Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Top 10 movies

My ten great movies #1: The Red Shoes

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Like all great films, but much more so, The Red Shoes—which I think is the greatest movie ever made—works on two levels, as both a story of life and a story of film. As the latter, it’s simply the most inventive movie ever made in Technicolor, second only to Citizen Kane in its abundance of tricks and flourishes. These range from small cinematic jokes (like its use of the scrolling title Forty-five minutes later, subsequently borrowed by Scorsese in The Aviator, to indicate the passage of time within a single shot) to effects of unforgettable emotional power (like the empty spotlight on the stage in the final scene). It’s the definitive work by a pair of filmmakers who had spent the previous decade on an unparalleled streak, making more great films in ten years than five ordinary directors could produce in an entire career. And The Red Shoes was the movie they had been building toward all along, because along with everything else, it’s the best film we have about the artistic process itself.

And even here, it works on multiple levels. As a depiction of life at a ballet company, it may not be as realistic as it seems—Moira Shearer, among others, has dismissed it as pure fantasy—but it feels real, and it remains the most romantic depiction of creative collaboration yet captured on film. (It inspired countless careers in dance, and certainly inspired me to care deeply about ballet, an art form toward which I’d been completely indifferent before seeing this movie.) And as an allegory, it’s unsurpassed: Lermontov’s cruelty toward Vicky is really a dramatization of the dialogue between art and practicality that takes place inside every artist’s head. This may be why The Red Shoes is so important to me now: from the moment I first saw it, it’s been one of my ten favorite films, but over the years, and especially after I decided to become a writer, my love for it has increased beyond what I feel toward almost any other work of art. Yet Vicky’s final words still haunt me, as does Lermontov’s offhand remark, which stands as a permanent warning, and enticement, to artists of all kinds: “The red shoes are never tired.”

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #2: Blue Velvet

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Years ago, after watching the fifty minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet, I became more convinced than ever that the secret hero of my favorite American movie was editor Duwayne Dunham. Some of the rediscovered scenes were extraordinary—the scene with Jeffrey and Dorothy on the rooftop, in particular, was one I’d been waiting to see my entire life—but including them in the theatrical cut of the film would have resulted in a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, but shapeless and digressive, and of interest only to a small cadre of devoted fans. Dunham, who edited Return of the Jedi only a few years earlier and would later become a successful director in his own right, no doubt deserves much of the credit for paring the original cut down to its current, perfect two-hour form, a crucial step in the process that placed David Lynch, however briefly, at the center of our culture.

Because for all its strangeness and sexual violence, this is a remarkably accessible movie, an art film that takes the shape of a thriller and, rather than undermining the genre’s conventions, honors and extends them. For the only time in his career, with the exception of a few indelible moments on Twin Peaks, Lynch displays an almost childlike delight in the mechanisms of suspense for their own sake, and his great set pieces—bookended by the two scenes of Jeffrey peering through the closet door—deserve comparison to Hitchcock by way of Duchamp. (Some have detected the influence of Étant Donnés in Lynch’s vision here, which I can only imagine subconsciously influenced my decision to put Duchamp’s installation at the center of my first novel.) Like L.A. Confidential, this a total film, a work of art that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies, and for me, it’s even more: a vision, or a dream, that I’m grateful to revisit again and again.

Tomorrow: The best film ever made about the artistic process, and my favorite movie of all time.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #3: Chungking Express

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According to legend, it took Wong Kar-Wai six weeks to make Chungking Express, from initial conception to final cut, during a break in the editing of his troubled martial arts epic Ashes of Time. If true, it’s the strongest possible example I can imagine of the role of luck and spontaneity in the creation of great works of cinema: nothing Wong has done since has been as insightful, beautiful, or moving, even as his films have disappeared down the rabbit hole of Kubrickian perfectionism. My Blueberry Nights, while minor, represented a step in the right direction: this is a man who needs to make a quick, stylish, unassuming movie at least once a year. Because while it might not rank at the top of my list, of all the movies I’ve ever seen, Chungking Express is the one I love the most, a vision of life that I want to believe, even if it only exists in the head of one of our most interesting directors.

A few years ago, on a trip to Hong Kong, I made a point of seeking out some of this movie’s emotional landmarks, especially a certain outdoor escalator. But in a sense, I already spent most of my twenties trying to recreate these moments, in another great city. The two stories in Chungking Express are a portrait of lonely lives, struggling to connect in tentative ways, mostly at night: a subject that might have seemed grim in the hands of a different director, but here becomes delightfully, irresistibly romantic. The discovery of beauty in everyday spaces—lunch counters, trains, cramped apartments—is one of cinema’s greatest strengths, and Wong is its most seductive recent practitioner. His other films, especially Fallen Angels, are invariably fascinating, but this is the one where all the stars aligned. It may never happen again, but thank God, it happened here.

Tomorrow: A thriller that outdid Hitchcock by way of Duchamp.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #4: The Shining

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For most of the past decade, the Kubrick film on this list would have been Eyes Wide Shut, and while my love for that movie remains undiminished—I think it’s Kubrick’s most humane and emotionally complex work, and endlessly inventive in ways that most viewers tend to underestimate—it’s clear now that The Shining is more central to my experience of the movies. The crucial factor, perhaps unsurprisingly, was my decision to become a writer. Because while there have been a lot of movies about novelists, The Shining is by far our greatest storehouse of images about the inside of a writer’s head. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill, and there isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy.

