Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Top 10 movies

My ten great movies #8: The Third Man

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Even for passionate movie lovers, two things tend to date the classic films of the thirties and forties: their sets, with the inescapable smell of the studio, and their orchestral scores, which to modern ears tend to sound depressingly alike. It’s quite possible, then, that we have both the city of Vienna and Anton Karas to thank for the fact that The Third Man still seems so fresh. The zither score, combined with the extraordinary locations, result in a film that seems both utterly of its time and completely modern—and one that requires less of a mental adjustment to enjoy than any other movie of its era I know. Combine this with Graham Greene’s great script, with its uncredited contributions from Orson Welles and others, and we have what is both the breeziest and darkest of noirs, a film I love so much that I steal from it directly both in my novelette “Kawataro” and the conclusion of my novel City of Exiles.

Everyone knows how completely Welles dominates the movie with only a reel or so of screen time—which, while delicious, seems much more of its period than the rest of the film—to the point where our memory of Harry Lime tends to overshadow the rest of the cast: Joseph Cotten, the very moving Alida Valli, and especially Trevor Howard as Major Calloway, who contributes perhaps the film’s most stylish performance. The big moments—Harry’s entrance, the ferris wheel scene, the great closing shot—are deservedly famous, but I also like the small touches: the wizened little boy with the ball; the moment when Sgt. Paine (the wonderful Bernard Lee) loads the picture of a rhinoceros into the slide projector by mistake; or the glimpses we get into the work of hack writer Holly Martens though the eyes of his admiring readers: “I never knew there were snake charmers in Texas.” But as Carol Reed’s great film reminds us, there are certainly snakes in Vienna. And they’re very charming.

Tomorrow: The triumph of the studio system.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #9: Seven Samurai

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This is my favorite screenplay of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. It’s a story so organic, simple, and rich with possibility that it’s astonishing that it took half a century of cinema for a great director to discover. At well over three hours, this is a long movie, yet it never seems padded or excessive: every scene flows naturally from the premise, until it becomes a film that feels like it could go on forever, like life itself. Elsewhere, I’ve quoted the critic Donald Richie on “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” which Seven Samurai has in abundance:

Part of the beauty of such scenes…is just that they are “thrown away” as it were, that they have no place, that they do not ostensibly contribute, that they even constitute what has been called bad filmmaking. It is not the beauty of these unexpected images, however, that captivates…but their mystery. They must remain unexplained…

What one remembers best from this superbly economical film then are those scenes which seem most uneconomical—that is, those which apparently add nothing to it.

Kurosawa’s ability here to combine rigorous narrative logic with moments of intuitive beauty, the product of a perfectly matched right and left brain, is unsurpassed. Figures glimpsed only for a minute—like the merchant who tries to sell buns to the farmers, then ends up grimly eating them himself—are vividly sketched with an almost Shakespearean depth and economy, and the major characters manage to be both archetypal and endearingly human. Mifune, deservedly, receives most of the attention, but when I think of this film, my thoughts turn first to Takashi Shimura’s Kambei, wise enough to know that this is nothing but a fool’s errand, yet still strangely drawn to the joy of war and combat. Like many great works of art, from the tragedies of Shakespeare on down, Seven Samurai has it both ways: we’re both exhilarated by its vision of the samurai code and keenly aware, in the end, of the emptiness of the ensuing victory. “Again we’ve survived,” Shimura says to his companion, only to add, in the very last scene: “And again we’ve lost.”

Tomorrow: The freshest, most timeless masterpiece of the forties.

Written by nevalalee

May 12, 2015 at 9:00 am

My ten great movies #10: Inception

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Inception

Note: Four years ago, I published a series of posts here about my ten favorite movies. Since then, the list has evolved, as all such rankings do, with a few new titles and a reshuffling of the survivors, so it seems like as good a time as any to revisit it now.

Five years after its release, when we think of Inception, what we’re likely to remember first—aside from its considerable merits as entertainment—is its apparent complexity. With five or more levels of reality and a set of rules being explained to us, as well as to the characters, in parallel with breathless action, it’s no wonder that its one big laugh comes at Ariadne’s bewildered question: “Whose subconscious are we going into?” It’s a line that gives us permission to be lost. Yet it’s all far less confusing than it might have been, thanks largely to the work of editor Lee Smith, whose lack of an Oscar nomination, in retrospect, seems like an even greater scandal than Nolan’s snub as Best Director. This is one of the most comprehensively organized movies ever made. Yet a lot of credit is also due to Nolan’s script, and in particular to the shrewd choices it makes about where to walk back its own complications. As I’ve noted before, once the premise has been established, the action unfolds more or less as we’ve been told it will: there isn’t the third-act twist or betrayal that similar heist movies, or even Memento, have taught us to expect. Another nudge would cause it all to collapse.

It’s also in part for the sake of reducing clutter that the dream worlds themselves tend to be starkly realistic, while remaining beautiful and striking. A director like Terry Gilliam might have turned each level into a riot of production design, and although the movie’s relative lack of surrealism has been taken as a flaw, it’s really more of a strategy for keeping the clean lines of the story distinct. The same applies to the characters, who, with the exception of Cobb, are defined mostly by their roles in the action. Yet they’re curiously compelling, perhaps because we respond so instinctively to stories of heists and elaborate teamwork. I admire Interstellar, but I can’t say I need to spend another three hours in the company of its characters, while Inception leaves me wanting more. This is also because its premise is so rich: it hints at countless possible stories, but turns itself into a closed circle that denies any prospect of a sequel. (It’s worth noting, too, how ingenious the device of the totem really is, with the massive superstructure of one of the largest movies ever made coming to rest on the axis of a single trembling top.) And it’s that unresolved tension, between a universe of possibilities and a remorseless cut to black, that gives us the material for so many dreams.

Tomorrow: The greatest story in movies. 

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2015 at 8:27 am

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 ever made 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

December 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

My ten great movies #2: Blue Velvet

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Having just watched the fifty minutes of deleted scenes on the recent Blu-ray release of Blue Velvet, I’m more convinced than ever that the secret hero of my favorite American movie is editor Duwayne Dunham. Some of the rediscovered scenes are extraordinary—the scene with Jeffrey and Dorothy on the rooftop, in particular, is one I’ve 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 Empirefascinating, 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

December 8, 2011 at 10:10 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 art: 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.

On the day this post appears, I’ll have been in Hong Kong for most of the past two weeks, and I suspect I’ll have tried to seek out many 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: Chungking Express is 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: An art house thriller that outdid Hitchcock by way of Duchamp.

Written by nevalalee

December 7, 2011 at 10:00 am

My ten great movies #4: 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: A masterpiece in six weeks.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2011 at 10:00 am

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