When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1944, it gave its Best Picture award to Going My Way. While I wouldn't call that trifle a bad film, it feels perverse to hand it the prize in a year that produced as many great movies as this one:
1. Double Indemnity
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, from a novel by James M. Cain
It's a bleak and ugly story about murder and betrayal, yet at times it's as funny as any of Wilder's comedies.
2. To Have and Have Not
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, from a novel by Ernest Hemingway
A lot like Casablanca, but better.
Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhardt, from a novel by Vera Caspary
Roger Ebert called this film's allure "a tribute to style over sanity." He didn't mean that as a put-down, and I don't either.
4. Curse of the Cat People
Directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch
Written by DeWitt Bodeen and Val Lewton
Quite possibly the most misleading title in Hollywood history.
5. Hail the Conquering Hero
Written and directed by Preston Sturges
"You don't need reasons. Although they're probably there."
6. The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Written by Olivier, Dallas Bower, and Alan Dent, from a play by William Shakespeare
It's a propaganda movie, but don't get hung up on that. It's also the most visually inventive Shakespeare picture I've seen, a film that feels like an illuminated manuscript come to life.
7. Miracle of Morgan's Creek
Written and directed by Preston Sturges
Between this and Conquering Hero, you'd never dream Sturges' career was about to crash.
8. A Canterbury Tale
Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
A tale of love, war, and a mysterious figure who assaults women by pouring glue in their hair. And it's actually even stranger than that description makes it sound.
9. It Happened Tomorrow
Directed by René Clair
Written by Clair, Dudley Nichols, and Helene Fraenkel, from a story by Hugh Wedlock and Howard Snyder and a play by Lord Dunsany
This one was nearly made by Frank Capra instead, and the story is certainly suited for the Capra treatment. But it works as one of Clair's American fantasies too. Indeed, it comes in a slot ahead of the bona fide Capra movie on this list.
10. Arsenic and Old Lace
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, from a play by Joseph Kesselring
Surely the finest portrait of Teddy Roosevelt ever to grace the screen.
11. The Old Grey Hare (Bob Clampett)
12. Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk)
13. At Land (Maya Deren)
14. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock)
15. Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang)
16. The Suspect (Robert Siodmak)
17. Jammin' the Blues (Gjon Mili)
18. Little Red Riding Rabbit (Friz Freleng)
19. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang)
20. The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks (Edgar Neville)
Finally, a special shoutout to the Halloween sequence in Meet Me in St. Louis. The rest of the picture doesn't do much for me (aside from "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), but if the Halloween segment were a standalone short it might make it into my top 10.
Of the films of 1944 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Torment.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1954, it gave its Best Picture award to On the Waterfront. That movie made it onto my list, but it isn't at the top:
1. Rear Window
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes, from a story by Cornell Woolrich
The first time I saw this, I thought it was a comedy. The second time, I thought it was a thriller. The third time, I mostly thought the Jimmy Stewart character was kind of creepy. I was right each time.
2. Seven Samurai
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
"Since it's impossible to kill them all, I usually run away."
3. Johnny Guitar
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Ben Maddow, from a novel by Roy Chanslor
One good thing about the films of the '50s is how weird the westerns could be.
4. Wuthering Heights
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Buñuel, Julio Alejandro, Dino Maiuri, and Pierre Unik, from a novel by Emily Brontë
I would not be unhappy if every adaptation of a highbrow literary classic was made by a surrealist slumming in the Mexican-melodrama market.
5. On the Waterfront
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Budd Schulberg
There's a strong drama beating beneath all that political controversy.
6. Sansho the Bailiff
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Written by Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda, from a story by Mori Ōgai
"Humans have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless."
7. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
Written and directed by Kenneth Anger
Aleister Crowley's home movies.
8. Illusion Travels by Streetcar
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Luis Alcoriza
Let me reiterate my fondness for Buñuel's Mexican movies. They're sort of a crazed populist cousin to his arthouse stuff.
9. Track of the Cat
Directed by William Wellman
Written by A.I. Bezzerides, from a novel by William Van Tilburg Clark
Another offbeat western, though here the western elements mostly serve as a shell for a '50s family psychodrama. Beulah Bondi steals every scene she's in.
10. La Strada
Directed by Federico Fellini
Written by Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, and Ennio Flaiano, from a story by Fellini and Pinelli
It's uneven, as Fellini often is, but the good parts are good indeed.
If that last blurb sounds a little unenthusiastic, well, in a better year La Strada would be down in the honorable mentions, not the top 10. Or maybe this isn't a subpar year; maybe I just haven't watched the right pictures from it. I like a lot of movies released in 1954, from Beat the Devil to Robinson Crusoe and from Senso to Sabrina. But that substantial supply of good movies is not matched, as far as I've seen, by a strong supply of great ones. So I'll skip the honorable-mentions list this time.
