By Alan Hurst
Picking my own personal list of 10 best films is a frustrating treat. It’s a list that’s heavily influenced by whim and mood and it varies by year, by month, by week as I revisit some films and discover others. There are always a few staples that consistently make the list – and there are some I know that may not be deserving but have become so entrenched in my movie viewing psyche that it hurts to leave them off. With that, here are my top ten as of July 2018 (and a healthy list of honourable mentions).
- Rear Window (1954)
I waffle as to what I consider to be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, but I think Rear Window (1954) is as close to perfect as he ever achieved. It’s basically a one-set film where photographer James Steward is recuperating from a broken leg. Stewart overlooks the courtyard of the neighbouring apartments and has a front row seat to all the goings on of the various tenants – an ideal perch for suspicion and voyeurism. It’s a spectacular set and one that’s the perfect backdrop for murder. Hitchcock was known for planning a film out shot by shot before he shot a single frame and in this instance that level of precision works beautifully. Panning from apartment to apartment, allowing Stewart and the audience to put the mystery together, he builds the suspense continually. This is one of Stewart’s best performances – irascible, frustrated, anxious, intense – not a typical Stewart role. Also good are Grace Kelly as his girlfriend and especially Thelma Ritter as his nurse. Ritter was one of the best things about films of the fifties and early sixties – and she’s a special treat here.
- Annie Hall (1977)
This is the quintessential Woody Allen film. It’s also his best and remains just as funny and bittersweet as it did when it came out in early 1977. It marked a major step forward for Allen as an actor, screenwriter and director – he is able to marry the slapstick absurdity of his earlier films with an insightful, autobiographical and realistic love story that perfectly mirrors the anxiety of that era. His non-linear approach and the constant breaking of the fourth wall was a creative home run at the time and really showcased his abilities as a writer and expanded the potential for truly affecting romantic comedy. Allen’s achievement was recognized with Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. Annie Hall (1977) also provided a tremendous showcase for Diane Keaton. Allen gifted her with one of the great roles of the era and she’s perfect – funny, sexy, charming and, at times, annoying – a fully rounded performance that won her a deserved Best Actress Oscar. (The fact that traces of Annie Hall have continued to pop up in Keaton’s performances over the last 40 years is a topic for another time.)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The best movie about the movies ever made. It’s also a stunningly filmed murder mystery, an incisive portrait of vanity and delusion, and a perfect example of film noir. What I love about Billy Wilder is that he was never defined by one genre of film. He excelled at comedy with Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), Sabrina (1954) and A Foreign Affair (1948). Was comfortable with dramas like Stalag 17 (1953), and The Lost Weekend (1945); and with mystery in Double Indemnity (1944) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – all classics. But Sunset Boulevard (1950) is his peak. It’s an incisive, bitter, and moving story about Norma Desmond, a faded silent star who hinges all hopes for a comeback on an out of work writer on the run from debt collectors. The film is filled with memorable scenes – the opening shot of the writer floating dead in Norma’s pool, her visit to Paramount Studios, the at-home screening of her old films, and her final descent into madness as she descends her staircase in the film’s last scene. Beautifully filmed in black and white with a great Franz Waxman score, Sunset Boulevard (1950) has atmosphere to spare. It also boasts career best performances from both Gloria Swanson as Norma – making her own comeback after many years off the screen – and William Holden as writer Joe Gillis. Swanson deservedly got the lion’s share of attention when the film was released, but for me it’s Holden who serves as the grounded centre of the film.
- My Darling Clementine (1946)
This is a new one on my list. I saw it for the first time at the TCM Film Festival in 2015 and have watched it a few times since, most recently in the pristine Criterion Blu-Ray transfer. Director John Ford is acknowledged as the master of Hollywood westerns and I think this tops his Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), both masterworks. It’s a deceptively simple story – Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his brothers are on a cattle drive and stop in Tombstone for a night. Their cattle are stolen and one of the brothers is killed. Earp becomes sheriff of Tombstone and meticulously works to clean up the town and get his revenge, climaxing with the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It’s a very slow-moving film, with long periods of silence that serve to help build the tension but also add a level of realism, supported with a multi-layered script and some stunning visuals. Ford, along with his art directors and cinematographer, has created a moody, dusty and dry archetype for a western town that, on a large screen, pulls you right in. This is one of Henry Fonda’s best performances – quiet, shy, focused. It also features surprisingly strong work from Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, the boozy, sick gunman who ultimately helps Earp.
- Cabaret (1972)
It’s probably the best stage to screen adaptation in movie history and a near perfect musical. It’s one of the decades defining films – and one that in today’s political climate is still dishearteningly relevant. It’s set in Berlin in the early 1930s and uses a seedy nightclub to tell the story of a group of decadent misfits, with the rise of Hitler and Nazism as a backdrop. It reworks the Broadway musical it’s based on by setting all musical numbers on stage at the Kit Kat Club. It also eliminates some songs and characters, adds new ones and flips the nationalities of the two main characters. But it works. Director Bob Fosse – hitting gold after a bit of a stumble with his film adaptation of Sweet Charity (1969) – totally rethought the property in cinematic terms without losing the impact that made the original show a success. He worked with a crew at the top of their game – the film looks and sounds sensational – and with a cast that couldn’t be better. Both Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey won Oscars for career-best performances and Michael York established himself as a strong leading man with a face that Fosse always said he could “photograph forever”.
