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    my personal canon, part VII

    Some stuff that didn't readily fit into any of the other associational chains:

    Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). Still one of the best ensemble films ever made, one of the best representations of the complicated network of urban life ever made, one of the best films about the messiness of racial politics ever made. Spike Lee is a filmmaker of such talent that even his "bad" films are worth seeing, and this film is probably his best.

    One more "outlier" I should have mentioned yesterday is Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre (1981), which consists entirely of two people having a meal and a conversation (Andre Gregory and the always-delightful Wallace Shawn, playing themselves), and yet is utterly gripping, literally shattering if you allow yourself to believe in even some of its conclusions.

    Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), the second Hitchcock film on this list, a fine suspense story infused with a creepy dream-logic that cements Hitchcock's reputation as a master of both surface and depth psychology. Wish I had room for a more early-period Hitchcock; I'd probably go with Strangers on a Train (1951), a standard-issue thriller, but one that is absolutely perfectly made.

    The grand, tragic biopic Raging Bull (1980), which, along with Goodfellas, stands as one of Martin Scorsese's high-water-mark achievements. I should note here that the power of each of them, but Raging Bull especially, lies in Thelma Schoonmaker's breathtaking (and largely underacknowledged) work as the films' editor.

    James Cameron's Titanic (1997). Although there are plenty of romances on this list, I thought there was room for one more. Titanic's especially notable as a film that pulls double duty: it's a by-the-book period romance, but also a quality disaster/action film. I think this simultaneous fulfillment of genres that intially appear diametrically opposed might be one of the reasons why this remains the highest-grossing film ever made.

    One thing that's been fun to watch over the past decade or so has been the emergence of a cadre of phenomenally-talented Latin American independent filmmakers, perhaps best represented by Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu Mamá También (2001) (although Fernando Meirelles' stunning City of God (2002) gives it a real run for its money).

    I've been struggling with the question of which documentaries to include on this list: I've included two "fake" documentaries (This Is Spinal Tap and The Blair Witch Project) but only one "real" one (Triumph of the Will), which seems wrong somehow, especially given that the documentary tradition is as old as cinema itself.

    So, OK, why not go all the way back to 1896, with the Lumiere Brothers' Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat, the famous one-minute head-on shot of an approaching train from which disoriented audience members allegedly fled in terror. (If you pick it up on this DVD you also get Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902), really the first SF film, and Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is sometimes considered to be the first film that uses editing for purposeful narrative effect. Probably both belong on a "canonical" list.)

    In terms of more recent documentaries, I'm going to have to go with Michael Moore's Roger and Me (1989): say what you will about whether Michael Moore is fair or even likeable, this documentary remains as potent a piece of agitprop as its ever been. Plus I have trouble thinking of another film that so clearly reveals the power of the documentary: the way bringing in a movie camera amplifies one man's complaint to the level of national corporate embarrassment. (I think I somehow allowed myself to misplace my pirated copy of Frederick Wiseman's institutional expose Titicut Follies (1967), banned for 25 years by the Massachussetts Supreme Court: I should see if I can't dig that up.)

    I'll also include Godfrey Reggio's wordless, visually sumptuous cry of apocalypse Koyaanisqatsi (1982) for its impact and formal intensity.

    In terms of documentary "outliers," I'll nominate Andy Warhol's Empire (1964), an eight-hour single shot of the Empire State Building in real time, in which the primary dramatic event is the moment the building's lights turn on. Good luck getting a chance to watch the whole thing, since a DVD release is obviously impractical, but I'd also give credit for watching his similarly-styled Sleep (1963), five hours of John Giorno sleeping, which screens daily at Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum.

    I'd like to wind up the canon-making exercise by getting "meta" and including a few more films about filmmaking or about Hollywood. I've included a few already—The Muppet Movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Mulholland Dr. all qualify—but I'd also like to include Robert Altman's poison-pen love-letter The Player (1992), which remarks obliquely on many of the genres included on this list and explicitly on at least two of the specific films (The Graduate and Touch of Evil). (It remarks on Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), as well, which maybe should have gotten a spot when I was talking about exploitation cinema yesterday.)

    I'm holding off on that one for now, and instead closing this list with Adaptation (2002), by Spike Jonze (directed from a great script by Charlie Kaufmann). If there is such a thing as a "mashup" film, this might be it: it takes up an existing book, which remediates a real-life figure ("orchid thief" John Laroche), and, via the process of remediating the book into a film, manages to tangle in the life of the author (New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean), and the screenwriter (Kaufmann himself), and then forces the entire mess into the genre confines of a bad thriller. So meta it hurts, this film so perfectly encapsulates the self-consciousness that undergirds the construction of a movie at this particular point in time that I can't think of a better way to cap off this list.

    Note that this leaves us at 97 films instead of 100; I uncovered enough blind spots and films I hadn't seen but felt might work on this list that I'm going to leave a few slots open so that I can do a bit more further investigation. As always, comments are appreciated.

    I'll publish the whole list in a single post, checklist-style, tomorrow. And probably soon I'll publish a list of my 100 "favorite" films—something determined solely by the dictates of my personal enjoyment, giving no importance to broader significance. I think it'll be interesting to see just how different the two lists end up.

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    Friday, April 13, 2007
    10:31 AM


    Do The Right Thing grows in stature and importance and relevance every year (Don Imus), and if Spike never made another movie, which thankfully he did, he would still be remembered as a great american filmaker. Its my opinion that it is the best American film of the last 25 years or so. You'd have to go back to Raging Bull to find one even close.
    Raging Bull

    Damnit, that's supposed to be on this list!
    Fixed it.
    Yeah RB is amazing throughout, especially the fight sequences. But my favorite part is DeNiro (badly) doing Brando's "I Couldve Been A Contender" speech at the end (or, as Ebert points out, DeNiro doing LaMotta doing Brando doing Malloy). Such a great scene, the one in the dressing room.
    is DeNiro (badly) doing Brando's "I Couldve Been A Contender" speech at the end

    Yeah, I know the scene you're thinking of well. It makes me feel like On The Waterfront should be on this list somewhere, although I hate the way that it functions as Kazan's justification for having testified before the House Un-American Activities Comission. Blech.
    This is a little off topic, but I was in a Price Chopper not too long ago, and they had these "celebrity coloring books" for children to color in, that included fun facts about the celebrities, and the celebrities they included were all over the map, from recent to entirely un-recent, the latter personified in my mind by the inclusion of Elia Kazan. I thought, what child still of coloring age could possibly have any sort of interest in Elia Kazan?
    That's hilarious. Did it mention his HUAC testimony?
    I remember when Elia Kazan was given his Lifetime Achievement Oscar and all these washed-up alcoholic Hollywood has-beens (Nick Nolte) refused to applaud him, as if Nick Nolte is such a paragon of moral virtue. I actually felt sorry for Kazan...where was he from originally? I think he fled a Communist regime to come to America and escape persecution, unless I'm remembering incorrectly. I figure someone who actually lived in a Communist country is justified in considering them a threat to the freedom he'd found in America. I don't know if he was even a citizen at the time, he was probably afraid of being deported. A lot of Communist expatriates had no tolerance for American communism--they were all vive le capitalism...

    Then I found out John Lennon hit his first wife and gave up caring about artists' personal lives. Maybe that's why he ended up with Yoko...kickass karma.

    Interesting blog.
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