as a vehicle of enlightenment.  Rather, it simply exists to make the viewer ask the questions that are always lying right beneath humanity consciousness.

#14 Psycho

“I think I must have one of those faces you can’t help believing.”
Norman Bates

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho is a perfect example of what a modest budget, an intriguing story, and a brilliant director can do. Everything about this film is near perfect, and Hitchcock’s dedication to it is amazing.

Psycho focuses on quite the cast of characters. The film opens with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), an office worker who has stolen 40,000 dollars from her boss and is now forced to flee from Arizona to Phoenix. En route a storm causes Marion to momentarily put a halt to her journey. She uses this opportunity to pull off the main highway and take up lodging at the Bates Motel. And it is at the Bates Motel that that Marion meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

Bates could most easily be described as a recluse from society. Running a motel just off the highway, Norman does not have the opportunity to interact with anyone on a regular basis. Anyone that is, except his mother, and the psychological result this has on him is… complex.

Not much else can be said about the plot of this movie other than that. Not that there isn’t anymore to say, I just feel that if I did Hitchcock himself may come back to life and strangle me. After all, that is what is so special about this film, the fact that absolutely nothing is revealed until the moment it happens.

Hitchcock was meticulous in every aspect of this film. Small details, like what colour Janet Leigh’s bra was (white to denote mischief and black to imply evil), to where her clothes were bought (in an attempt to add believability the character was dressed in “off the rack” clothing), demonstrate just how important every frame was to Hitchcock. And the result of this dedication was brilliance.

Hitchcock creates an atmosphere in this film that is unlike any other thriller made to date (at least as far as I have seen). One scene in particular (in which Hitchcock mounted a 50mm lens on a 30mm camera), when Norman’s sense of voyeurism is supposed to mirror our own, is one of the most realistic and life like shots I have ever seen on film.

If this film were nothing more than an exercise in near perfect direction it would be worth a watch, but it is so much more than just that. The psychological complexity of Norman Bates is astounding, the dialogue is sharp, and the end… well, lets just say you will wish that all your friends had watched this movie with you so you could discuss the ending with them.

At first glance Psycho would appear to be a common fifties black and white b-grade slasher flic. Its budget was only 800,000 dollars, and most of the actors, with the exception of Janet Leigh, were relatively unknown when the film was made. But this is not what Psycho is. Psycho is a work of Art on nearly every level. It took the genre, and created a yard stick which all future thrillers would be judged by.

Sometimes a piece of art is so magnificent it does not simply require appreciation, it demands adulation. This picture, is one of those pieces.

#13 Star Wars

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Blue Letters in Space

Didn’t I just watch the terrestrial version of this last night?

Yes, Star Wars was basically the same movie as The Searchers, only without all the racism. And it was in space! This of course leads me to ask, is it okay that Star Wars is a story that has been told a million times before? Of course it is. The beautiful thing about art is that it builds upon itself. Did Fight Club suck because Sybil came first? Of course not. Star Wars’ story of “girl gets captured, boy finds out, boy adopts some sidekicks, boy faces near impossible odds, and boy emerges victorious” is certainly not a new story, but that doesn’t really matter. What is important about this movie is the way the story is told.

Granted I am more familiar with the 1997, purist killing, digitally enhanced special editions, than the originals, the fact does remain, what George Lucas was able to accomplish with this film was amazing. Visually it was unlike anything that had ever been seen, or would be seen for quite sometime. And more importantly it created a world that allowed viewers to completely lose them selves, much like Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek.

It is amazing how certain films are able to capture the imaginations of so many people, and Star Wars, perhaps more than any other film, succeeds in doing this. That is what this film did right, but there is plenty that it did wrong. Lucas is a terrific producer, and his vision for the film, although quite cluttered, was brilliant. Lucas’s failure however, can be found in his in-experience as a director. I will undoubtedly take a massive amount of flack for saying this, but some of his faults are too obvious not to point out.

The acting in this movie is not particularly good, a problem that I attribute to Lucas’s inexperience as a director, as Harrison Ford, Mark Hammil, and Alec Guiness, have all proven themselves to be formidable actors. This example is echoed by the seemingly bad acting in the prequel trilogy in which, Hayden Christensen, Natlie Portman, Ewan Macgregor, Liam Neeson, and Samuel L. Jackson, all appear to be amateurs reading unpolished lines. None of these actors could be considered bad actors, not when their full catalogue of work is looked at, yet they all seem to stumble over the clumsy guidance, and the inarticulate writing of their puppet master George Lucas.

This brings me to my next problem with the movie, the writing. Frequently Ford had to change lines in the film that were easy to write, but difficult to say. Alec Guiness even claims to have asked to be killed off in the first movie, due to the terrible working conditions and trashy dialogue. Lucas claims that Guiness’s claims are false, but the fact that Guiness did claim this says something about Lucas as a director.

Strangely though, even with all these faults, I really love this movie, it’s great. There are many explanations as to why I love this movie. Maybe because I watched it as a kid, and acting and dialogue were not as important as adventure and light sabers, the faults have been overlooked. I do not think this is the case though.