The visual, aural, and visceral experience of The Shining is so overwhelming that there’s no need to describe it here. Instead, I’d like to talk about the performances, which are the richest that Kubrick—often underrated in his handling of actors—ever managed to elicit. (Full credit should also be given to Stephen King’s original novel, to which the movie is more indebted than is generally acknowledged.) At one point, I thought that the film’s only major flaw is that it was impossible to imagine Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple, but I’m no longer sure about this: there are marriages this strange and mismatched, and the glimpses of their relationship early on are depressingly plausible. Duvall gives what is simply one of the major female performances in the history of movies, and as David Thomson was among the first to point out, Nicholson is great when he plays crazy, but he’s also strangely tender in his few quiet scenes with his son. “You’ve always been the caretaker,” Grady’s ghost tells Torrance, and his personality suffuses every frame of this incredible labyrinth.

Tomorrow: A masterpiece in six weeks.

Written by nevalalee

May 19, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #5: Citizen Kane

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“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper,” writes Charles Foster Kane to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, only to confess in the following scene: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper—I just try everything I can think of.” In those two lines, Citizen Kane captures the romance of what it means to be young, gifted, and boundless of ambition, and in particular, what it meant to be Orson Welles, twenty-five, already famous, and given the keys to the greatest train set a boy ever had. This honeymoon wouldn’t last forever, of course, and Welles barely survived two more years in Hollywood. But the memory of those days lives on, in Kane and in much of The Magnificent Ambersons, with Kane in particular serving as both the most lasting movie ever made in America and a bittersweet emblem of what might have been.

Kane is famously the film that inspired the careers of more directors than any other, and even for those of us who express ourselves in other ways, it’s a shining example of what can be accomplished when respect for the lessons of craft is combined with a reckless disregard of the rules. Most of the great innovations in the arts and sciences come when an individual of genius changes fields, and with Welles, with his unsurpassed training in theater and radio, Hollywood not only got a genuine boy wonder, but gave him the freedom and resources he needed to do great work—a lucky combination that would never happen again. Welles came to RKO with a willingness to try everything once and, more importantly, to listen to the likes of Gregg Toland and benefit from their skill and experience. Without this bedrock of craft, Kane would be a mess of inspirations; without inspiration, it would be pointless technique. But for once, blessedly, a Hollywood film had both. And the movies would never be the same.

Tomorrow: The best movie about writing ever made.

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #6: Vertigo

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Like many great works of art, Vertigo lingers in the imagination—perhaps more than any other movie I’ve ever seen—because it oscillates so nervously between its surface pleasures and its darkest depths. It’s both the ultimate Hitchcock entertainment, with its flawless cinematography, iconic Edith Head costumes, and lush Bernard Herrmann score, and the most psychologically complex film ever produced in America. In many respects, it’s the most mysterious movie ever made, but whenever I watch it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics: the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, and the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Early on, it can come off as routine, even banal, which leaves us even less prepared for its climax, a sick joke or sucker punch that also breaks the heart. There’s no greater ending in all of movies, and it works because it’s so cruel, arbitrary, and unfair.

Vertigo takes so many insane, unjustifiable risks that it inevitably feels flawed in places, despite long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful and painful. When Judy turns to the camera and the image is flooded with red, we’re as close to the heart of movies as we’ll ever get. As David Thomson writes: “It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.”

Next week: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

May 15, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #7: Casablanca

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Casablanca is often called an accidental masterpiece, a movie where the necessary elements came together almost by chance, which is reasonably true, to a point. If anything, though, it’s the ultimate illustration of the maxim that luck is just another word for preparation. For Casablanca to occur, you needed a journeyman director of consummate technical skill; a team of screenwriters whose craft had been honed under some of the most demanding conditions possible; and a set of extraordinarily capable actors gathered over time on the Warner Bros lot. As Thomas Schatz convincingly documents in The Genius of the System, the Hollywood studios of the thirties and forties were exactly the sort of machine that would produce a masterpiece like Casablanca sooner or later, although the shape of the resulting movie itself couldn’t have been predicted.

And the details are what make this movie so special. Now that Casablanca has become a canonical work like Hamlet, in which every line sounds like a cliché, it’s hard to appreciate how beautifully it transforms a story full of stock types and incidents into something specific, atmospheric, and emotional. One can profitably explore almost any element of the film’s production, but I’d like to concentrate on just one: Claude Rains’s performance as Captain Renault, which may be my favorite supporting performance in any movie. Rains never won an Oscar, although he was nominated four times, but his work here is Hollywood acting at its best: mannered in some ways, but with a professional delight in great dialogue ravishingly delivered—Casablanca has more laughs than most comedies, and Rains is good for at least half. His performance, like the rest of Casablanca, isn’t a matter of luck at all, but professionalism ready to seize the moment when it came. Sixty years later, there’s never been a better example.

Tomorrow: The cinema of obsession.

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2015 at 9:00 am

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