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    my personal canon, part I

    So recently my friend Catling posted a request for people to suggest "must-see" movies. There are a number of already-existing ways to approach this project: Jim Emerson's 102-film list, claiming to represent "the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat 'movie-literate,'" is a good one, and if you're looking for something more "meta" you could head on over to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, the proprietors of which have averaged together hundreds of different critics' lists into one giant aggregate. Heck, you could even just start by working your way through the entire Criterion Collection, like this dude's doing. But being a movie-geek and an inveterate list-maker (one, two), I was naturally attracted to the idea of whipping up my own personal list of "canonical films" (which is a lot different from a list of my own personal "favorite films"). I thought I might work through some of my thinking process here in the blog, rather then just presenting a list of 100 as though it sprang fully-formed from my forehead.

    Canons are at least partially about the later influence that certain films have had, so one place to start might be to pick a handful of movies that aren't particular favorites of mine, but which could be argued to collectively form the backbone of the modern blockbuster.

    Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975)

    George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) (which is more influential, self-contained, and narratively elegant than Irvin Kershner's Empire Strikes Back (1980))

    Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon (1987) (the template for a million cop-buddy movies to come, plus the only movie that allegedly could not be improved upon by the guys who made the Epagogix hit-movie-predicting algorithm)

    John McTiernan's Die Hard (1988) (another near-archetypal film, plus features Alan Rickman as one of the great movie villains).

    Sticking with this attention to "roots," we should give attention to early genre-defining films, such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) (the science-fiction dystopia to which all others owe a debt) and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) (the first great horror film).

    Let's stick with SF for a minute: it's one of my favorite genres and it's central enough to the history of cinema that it deserves a few more entries. For the time being, I'm going to add Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and James Cameron's Aliens (1986)—both are great science-fiction films, but also are interesting because of the way they raid elements from other genres (the horror movie and the war movie, respectively).

    I think the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix (1999) probably belongs on there: it's the only good "cyberpunk" movie I can think of, and it's a good example of special effects and narrative working harmoniously, to the point where they can't easily be distinguished from one another.

    Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1968), of course—I think of this movie as pretty much the crowning achievement of SF cinema. A philosophical thriller framed by some of the most lyrical, enigmatic and transcendent passages found anywhere in all of film.

    The 1950's are the heyday of a certain type of SF, and so they deserve some representation here: commonly this slot is given to 1951's The Day The Earth Stood Still, but I'm more prone to say that Don Siegel's paranoid, Red-crazed Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is the true representative of the era: the way that it's perpetually remade raises it to something of the status of American myth. And as for the effects those American myths have around the world?: let's throw in IshirĂ´ Honda's original Godzilla (1954) (not the US release with the clumsily-integrated Raymond Burr, though!).

    I'll tip my hat to the 1950's one final time (albeit indirectly) by including David Cronenberg's 1986 remake of 1958's The Fly—the original is a silly bit of hokum, but it turns to something elegiac and moving in Cronenberg's hands, one of the best meditations on illness that the cinema has ever produced.

    It's disgusting, too, which moves us neatly into horror. I've long been a fan of Romero's nearly-perfect Night of the Living Dead (1968), which I'd still argue is the best zombie movie ever made.

    Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) has earned a slot here, mostly for the strength of the justly-famous sequences in its first half: the second half always stuns me at how terribly the narrative begins to sag. There are better Hitchcock movies (some of which will be added to this list later), but this one is the true progenitor of the serial-killer movie, and thus deserves inclusion.

    Then you have the second generation of serial-killer movies, that starts up about 20 years later—it needs representation on the list, but I'm just not sure which one to choose. Nightmare on Elm St. (1984), Friday the 13th (1980), and Halloween (1978) are all films that hold up surprisingly well, and they're each cut from similar cloth: the franchises spawned from these three films essentially dominate horror for a generation (depsite getting sillier and sillier). I suppose I'll go with John Carpenter's Halloween, simply because it's chronologically first, and thus can be said to owe the least to the others.

    "Slasher" films as such die off in the mid-90s, in part because of a two-front assault: Scream (1996) lethally ironizes the genre, and movies like Se7en (1995) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) take the shock-value elements from horror and refit them into a more gritty and realistic police-procedural context. Of these, it's Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs that gets the canonical nod from me, mostly because of Anthony Hopkins' career-making turn as the nearly-iconic Hannibal Lecter.

    That brings us around to crime movies, a genre in which Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) is still the obvious, unbeatable giant. The Godfather: Part II is often listed as another favorite, but I think the real companion piece is Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas (1990): the differences between the two are as illuminating as the similarities. I'd like to also argue for the inclusion of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) here: it's still the most economical of Tarantino's films, and its approach to its material is deeply interesting.

    That gets me to nineteen—about a fifth of the way—and there's still a lot to include: there's not a single comedy on here, and my only piece of non-US cinema is Godzilla. But this seems like a good place to take a break.

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    Saturday, April 07, 2007
    2:51 PM


    For Sci-Fi, i'd have Tarkovsky's Solaris in there.

    I just finished reading Ebert's The Great Movies vol 1, which has inspired me to go back and see a lot of classic movies (especially American) that I havent seen.

    Just saw Hitchcock's Notorious over the weekend. Better than Casablanca by far.

    I'll publish my cinematic canon over on the Multiply site, but fyi, I could live with just Fellini and Kieslowski.
    Fellini and Tarkovsky are both going to get some representation on this list when I deal with the "non-English-language" axis. What are your canonical Fellini picks?
    8 1/2 (my second favorite movie of all time)

    La Strada

    La Dolce Vita

    Nights of Cabiria


    As far as I'm concerned, cinema doesnt get much better than those right there.

    Hell, it wouldnt take much to convince me to add I Vitelloni and Juliet of the Spirits too.
    My whole list is over at Multiply now: http://ddemonsi.multiply.com/journal/item/4?mark_read=ddemonsi:journal:4
    No Satyricon, eh?
    Its OK. But not many people are going to argue that its top shelf Fellini. Myself included.
    I can't disagree. But I have a special fondness for it.
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