Apparently while the film was in production, Lucas instructed the props department to roll R2 units in sand, chip them with a saw, and hammer dents into them. This is why the film is so great, the flaws. Anything negative about this movie only serves to better it in the end. Corny dialogue allows us to focus on the amazing visuals. Made-up words and goofy looking aliens create a unique world capable of completely capturing the imagination. And most importantly, dirty, broken props, create a world that is tangible. Unlike most sci-fi movies, where everything is clean, bright, and foreign, Star Wars is dirty and raw. Tantooine is a place that we as viewers can believe exists. The heroes get dirt on their clothes, and they aren’t afraid to drop the stoic emotions normally reserved for sci-fi characters and just be funny. Even more important, they are relatable. Despite the fact that the heroes of Star Wars are not in fact human, they are easier to relate to than many science fiction characters that do come from our planet.

Star Wars is a classic that will be loved for generations to come. It needs the bad props, terrible puppets, corny dialogue, and played out story line, because these things are what make it so good. You have to take these bad things with a grain of salt because, as Lucas proved with his prequels, perfect and clean, is not always a good thing.

Greedo shot first.

#12 The Searchers

“Some day this country will be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”
Mrs. Jorgensen

Not sure how I feel about this one. It was an enjoyable enough movie, but placing it in the top twenty movies of all time feels like a little bit of a stretch. I say this with no disrespect intended. The film is, at times, both beautiful and horrifying, and the central character, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), is a mirror of both of these sentiments.

The Searchers focuses on Ethan, a Confederate fighter who has recently returned to his brother’s Texas house. Ethan’s hopes of living with his family come to an abrupt halt though when a Comache raid results in the death all but one member of his family. This leads Ethan, and the aptly dubbed “one who follows” Martin Dawley, on a six year journey to reclaim the soul survivor of the raid, Ethan’s niece Debbie, and exact revenge on the Comache people. As the quest to find Debbie progresses Martin quickly realizes that Ethan’s motives may be questionable at best. That is all I would like to say about the plot at this point.

Many people will probably be put off by the overt racist and unsympathetic nature of the film’s main character. While all white characters in this film have some sort of prejudice against the Comache people, Ethan’s prejudice obviously has deeper roots than anyone else’s. There are reasons for this prejudice (if you read tombstones you can find out that his mother had been killed in a similar raid 16 years earlier), yet Ethan remains unsympathetic throughout the film, despite a somewhat redeeming shot at the end that was probably meant to sugarcoat the reality of the character. It is unfortunate that it was deemed necessary to add this redemption because a completely racist, unredeemable, lead character was exactly what this movie needed.

Ethan could have been a perfect anti-hero in this movie. Unfortunately that would have created a far too depressing ending.  In any event the ending probably would have been lost on a 1956 audience had there not been this redemption. It really is sad that the obvious has to be frequently pointed out to the audience, it robbed this film of its perfect ending, but it also made the film easier to understand. Worthy trade-off?

That’s enough of dissecting themes and my disdain for lazy viewers. The technical merits of this film are quite high. The location shots and sets shots flow together successfully causing a story to play out in a way that is both grand and intimate. Visually the film is quite satisfying.

As far as the acting goes, you know what you’re going to get from John Wayne, so I’ll focus on his support staff. Jeffrey Hunter, who played Martin, for the most part was able to hold his own with the Duke. There were a couple of scenes that felt over-acted, but nothing that was unforgivable. The next most important character was that of Martin’s love interest Laurie Jorgensen, played by Vera Miles. She was okay, but nothing special. She was supposed to play Kim Novak’s role in Vertigo but due to pregnancy had to drop out, and based on her performance in this movie, that was for the best. I would never question Hitchcock, but, Kim Novak was nearly impossible not to fall in love with in Vertigo, Miles was quite easy to resist in this movie.

The Film’s main fault, other than it’s ending, was its time lapse. The first Lapse lasts a year, and the second lasts five, yet neither of these periods have any feeling of time actually passing. The only indication of this passage is the coming of snow, and maybe this is just because I live in Edmonton, but showing snow once isn’t enough to illustrate that five years have passed. This is damaging to the film. It is hard to understand why certain characters feel the way they do because the significance of five years is impossible to feel. Thankfully the story is compelling enough to raise the film above this flaw.

As far as the Western Genre, and the 1950’s, will allow, this film was quite powerful. It is a solid film that, if it were granted an American History X style ending, could have been nearly perfect.

#11 City Lights

“Tomorrow the birds will sing.”
The Tramp

What is it about a guy falling down that is so funny? Without any words, Charlie Chaplin is able to evoke emotion in a way that few physical comics in the modern day, even with the aid of pithy one-liners, are able to. What is truly great about City Lights is that it shows just how little people change.

The Film was released in the 30’s and, while in the grand scheme of things 80 years may not seem like a lot, it does illustrate how much the world has changed. 22 dollar rent, doctors making house calls, and the Tramp’s job cleaning horse manure off the streets, are all date markers for just how different the world was in the 30’s. There were no cell phones, or social networking, yet people still interacted in the same way. Fundamentally, despite the fact that we now have iPads, we as people haven’t changed. And that is what is so great about this film.

The emotions, problems, and themes that the Tramp faces in City Lights are universal, and their power and importance do not diminish over time. In fact, in the time that has passed since its release this film has become even more important, and I am confident that as more time passes its relevance will grow accordingly.

Obviously there are technical aspect of this film that could have benefited from some modern techniques. But Charles Chaplin was a genius. By directing, starring, and writing, both the plot and music for, this movie, Chaplin was able to create a piece of art that is both timeless and entertaining. He was also able to prove that no matter when it happened, a drunk guy falling down is ALWAYS funny.