Sorry, but I don't think I've watched 10 films of any quality from 1921, let alone 10 that are good. Of the ones I've seen, my favorite is Buster Keaton's The High Sign, and of the ones I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Fritz Lang's Destiny. And that's all I'll say about that year, tempted though I am to get into the pros and cons of Manhatta and Orphans of the Storm. We'll start this again in December, when I'll finally blog the best-of-2002 list that I postponed 10 years ago.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1931, it gave its Best Picture award to Cimarron, a mediocre western that aspires to be an epic. It isn't on my list.
1. Bimbo's Initiation Directed by Dave Fleischer
Betty Boop: Final Secret of the Illuminati.
2. Monkey Business Directed by Norman Z. McLeod Written by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone
We'll get to a real Maurice Chevalier movie below, but first let's pause to praise the Marx Brothers' attempts to impersonate the man.
3. M Directed by Fritz Lang Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou
Instead of quoting a line from the film, I'll invoke the sound of Peter Lorre whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King."
4. Le Million Directed by René Clair Written by Clair, from a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand
One of the first great movie musicals.
5. La Chienne Directed by Jean Renoir Written by Renoir, from a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière
A man exploits a woman who exploits another man. In the end they all lose.
6. Frankenstein Directed by James Whale Written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from a play by Peggy Webling and a novel by Mary Shelley
"Now I know what it feels like to be God!"
7. À Nous la Liberté Written and directed by René Clair
"Work is mandatory. Because work means liberty."
8. The Smiling Lieutenant Directed by Ernst Lubitsch Written by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, from an operetta by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann
This is Maurice Chevalier's show, but let's give a special kudo to George Barbier, who plays the ruler of a tiny European kingdom like a father-in-law who wandered in from an American sitcom.
9. The Threepenny Opera Directed by G.W. Pabst Written by Béla Balázs, Leo Lania, and Ladislaus Vajda, from an operetta by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
With his seedy settings and menacing camera, Pabst creates a vivid movie landscape. That isn't really the best way to present Brecht's agitprop, which is supposed to intrude into our world rather than invite us into a world of its own. But the clash of styles is fascinating enough to be interesting in its own right, particularly when a great Kurt Weill score is part of the package.
10. Night Nurse Directed by William A. Wellman Written by Oliver H.P. Garrett with Charles Kenyon, from a novel by Grace Perkins
This list should have a ludicrous pre-Code melodrama in it, and this enjoyably insane story will fill the role nicely.
Bubbling under: I don't have a full roster of honorable mentions for 1931, but I'll give a friendly shoutout to Frank Capra's Platinum Blonde and Dave Fleischer's Mask-a-Raid. Of the movies of 1931 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in The Criminal Code.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1941, it gave its Best Picture award to How Green Was My Valley, a cloying "quality" movie from John Ford, who's at his worst when he tries to do something like this. It isn't on my list.
1. Citizen Kane Directed by Orson Welles Written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz
I don't think it's the best movie ever made, or even the best movie directed by Orson Welles. But I'm not enough of a contrarian to deny that it's the best movie of 1941.
2. The Maltese Falcon Directed by John Huston Written by Huston, from a novel by Dashiell Hammett
"I've no earthly reason to think I can trust you, and if I do this and get away with it, you'll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've got something on you, I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put a hole in me some day. All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant -- I won't argue about that -- but look at the number of them. And what have we got on the other side? All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you."
3. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break Directed by Edward F. Cline Written by W.C. Fields
Fields' funniest film. That's saying a lot.
4. The Sea Wolf Directed by Michael Curtiz Written by Robert Rossen, from a novel by Jack London
This is as good as Edward G. Robinson gets. That is also saying a lot.
5. Meet John Doe Directed by Frank Capra Written by Robert Riskin, from a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, Sr.
Someday I'll write a long article contrasting this dark satire with Elia Kazan's overrated A Face in the Crowd. They're both about manipulative media fakery, but Meet John Doe has a much more sophisticated take on the autonomy of the audience.
6. Hellzapoppin' Directed by H.C. Potter Written by Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson
Between this and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, it was a great year for pop surrealism.
7. Lambeth Walk—Nazi Style Directed by Charles A. Ridley
Take some simple footage of Nazis on the march, then remix it to make them look like ridiculous toy soldiers. Result: the greatest war propaganda short ever made.
8. The Wolf Man Directed by George Waggner Written by Curt Siodmak
This isn't the last good movie in the Universal Monsters series, but it is the last essential one. Unless you count Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
9. Ball of Fire Directed by Howard Hawks Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
"It's as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore!"
