Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Personal Alternative to the AFI Top 100, Part 3

A Face in the Crowd
21. A Face in the Crowd (57, Kazan)
An extremely well-paced indictment of media saturation and superstardom. Making his film debut, America’s favorite sheriff Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a hobo/jailbird who becomes a radio and later TV folk hero with songs, wit, and not a little manipulation. Patricia Neal initially takes notice of him and is caught up in his media rise to fame. Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg mine the corruption of American glamour and its whirlwind in the media spotlight.
Alt to the Alt: Quiz Show (94, Redford). Some of the same themes show up in the real life drama of fixed TV quiz games.

Fat City
22. Fat City (72, Huston)
John Huston’s career produced a number of fantastic films in various genres, but Fat City is perhaps the most underrated of his filmography. Stacy Keach and the perennially underrated Jeff Bridges play boxers on opposite slopes of the profession, one going down and one going up. Fat City is in line with Huston’s subtle, realistic, dramatic output, from Night of the Iguana to his swan song, The Dead. If you can find it, it’s a real winner.
Alt to the Alt: Champion (49, Robson). With a searing performance by Kirk Douglas, this is also one of the great boxing films, akin to a classic Hollywood Raging Bull.

Feed the Kitty
23. Feed the Kitty (52, Jones)
Genius is taking the simplest concept and making every moment and detail count. Chuck Jones is one of the undisputed geniuses of animation, and Feed the Kitty is but one example of it. A bulldog named Marc Anthony happens upon and is immediately charmed by a fearless little kitten, and the entire cartoon concerns his efforts to hide it from his owner. From this bare premise Jones and Maltese and their team craft some of the most brilliant facial acting in Looney Tunes history, and despite his muteness, Marc Anthony truly comes alive in each of its seven essential minutes.
Alt to the Alt: One Froggy Evening (55, Jones). The other great animal Looney Tune, also with some fabulous animation via the frog’s owner and Michigan J himself.

Force of Evil
24. Force of Evil (48, Polonsky)
The eventually blacklisted Abraham Polonsky made his first film a keeper, a New York-based critique of the evils that can be perpetrated by capitalism. John Garfield (a corrupt lawyer) and Thomas Gomez (a banker trying to stay straight) are brothers caught in the web of illegal business. With poetically hard-boiled dialogue and a classical plot structure, Force of Evil is like a Shakespearean On the Waterfront.
Alt to the Alt: East of Eden (55, Kazan). Another brother-brother drama with gorgeous cinematography.

25. Freaks (32, Browning)
Unquestionably among the greatest of all American films, Tod Browning’s Freaks is a disturbing but humane examination of prejudice, mistrust, and conformity. Using real sideshow performers as actors and entirely sympathetic characters, the film upends the conventional connection between outer and inner beauty and instead puts the audience in with the “freaks.” Only when the performers eventually turn on the “normal” people does their righteous anger appear horrifying. A complex and important piece of work.
Alt to the Alt: The Elephant Man (80, Lynch). Less horrifying but still touching.

The Front
26. The Front (76, Ritt)
This black comedy about the Hollywood blacklist is the best Woody Allen movie that he didn’t write or direct. He’s Howard Prince, a politically neutral nebbish hired to stand in for writers in the industry. He still gets caught up in the House Committee on Un-American Activities witch hunter and must make a moral choice. Also features a superb turn by Zero Mostel in the most dramatic role of his career.
Alt to the Alt: Good Night, and Good Luck. (05, Clooney). Stirring and claustrophobic look at the McCarthy phenomenon from behind the doors of CBS News.

Groundhog Day
27. Groundhog Day (93, Ramis)
A high concept stretched just far enough and helped along by a genuinely transformative performance. Bill Murray deftly straddled humor and drama (although liberally leaning into the former) as the asshole forced by fate to change his ways on the most absurd of holidays. He carries the film on his shoulders and never falters on each successful day/life.
Alt to the Alt: Here Comes Mr. Jordan (41, Hall). A dead boxer is given a second chance at life by inhabiting the body of a millionaire. Hilarity and romance ensue.

Harold and Maude
28. Harold and Maude (71, Ashby)
Perhaps the most unlikely romance in the history of film, Harold and Maude are portrayed with vigor and life by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. He’s a death-obsessed adolescent who likes to stage fake suicides; she is a senior who ignores the law and defies social convention. It seems by the end that Maude provided Harold with the piece of his life, the joy of living, that he lacked; but perhaps they each had something the other needed.
Alt to the Alt: “Quirky” is a poor epithet for Ashby’s achievement, but another colorful tale of adolescence, age difference, and, let’s say, a “unique sensibility” is Ghost World (01, Zwigoff).

The Haunting
29. The Haunting (63, Wise)
A psychological ghost story of the highest caliber, this adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s story is blessed with an effective, low-key cast and the sure hand of Robert Wise behind the camera. Julie Harris is the ostensible heroine as the psychic and emotionally stunted Nell who is enlisted with others to investigate the haunting of Hill House. Brilliant sound design ratchets up the terror until the literally haunting conclusion.
Alt to the Alt: Rebecca (40, Hitchcock) is a similarly Gothic story more interested in character than outright scares.

The Heartbreak Kid
30. The Heartbreak Kid (72, May)
The second film in Elaine May’s ill-fated directorial career is perhaps her most perceptive on gender dynamics and the peculiar tendencies of the middle-aged Jew. A perfectly cast Charles Grodin waffles between poor, whiny Jeannie Berlin and fluttery blonde Cybill Shepherd. Infinitely funny and infinitely sad. A pitch-perfect final scene as well.
Alt to the Alt: My Favorite Wife (40, Kanin). Less cynical but still a funny marriage farce.

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