Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Personal Alternative to the AFI Top 100, Part 2

11. The Conversation (74, Coppola)
A paranoid masterpiece, one that rewards multiple viewings and features a career high performance from Gene Hackman. The morality of observation is meticulously probed by the team of Coppola, Hackman, and sound editor Walter Murch, not to mention by Bill Butler’s surveillance-like cinematography. Hackman’s Harry Caul is one of cinema’s great voyeurs, a troubled professional whose personal obsession grows with each passing moment of the film. A watershed in 70s American cinema, a movie-bred auteur whose commercial success allowed him to craft an intelligent, European-style art thriller.
Alt to the Alt: Blow Out (81, De Palma). As indebted to The Conversation as Coppola’s film is to Blowup.

12. The Crowd (28, Vidor)
Although silent, King Vidor’s social commentary speaks loudly against group conformity and the clash of the individual with society. The average American is portrayed by unknown James Murray, and the fluid camera movements follow his life, with all of its shrinking expectations, disappointments, hopes, dreams, twists, and turns. Lacking any sentimentality or escapism of any kind, the film shows what it’s like to be a part of the faceless mass of American life, the crowd. Vidor would later produce and direct a kind of sequel, the landmark Depression-era Our Daily Bread.
Alt to the Alt: Greed (24, von Stroheim). A much more epic silent depicting the power of avarice on ordinary people. Worthwhile even in its butchered form.

13. Dead Man (95, Jarmusch)
Rips down the Western mythos and resurrects a fascinating hallucination in its place. From a skeletal Johnny Depp’s connection to poet William Blake to Crispin Glover’s brief but indelible monologue, Jim Jarmusch’s evocative and absurdly violent American fable touches on 20th century industry, Native American folklore, the classic presence of Robert Mitchum, and the ironic, philosophical chit-chat that is Jarmusch’s verbal bread and butter. An immersive experience.
Alt to the Alt: One would be hard pressed to find a similar film to Dead Man, but Little Big Man (70, Penn), while not as uproarious as its source novel, uses lighter humor to mine some of the same themes.

14. Dog Day Afternoon (75, Lumet)
With humanizing performances and an empathetic screenplay by Frank Pierson, Dog Day Afternoon chronicles a bizarre bank robbery that gets engulfed by the media. As the most likeable crooks ever, Pacino and Cazale lend depth to Sal and Sonny, two men over their heads and forced by circumstance to do what they do. Even when clichés threaten to derail the “bank robbery goes awry” plot, Lumet’s sensitive direction and the lead performances shine through.
Alt to the Alt: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (74, Sargeant). Although structurally more like Reservoir Dogs or Inside Man, this underrated thriller exudes its sense of place and time in a similar way to Afternoon.

15. Dressed to Kill (80, De Palma)
A derivative mix of Argento and Hitchcock with De Palma’s inimitably stylish camera movements, Dressed to Kill is a violent, meta, sexual thrill ride with interesting and surprisingly effective performances by Caine, Dickinson, and Allen. Probably De Palma’s most absurdly playful and self-referential film up to that point, the director would follow in this vein through Body Double and Femme Fatale.
Alt to the Alt: Sisters (73, De Palma). One of De Palma’s most effective thrillers, with a rollicking if somewhat incoherent climax.

16. Duck Amuck (53, Jones)
Among the greatest animated shorts of all time, Chuck Jones’s ahead of its time meta-work playfully investigates the very nature of cartoon logic and freedom. A vocal tour-de-force from Mel Blanc as the most human and fallible of Warner Brothers characters, Daffy Duck, makes each viewing as riotous as the last. Kudos also to Mike Maltese and the stellar animation team for transforming backdrops, inventive and unexpected challenges to Daffy’s ego, and the ingenious if retrospectively inevitable ending.
Alt to the Alt: Rabbit Seasoning (52, Jones). The best of the real Bugs/Daffy crossover vehicles, this one contains the immortal line, “Pronoun trouble.”

17. Eating Raoul (82, Bartel)
Roger Corman protégé Paul Bartel scripted, directed, and starred in his pet project Eating Raoul, a deadpan, almost whimsical black comedy about sex, morality, and cannibalism. He and Mary Woronov are the aptly-named Blands, who only want to start their own restaurant but find themselves caught with a cadre of swinging couples in their apartment building. The movie is defiantly laid back and un-PC, although some of it shock may have dissipated since its release.
Alt to the Alt: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (79, Arkush). This Bartel/Woronov vehicle isn’t nearly as black as Raoul, but it still has that charming DIY aesthetic. Not to mention the Ramones.

18. Eraserhead (77, Lynch)
Disturbing but undoubtedly unforgettable, David Lynch’s feature debut is a black-and-white surrealist nightmare vision with no light at the end of the tunnel. The bleak industrialized landscape houses the claustrophobic existence of Jack Nance as he struggles with fatherhood, work, and just plain living in this world. The opening salvo of a divisive but iconoclastic career.
Alt to the Alt: Few American films are as fiercely bizarre and experimental as Eraserhead. So I’ll just recommend the collective works of Deren, Brakhage, and Anger.

19. Eve’s Bayou (97, Lemmons)
Meandering but lovingly crafted and acted depiction of mid-century Louisiana. Director and writer Kasi Lemmons guides an impressive cast of women (and Samuel L. Jackson and Branford Marsalis among the men). Its episodic structure captures the daily goings-on of the Batiste family, including youngest daughter Eve’s coming of age with her father, the family history, and their cultural foundations. Even the overly melodramatic events build in resonance through Eve’s eyes, no small thanks to lead actress Jurnee Smollett.
Alt to the Alt: Baby Doll (56, Kazan). Even sweatier and even more Southern.

20. Evil Dead II (87, Raimi)
With an irresistible excess and what should have been a star-making performance from Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi’s sequel/remake of Evil Dead ups the ante on gore, stylized camera moves, and physical humor. Once again evil spirits haunt a cabin in the woods, and it’s up to a newly badass Ash Williams to save the day. Along the way he encounters laughing mounted animal heads, a bitey Deadite, and his own rebellious hand. It’s a breakneck comedy/horror hybrid too insane and imaginative to be ignored.
Alt to the Alt: Dawn of the Dead (78, Romero). More socially conscious, although it’s really just as fun of a zombie picture.

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