10. The Lady Eve Directed by Preston Sturges Written by Sturges, from a story by Monckton Hoffe
This one narrowly beat out Sullivan's Travels for a spot in the top 10 because that "cockeyed world" speech at the end of the otherwise excellent Sullivan gets on my nerves. But if you want to count them as a tie and give this slot to a Preston Sturges double-header, that's fine with me.
11. Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges) 12. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock) 13. Tortoise Beats Hare (Tex Avery) 14. Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen) 15. The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle) 16. Among the Living (Stuart Heisler) 17. Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen) 18. Ladies in Retirement (Charles Vidor) 19. The Iron Crown (Alessandro Blasetti) 20. The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood)
A bonus award to Victor Mature, who had big roles in two movies bubbling under my top 20: The Shanghai Gesture, a gloriously mad mess that has become a cult favorite, and I Wake Up Screaming, a curious quasi-noir that really ought to be a cult favorite. Mature plays rather different characters in that pair of pictures, but he plays them the same way: as a sleazy version of Cary Grant. That's just as great as it sounds.
Of the movies of 1941 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Man Made Monster.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1951, it gave its Best Picture award to An American in Paris, a musical that I neither dislike nor am especially fond of. Any of these would have been a better choice:
1. Ace in the Hole Directed by Billy Wilder Written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
The darkest film that Wilder ever made.
2. Strangers on a Train Directed by Alfred Hitchcock Written by Czenzi Ormonde, Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook, and Ben Hecht, from a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Walker's 32nd Law: You shouldn't bother trying to remake a Hitchcock movie. Corollary to Walker's 32nd Law: If you absolutely must remake a Hitchcock movie, for the love of God don't give your starring role to Billy Crystal.
3. The Thing from Another World Directed by Christian Nyby and/or Howard Hawks Written by Hawks, Charles Lederer, and Ben Hecht, from a novella by John W. Campbell, Jr.
"An intellectual carrot? The mind boggles."
4. A Streetcar Named Desire Directed by Elia Kazan Written by Tennessee Williams and Oscar Saul, from a play by Williams
Yes, they bowdlerized the play, but I have yet to see a better performance of it. (No, not even the version on The Simpsons.)
5. The Tales of Hoffman Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Written by Powell, Pressburger, and Dennis Arundell, from an opera by Jacques Offenbach and Jules Barbier
It's the most experimental of the Archers' pictures, but it doesn't deserve its reputation as difficult viewing.
6. The Lavender Hill Mob Directed by Charles Crichton Written by T.E.B. Clarke
"I propagate British cultural depravity."
7. Miracle in Milan Directed by Vittorio De Sica Written by De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Mario Chiari, and Adolfo Franci, from a novel by Zavattini
A strange hybrid of neorealism and fantasy, with squatters using witchcraft to battle the authorities. My favorite De Sica film.
8. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman Written and directed by Albert Lewin
The high point in Jack Cardiff's career as a cinematographer.
9. The Man in the White Suit Directed by Alexander Mackendrick Written by Mackendrick, and Roger MacDougall, John Dighton
Unions and corporate chieftains join forces to suppress an invention that would put them out of work. Screw Star Wars: This libertarian satire is Alec Guinness' best science-fiction movie.
10. Bellissima Directed by Luchino Visconti Written by Visconti, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and Francesco Rosi
For a comedy, this made me awfully sad.
11. People Will Talk (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) 12. The African Queen (John Huston) 13. Four Ways Out (Pietro Germi) 14. Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson) 15. He Ran All the Way (John Berry) 16. Susana (Luis Buñuel) 17. Rabbit Fire (Chuck Jones) 18. The Man from Planet X (Edgar G. Ulmer) 19. The Tall Target (Anthony Mann) 20. Rooty Toot Toot (John Hubley)
Of the movies of 1951 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Hôtel des Invalides.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1961, it gave its Best Picture award to West Side Story, a musical whose fine cinematography and score are undermined by an aggravating script. I prefer these:
1. Yojimbo Directed by Akira Kurosawa Written by Kurosawa and Ryûzô Kikushima, from a novel by Dashiell Hammett
It was based on Red Harvest, it inspired A Fistful of Dollars, and it manages, remarkably, to be better than both.
2. Lola Written and directed by Jacques Demy
The Short Cuts of the French New Wave.
3. Yanco Directed by Servando González Written by González, from a story by Jesús Marín
I don't know if this brilliant but barely-known Mexican movie is available with English subtitles, but that doesn't really matter: There's hardly any dialogue, and when the characters do occasionally talk the words aren't all that important. The movie's sound, on the other hand, is very important indeed.
4. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen Directed by Karel Zeman Written by Zerman, Josef Kainar, and Jiří Brdečka, from a story cycle by Rudolf Erich Raspe
This film feels like it's set in a Cornell box.