The operative term there, of course, is "as far as I've seen." Of the films of 1954 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Journey to Italy.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1964, it gave its Best Picture award to My Fair Lady, a movie that makes more sense if you assume Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are having sex. The film's reputation has suffered somewhat since then, but I like it, and it's in my honorable mentions. It isn't in the top 10, though:
1. Dr. Strangelove
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern, from a novel by George
"Mein führer! I can walk!"
2. Woman in the Dunes
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Written by Kobo Abe, from his novel
Spooky and beautiful. Even better than the book.
3. Diary of a Chambermaid
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Written by Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere, from a novel by Octave Mirbeau
Sex, crime, fascism.
4. The Killers
Directed by Don Siegel
Written by Gene L. Coon, from a story by Ernest Hemingway
In which Ronald Reagan delivers the immortal line, "I approve of larceny. Homicide is against my principles."
Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Written by Yoko Mizuki, from a book by Lafcadio Hearn
Four Japanese ghost stories. The first is mediocre, but the rest are riveting—especially "Hoichi the Earless," which feels like an epic medieval poem but bears no resemblance to Hollywood's "epics" at all.
6. The World of Henry Orient
Directed by George Roy Hill
Written by Nora and Nunnally Johnson, from Nora's novel
Two children make a magical dérive through New York, then are initiated into adulthood. Between this and The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury was clearly going through the "bad mom" phase of her career.
Written and directed by Kaneto Shindo
This, Kwaidan, Woman in the Dunes—what an amazing year for Japanese horror pictures.
8. A Shot in the Dark
Directed by Blake Edwards
Written by Edwards and William Peter Blatty, from plays by Marcel Achard and Harry Kurnitz
The best of the Pink Panther series.
9. The Americanization of Emily
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Written by Paddy Chayefsky, from a novel by William Bradford Huie
Reminds me a bit of Stalag 17, except it has the courage of its convictions.
10. A Fistful of Dollars
Directed by Sergio Leone
Written by Leone, Víctor Andrés Catena, and Jaime Comas, from a story by Dashiell Hammett
Hammett told this tale first, in his great novel Red Harvest. Then Akira Kurosawa made a superior samurai film of it, and then Leone and Clint Eastwood moved the story to the Old West. Someday someone should remake it with Bugs Bunny in the lead.
11. Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder)
12. I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov)
13. Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard)
14. Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes)
15. The Train (John Frankenheimer)
16. Mermaid (Osamu Tezuka)
17. Becket (Peter Glenville)
18. My Fair Lady (George Cukor)
19. Nightmare in Chicago (Robert Altman)
20. The Evil of Frankenstein (Freddie Francis)
Of the films of 1964 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in The Soft Skin.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1974, it gave its Best Picture award to The Godfather Part 2. In another year, that might have topped my list as well, but in 1974 it isn't even the year's best Coppola movie:
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Robert Towne
The bridge between the film noir of the '40s and the conspiracy thrillers of the '70s.
2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones
Written by Gilliam, Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin
Years of inept quotation by teenage geeks with bad English accents can't smother the comic genius of this movie.
3. The Conversation
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola
'70s cinema in a nutshell: It's got paranoia, guilt, a lone wolf locked into an uneasy relationship with the system, and Gene Hackman.
Directed by Bob Fosse
Written by Julian Barry
Sometimes Dustin Hoffman does Lenny Bruce's routines better than Lenny Bruce did Lenny Bruce's routines.
5. California Split
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Joseph Walsh
Next time someone tries to tell you Hollywood always fucks things up, remind them that this one almost got made by Spielberg instead.
6. The Godfather Part 2
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, from a novel by Puzo
A short history of America.
7. Swept Away...by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August
Written and directed by Lina Wertmuller
A comedy about the complexities of love, lust, and power, and the difficulties in discerning who wields the third when the first two are in play.
8. A Woman Under the Influence
Written and directed by John Cassavetes
Every unhappy family, the man said, is unhappy in its own way. In this case, several ways.
9. Phantom of the Paradise
Written and directed by Brian De Palma
The Phantom of the Opera meets The Picture of Dorian Gray meets Faust meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
10. Young Frankenstein
Directed by Mel Brooks
Written by Brooks and Gene Wilder
"Wait! Where are you going? I was going to make espresso."
11. Thieves Likes Us (Robert Altman)
12. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah)
13. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent)
14. Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders)
15. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks)
16. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula)
17. Céline and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
18. Every Man for Himself and God Against All (Werner Herzog)
19. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
20. Space is the Place (John Coney)
Of the films of 1974 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Primate.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1984, it gave its Best Picture award to Amadeus. That one made it into my top 10, but it isn't at number one:
1. Repo Man
Written and directed by Alex Cox
"It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes."
2. Love Streams
Directed by John Cassavetes
Written by Cassavetes and Ted Allan, from a play by Allan
"All through the making of this picture," Cassavetes later said, "I kept reliving my father's words. 'For every problem there's an answer.' But since Love Streams is about a question of love, there didn't seem to be an answer I could find....Even now, I still don't know what the brother and sister really feel about each other."
