Sunday, April 20, 2014

My top ten

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2010)

I feel the time has come to revisit the greatest of all cinephile games – identifying my ten favourite films. I last played this about five years ago, when it came out as follows:

Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau        (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
Citizen Kane        (Orson Welles, 1941)
Dog Star Man        (Stan Brakhage, 1962–64)
The King of Comedy        (Martin Scorsese, 1983)
Love Streams        (John Cassavetes, 1984)
Ordet        (Carl Dreyer, 1954)
Orphée        (Jean Cocteau, 1950)
The Passenger        (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)
Playtime        (Jacques Tati, 1967)
Rio Bravo        (Howard Hawks, 1959)

I posted this on the Senses of Cinema website, adding the following note:

“Which of course fails to do justice to Hitchcock, Bresson, Pasolini and at least twenty others. If the object were to select ten films for a desert island, I would have to find room somewhere for Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964) and The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953).”

This exercise generally triangulates between the following points: head, heart, and (perhaps) wanting to look good in the eyes of the other geeks. Looking at my list now, I feel I put a little too much weight on the third, most egregiously in selecting Dog Star Man; if you don’t know, a highly abstract avant-garde film which, although really admirable, wouldn’t ultimately do much to keep you hopping on that desert island. Most telling is that I’ve had no desire to watch the film again since I wrote that list. However, except for Celine and Julie and Love Streams, which haven’t been available to me, I have rewatched all the other seven, as a heart-driven matter.

Since then, other directors have surged in my mind. I can’t imagine a year going by without watching a film by Ozu. But I tend to cycle through the fifteen that I own (depressing to think there may not be too many revolutions left on that cycle, no matter how long I live) rather than returning to a single film. How to reflect that on such a list? Something similar applies to Bunuel, also to Renoir, also to Rohmer. I frequently return to Godard, but almost never feel my capacities are equal to the challenges of the films; still, even if there’s some self-flagellation involved, I keep going. How to reflect that in such a list?

Then there are the “guilty pleasure” type exercises that although I don’t objectively think belong on such a list, are among my enduring points of reference and satisfaction: Blake Edwards’ “10” is a prime example; Spike Lee’s Bamboozled another. No doubt I hang myself up again here on the “looking good for the geeks” criterion, since some people happily hang out their obscure value judgments for the world to see. To pick almost at random, one participant in a recent round of Senses of Cinema postings cites City Slickers, with the rationale: “The best American ‘Men’ film since Deliverance. Billy Crystal is hilarious!” Well, OK, fine, but we’re talking about the rationale for a top ten of all time!

In the end, “10” and Bamboozled don’t quite make my list. But they could have, under my new guiding principle: what ten films would I be most disappointed never to see again, or for someone like Ozu, what director’s body of work would I be most disappointed never to dip into again. Acknowledging that it might not come out the same way tomorrow, here’s my new list:

F For Fake        (Orson Welles, 1973)
The King of Comedy       
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)
Love Streams       

My Night At Maud’s (Eric Rohmer, 1969)
My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument  (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996)
The Passenger       

That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

Well, that seems like a reasonable balance between continuity and renewal. The big breakthrough here is the Desplechin film – a director I hadn’t experienced at all until a few years ago, but who’s obviously skyrocketed in my evaluation. Watching My Sex Life again the other week, it seemed to me stunningly relevant to our current predicament. I do believe that our failed consumerism and debt problems and all the rest of it are signs, in part, that we’ve forgotten how to find the best within ourselves. The characters in My Sex Life, mostly French intellectual types, live small-scale lives, but marked by a tumble of analysis and interconnection and upheaval, brilliantly represented by Desplechin’s enormous stylistic versatility. The stunning climax profoundly embodies the immense possibilities within even the smallest of interactions for triggering joyous reinvention. I guess the whole world doesn’t feel as passionately about the film, so maybe it’s my own City Slickers, I dunno, but in a way I feel it’s the contemporary anchor that justifies the rest of the list.

Some of the choices remain undiluted pleasures. The Passenger is the emblematic film that never strikes me quite the same way twice; I used to emphasize its mystical qualities, but now see it as increasingly “grounded,” which however only renders it all the more scintillating. Orson Welles is an increasing joy; I don’t buy many cinema books now, but I’ve bought a few on Welles, because a passion for Welles necessarily can’t stop at the finished works. More and more, I see the vast sprawl of his unfinished work, much of it at least capable of being glimpsed in fragments here and there, as a coherent legacy in itself; F for Fake embodies this pleasure more than my original pick of Citizen Kane (not that I don’t still revere Kane).

The biggest hole in the DVD collection remains Love Streams. I need to see this again urgently! On the other hand, I watched it so many times in the past that I remember it pretty well. I’m quite sure it will hold up.

I regret there’s no room for classic Hollywood in the list, and I’m sure Hawks and Hitchcock and Minnelli and Buster Keaton at least would make it to the next ten or twenty. But just about everyone else mentioned above has to be in there too. And why stop at one per director?

So that, for now, is my list. All I can hope is that when I revisit it in a few years, it’ll again call out to be overhauled. Having one’s tastes and judgments solidify would surely be the same as having them congeal. Having a new film rise to the level of the best ten would be pleasing too, although I don’t expect my pantheon of masters to make it easy on the newer guys. And on that, I would certainly love to pick a film directed by a woman, but hey, there’s no quota system operating here. Please seek out these wonderful pictures, but if you think I’m nuts, hey, I only ever said it was my opinion!

April 2014 postscript – the list still looks pretty good, but if nothing else should have been tweaked to get Jacques Rivette in there…

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