5. The Hustler Directed by Robert Rossen Written by Rossen and Sidney Carroll, from a novel by Walter Tevis
"You have the best excuse in the world for losing. No trouble losing when you got a good excuse. Winning, that can be heavy on your back, too, like a monkey."
6. The Innocents Directed by Jack Clayton Written by William Archibald, Truman Capote, and John Mortimer, from a novel by Henry James
A slow-burning horror movie inspired by The Turn of the Screw.
7. The Exiles Written and directed by Kent MacKenzie
Life in Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, before the planners tore it down.
8. The Ladies Man Directed by Jerry Lewis Written by Lewis and Bill Richmond
If you wonder why the French love Jerry Lewis, this is the picture to watch. The sets could have come from a Tati film, the story shatters more narrative conventions than anything by Godard, and tracking all the Freudian undercurrents could serve as a cineastes' full employment act. Beyond that, it's pretty damn funny. I could do without a couple of sappy scenes with Pat Stanley, but otherwise this is Lewis in peak form.
9. Eugene Written and directed by Ernie Kovacs and Joseph Behar
Kovacs was the first genius of TV comedy, experimenting with television the way an earlier generation of clown-artists experimented with film. You can see that inventive spirit at work in this surreal ABC special, which obviously owes a lot to the silent era but looks forward much more than it looks back.
10. Blast of Silence Written and directed by Allen Baron
11. Viridiana (Luis Buñuel) 12. Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi) 13. Underworld U.S.A. (Sam Fuller) 14. Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini) 15. A Woman is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard) 16. One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando) 17. Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais) 18. Zoo (Bert Haanstra) 19. Substitute (Dusan Vukotic) 20. Nowy Janko Muzykant (Jan Lenica)
Of the motion pictures of 1961 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Spike Milligan Offers a Series of Unrelated Incidents at Current Market Value.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked at 1971, it gave its Best Picture award to The French Connection, a thriller that I enjoyed but whose exalted reputation has always mystified me. I like these movies better:
1. The Last Picture Show Directed by Peter Bogdanovich Written by Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry, from a novel by McMurtry
I'm not sure if this counts as a "modern western," but if it does, it's my favorite modern western.
2. A Clockwork Orange Directed by Stanley Kubrick Written by Kubrick, from a novel by Anthony Burgess
Note to people who would reduce every story to a simple political message: A film can present two ugly alternatives without advocating either of them.
3. Mon Oncle Antoine Directed by Claude Jutra Written by Jutra and Clément Perron
One of the darkest Christmas movies this side of Pandora's Box, but with some fleeting moments of genuine joy in it too.
4. McCabe & Mrs. Miller Directed by Robert Altman Written by Altman and Brian McKay, from a novel by Edmund Naughton
Altman does to the western what he did a year earlier to the war movie and would do over the following few years to the private eye film, the gangster picture, and the musical.
5. Bananas Directed by Woody Allen Written by Allen and Mickey Rose
"All children under 16 years old are now: 16 years old."
6. They Might Be Giants Directed by Anthony Harvey Written by James Goldman, from his play
My favorite Sherlock Holmes movie, though strictly speaking Sherlock Holmes isn't in it.
7. Walkabout Directed by Nicholas Roeg Written by Edward Bond
An enigmatic film about desire, communication breakdown, and the beautiful, treacherous Australian landscape.
8. Trafic Directed by Jacques Tati Written by Tati, Jacques Lagrange, and Bert Haanstra
Tati's semi-silent satire is a worthy follow-up to Play Time. If it isn't as good as the previous picture...well, not every movie needs to be a masterpiece.
9. The Hospital Directed by Arthur Hiller Written by Paddy Chayefsky
This one is overwritten in the usual Chayefsky manner, but I like it anyway. It's one of those anti-authoritarian black comedies that proliferated in the late '60s and early '70s. On the surface, it's about a city hospital, but it's really about any institution that has outgrown the human scale.
10. Dirty Harry Directed by Don Siegel Written by Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims
A peeping-tom cop is driven to sadism by the horrors of street crime and his department's inability to contain it. In the sequels he becomes an almost cuddly character, but here Harry Callahan is easy to empathize with but hard to like: an antihero in a movie with more nuances than many critics will admit.
11. The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda) 12. Duck, You Sucker (Sergio Leone) 13. W.R.—Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev) 14. Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman) 15. Klute (Alan J. Pakula) 16. A New Leaf (Elaine May) 17. Jabberwocky (Jan Švankmajer) 18. Basic Training (Frederic Wiseman) 19. Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood) 20. 10 Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer)
Best monologue: Elliott Gould on writing letters to the spy reading his mail, in Little Murders.
Of the films of 1971 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Glen and Randa.