3. This Is Spinal Tap
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer
My favorite rock movie; the first and funniest of the Christopher Guest troupe's semi-improvised comedies; and the strongest evidence that the now-insufferable Reiner was once capable of doing good work.
4. Once Upon a Time in America
Directed by Sergio Leone
Written by Leone, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, and Stuart Kaminsky, from a novel by Harry Grey
One of the greatest gangster pictures. Arguably even better than The Godfather.
5. Nothing Lasts Forever
Written and directed by Tom Schiller
This movie harkens back to so many different film styles that it seems to take place in the entire 20th century at once. But it's a different 20th century—one where the Port Authority has seized dictatorial powers in Manhattan, a benevolent conspiracy of tramps guides people's destinies from a hidden base beneath New York, and the U.S. government first went to the moon in 1953, where it set up a secret shopping district for elderly American tourists.
6. Antonio Gaudí
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
The next best thing to seeing the buildings in person.
7. Secret Honor
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, from their play
Like a post-Watergate conspiracy picture, only instead of a thriller it's a one-man show.
Directed by Milos Forman
Written by Peter Shaffer, from his play
"Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you."
Directed by Ivan Reitman
Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
A pleasant little comedy about a small business and its run-ins with the Environmental Protection Agency.
10. Blood Simple
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
My favorite living American filmmakers make their directorial debut.
11. King Lear (Michael Elliott)
12. Before Stonewall (John Scagliotti, Greta Schiller, Robert Rosenberg)
13. Favorites of the Moon (Otar Iosseliani)
14. There Will Come Soft Rains (Nazim Tulyakhodzayev)
15. After the Rehearsal (Ingmar Bergman)
16. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)
17. Return to Waterloo (Ray Davies)
18. Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)
19. Two Tribes (Kevin Godley, Lol Creme)
20. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven)
Of the films of 1984 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Tightrope and The Funeral.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked
back at 1994, it gave its Best Picture award toForrest
Gump, a film dedicated to the idea that it's better to be
retarded than a hippie. It didn't make it onto my list:
1.Pulp Fiction Directed by Quentin Tarantino Written by Tarantino and Roger Avery
Tarantino is one of those artists, like Hunter Thompson or Marcel
Duchamp, who it's better to admire than to imitate. But you can't blame him for
2.Crumb Directed by Terry Zwigoff
This has a sequence where a comic book slowly devolves
into something else, the illustrations swept aside by page upon page of tiny, illegible
words. I don't think I've ever seen a movie portray a man's descent into madness
3.Hoop Dreams Directed by Steve James
Better than any scripted basketball movie.
4.Before the Rain Written and directed by Milcho Manchevski
A Balkan time-loop.
5.The Secret of Roan Inish
Directed by John Sayles
Written by Sayles, from a novel by Rosalie K. Fry
Aside fromLimbo, which
doesn't entirely fit the mold anyway, I'm not a fan of Sayles' big-canvas
pictures—those labored films where he tries to create a politically engaged portrait
of an entire community but ends up producing a clockwork-powered speechmaking machine
instead. But his small movies, like this eerie and endearing fantasy, can be
6.Red Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
Surveillance, love, and coincidence.
7.Chungking Express Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai
More surveillance, more love, more coincidence.
There's a plotline in this movie about a woman who keeps sneaking into a man's apartment
and rearranging his things. I'm a sucker for stories like that.
8.Ed Wood Directed by Tim Burton Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Alexander and Karaszewski went on to write two
other movies about misfits,The People vs. Larry FlyntandMan on the Moon. But
those were directed by Milos Forman, who turned them into sanctimonious biopics.
Burton did much better, because he had the inspired idea to treat Wood's life as
a fairy tale.
9.Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter Directed by Deborah Hoffman
It's a touching documentary about Alzheimer's,
and it'sfunny. No,
10.Pipsqueak Pfollies Written and directed by Danny Plotnick
In the words of the filmmaker, this short "painstakingly
details all the crap little kids can get away with."
11.Burnt by the Sun(Nikita Mikhalkov)
12.The Last Seduction(John
Dahl) 13.The Kingdom(Lars von Trier) 14.Heavenly Creatures(Peter Jackson) 15.The Madness of George III(Nicholas Hytner) 16.White (Krzysztof
Kieslowski) 17.Faust(Jan Svankmajer) 18.Barcelona(Whit Stillman) 19.Fresh(Boaz Yakin) 20.True Lies(James Cameron)
Of the films of 1994 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Through the Olive Trees and Wes
Craven's New Nightmare. And someday I should sit through Sátántangó, if only as an endurance
(If you compare this to the rankings for 1994 that I posted
years ago, you'll see I had to bump out The
Hudsucker Proxy and Crooklyn to
make room for new movies. But I still like them!)
If you'd like to keep up with my writing as it comes out, as opposed to waiting for an annual roundup of the highlights, I suggest following me on Twitter. Though there's something to be said for the roundup approach—Slow Twitter, we can call it. Reading all those pieces can keep you occupied til next December, and then we'll do it all over again.