22 July 2011


A. The alphabet in good (and sometimes great) movies. Many of these are not the best I could come up with for each letter (e.g. Ikiru beats Interiors), but I tried to give things a little variety, mixing commonplace classics with snobbish artsy types, and covering various major genres. Some letters are short on good stuff, but we do our best.
  1. Andrei Rublev: Tarkovsky's magnum opus. We watch a medieval monk's personal development over the course of several decades as he encounters various people and their problems. Demands more patience than you have. Incredibly beautiful. (5)
  2. Breakfast at Tiffany's: One of Ms. Hepburn's best performances. A writer turned kept-man helps a lost southern girl stop fleeing reality. Audrey's original performance of "Moon River" is better than any of the later covers of the song. (4)
  3. The Conversation: Gene Hackman plays a paranoid surveillance specialist afraid he's being used in a murder scheme. Directed by the great F.F. Coppola, this movie is simply brilliant. (5)
  4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Former playboy and editor of Elle ends up paralyzed except for one eyelid. We watch through his eye as he adjusts to his new life and comes to terms with his past. The camerawork in this movie does justice to the experience of human vision like none other (cf. the awkward p.o.v. effects in Being John Malkovich). Based on a book written by the protagonist. (5)
  5. Erin Brockovich: Thoroughly satisfying "triumph of the downtrodden" type movie. Leaves you feeling basically happy about life. (5)
  6. Forest Gump: 'E's and 'F's are rather poor on great movies, though this is a fine one. Mentally-otherwise-gifted young Alabaman finds his way across every major event in the second half of 20th century American history. (5)
  7. Groundhog Day: On the surface, just another sort of lame Bill Murray comedy, but when you think about it it's brilliant. So watch it a few times, and think about it. (5)
  8. High Noon: Gary Cooper has an hour (the movie passes in real time) to gather guns before an old bandit comes to town on the noon train. Well made, featuring Grace Kelly (always worth seeing), with good emotional buildup and satisfying conclusion. A civics lesson in 85 minutes. (5)
  9. Interiors: In that it falls short of actually being a Bergman film, this imitation of the Swede by Woody Allen is not unequivocally "great". Still, it remains an excellent tribute and the best replication of Bergman's style I know of in English. (I'm selling it short here. It's really good in its own right.) (4)
  10. Jules and Jim: A love triangle (and sometimes square) develops before and after WWI in France and Germany. We watch two quirky best friends as they try to deal with their shared love for Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Circus-like directing and spectacular acting give this melodrama a self-conscious, distanced feel. The viewer can enjoy it right up to the tragic ending. (5)
  11. Kill Bill: In my opinion Q.T.'s greatest movie, this quest for revenge mixes samurai, western, and kung fu stereotypes in the most beautiful use of graphic violence I've ever seen. Good stuff. (4, 5)
  12. Lost in Translation: The 'L's are extremely competitive, but I'll stick with this accidental masterwork by Sofia Coppola. Best watched when you're feeling lonely. You'll enjoy it more the third time than the first, and still more the tenth and twentieth time. I have, anyway. Bill Murray plays a comically morose retired actor and Scarlett Johansson does a great job as a depressed post-grad. Pity her later career hasn't been this good. (5)
  13. A Man for All Seasons: St. Thomas More tries to avoid the chopping block. Lots of wit and moralizing ensues. Robert Bolt was a king among screenwriters, and this may be his best work. This film has only a few minor flaws, which I won't list, so the reader can enjoy it more. (5)
  14. Network: Not to be confused with Sandra Bullock's The Net (3), this prophetic 70s picture about the battle for ratings in the TV industry features an all-star cast (Peter Finch, Bill Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall) and anticipates with eerie precision the trajectory of the television industry over the subsequent decades. (5)
  15. Ordinary People: Robert Redford directs this adaptation of the Judith Guest novel about a suicidal young man and his family. It is the best depiction of Chicago's North Shore not made by John Hughes (for the generation before Mean Girls [3]). Saying this forces one to realize how many movies have taken place between Lake Forest and Evanston in the past few decades, but this one is pretty great. Mary Tyler Moore plays a disturbed—but typical—north shore mom, Donald Sutherland the aloof tax attorney father, both trying to make sense of a recent loss. (4)
  16. Patton: Classic biopic features George C. Scott as one of the most iconic generals of the second world war. (4)
  17. The Queen*: This was a sort of mediocre portrait of Elizabeth II, but unfortunately it's the only thing I can think of that starts with 'Q'. Helen Mirren does a great job with her role, but honestly if you're going to make a movie about one of the longest reigning monarchs in the history of England you couldn't do much worse than to limit the plot to the death and funeral of her daughter-in-law. This movie is awful mostly because it could have been so much better. (3) [EDIT: I remembered Quills, but no movie that puts Sade in a positive light will make it onto this list.]
  18. Rear Window: This Hitchcock classic demonstrates that you can make a relatively low-budget movie with little action and only one (that's right, just one) location that will still knock every other thriller out of the water. If you're not hooked all the way through, there's something wrong with you. (5)
  19. Scenes from a Marriage: 'S' is easily the most competitive letter thus far, and Scenes from a Marriage wins mostly because we need to have some Bergman on this list. Scenes was my first Bergman experience and it will knock over anyone who has an ounce of reflectiveness with its intense grasp of human psychology and apt vision of betrayal and divorce. Liv Ulmann and Erland Josephson (Bergman's one-time wife and best friend, respectively) play a couple at six stages during the dissolution of their marriage.
  20. Toy Story 3: One of the greatest in Pixar's string of fantastic animated features, Toy Story 3 far outstrips the previous two installments in its cultural scope. A simple adventure plot is transformed into a commentary on totalitarianism, utopian politics, and the mechanics of tradition. If it featured live action people instead of animated toys, no one would mistake it for a mere children's movie. It would have made a great western. (5)
  21. Up in the Air: George Clooney is specialist at firing people who comes to terms with the downsides of American individualism. I don't like Jason Reitman very much (after all, he made Juno [2]), but George Clooney does a great job, and the thing has a good message and pleasant imagery. (5)
  22. Volver: A very good but by no means great film. Senor Almodóvar writes/directs this fine story about a mother (Penelope Cruz) whose old secrets seem to all come back to her at the same time—while she's trying to hide the body of her murdered husband. Fun stuff, visually pleasing, thoroughly engaging. (4)
  23. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Classic adaptation of the Edward Albee play starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton as a warring university couple who play a series of psychological "games" with their younger guests at an after-party. There's more sarcasm in these two hours than most people get in a decade. Fantastic, but not for the thin skinned. (5)
  24. X2: X-Men United*: This is the best of the original X-Men trilogy (which are the only movies I can think of beginning with 'X'). Where the original was too simplistic and the third was just stale, this one had a clever plot-arc and wasn't very predictable. (3)
  25. Yi Yi: This little-known film from the Taiwanese "new wave" depicts the lives of a family of five over the course of a year. Begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. Sedate, human, lovely. (5)
  26. Zoolander*: Unfortunately the only movie I've seen that starts with 'Z', this piece of garbage features Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller playing male supermodels. Gross and unpleasant. (1) [EDIT: Based on its reputation, Z should probably be here, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.]