- Casablanca (1943)
The ultimate Warner Brothers film of the decade and one that has only increased in stature, growing from a crowd-pleasing WWII romance/adventure to it’s position as a near perfect example of what the Hollywood studio system could achieve when everything aligns. Set during WWII, Casablanca is the location of Rick’s Café Americain – a nightclub where everyone gathers on their way from war torn Europe with the hope of getting to America. Among those coming to Rick’s are his former girlfriend and her husband, a leader of the resistance being followed by the Germans. Director Michael Curtiz pulled this all together working from an incomplete screenplay and relatively quick production schedule and it represents the best film of his career. Never acknowledged as a top tier direction, Curtiz was nevertheless responsible for some truly excellent films including Captain Blood (1935), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945). This won him his only Oscar. Humphrey Bogart plays Rick and it’s the quintessential Bogart role – tough and sentimental, cynical but decent. It forever cemented Bogart as the ultimate forties anti-hero. Ingrid Bergman glows as the former girlfriend and you can see why Rick never got over her. One of the great treats of WB films of the forties was the stable of supporting players they could draw from – and Casablanca (1943) features basically all of them at the top of their game – Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Syndey Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and especially Claude Rains who is perfect trying to play both sides and ultimately doing the right thing.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
It’s a children’s fantasy, it’s a musical and, at times, it verges very close to horror. It’s also one of the most beloved films of the last century – again a near perfect example of what Hollywood’s studio system (in this case MGM) could do with endless resources and ultimate control. It tells the story of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), a young girl who yearns for more and suddenly gets it with the arrival of a tornado that whisks her to the land of Oz where everything is very different than her home in Kansas. A hit upon its initial release, it didn’t become an ingrained cultural phenomenon until it started annual showings on television in the late 1950s where generations breathlessly waited for the once-a-year viewing. There really isn’t a false note in any aspect of the production. Victor Fleming directed (along with brief support from George Cukor, King Vidor and others) made the wise choice to begin the film in sepia tones while in Kansas and then transition to the technicolor brilliance of Oz. Technically, the film is a marvel for the time – excellent special effects, brilliant set design, make-up and costumes. The score is top notch – with “Over the Rainbow” acknowledged as probably the best song ever written for a film. But the heart of the film is the cast. Judy Garland is perfect as the naïve but resilient Dorothy. Her merry band of sidekicks – Bert Lahr, Jack Haley and Ray Bolger – are terrific as the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow. And Margaret Hamilton is a wonder as the Wicked Witch – terrifying and funny.
- Chinatown (1974)
Of all the movies on this list, this is one that absolutely requires multiple viewings. Not because its overly complicated, but to truly appreciate the layers of Robert Towne’s script and how director Roman Polanski weaves them all together. The film opens with a beautiful art deco influenced credit sequence and Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score. We then meet J.J. Gittes, an L.A. based private detective played by Jack Nicholson. Gittes is hired by a Mrs. Mulwray who suspects her husband of infidelity. But things aren’t what they seem as he discovers when he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Towne’s script then veers to murder, political corruption, greed and devastating family secrets. The film is set in 1937 (it’s a visual treat), but with a 1970s sensibility, particularly in the relationship between Nicholson and Dunaway and with the political undertones (this was released at the height of Watergate). This is probably my favorite Nicholson performance – he’s funny, cynical, sexy and complicated. He isn’t a two-dimensional gumshoe. Dunaway is also excellent – brittle, fragile, duplicitous. This is a complicated woman and Dunaway misses nothing. From all accounts the actress was a challenge on the set, but what shows on screen is perfection.
- The Godfather (1972)
The best film of decade and championed by many as the best film of all time. It’s a perfect collaboration of cast, story and filmmaker. Even after multiple viewings it continues to reveal new layers and never fails to have an impact. In telling the story of the Corleone family, director Francis Ford Coppola is telling the story of the American Dream – both the positive and the underbelly. Stunningly photographed by Gordon Willis, it’s an incredibly rich and passionate looking film. Marlon Brando, after a long stretch of mediocre films and performances, is back in top form as the Godfather. It’s a great performance that has tremendous power despite what is relatively limited screen time. But for me it’s Al Pacino who dominates the film in a star-making turn as the Godfather’s son. His character’s growth from selectively objective bystander to active participant in the family business is superb. He shows all the conflicting emotions that make the character real and his journey believable. James Caan, Robert Duvall, Abe Vigoda and Talia Shire also do terrific work.
- Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Ripped to shreds by some mainstream reviewers upon it’s release because it seemed to glorify violence, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) quickly became one of watershed movies of the era thanks to audience reaction, a reassessment by film critics and the fact that it is an entirely original, fast-paced, shocking, funny and moving look at the mythology surrounding gangsters as folk heroes. Producer and star Warren Beatty was the key in pulling this project together and it was his perseverance that ensured success after the initial stumble out of the gate. But the success is shared by everyone down the line. Director Arthur Penn’s vision, David Newman and Robert Benton’s screenplay and Burnett Guffey’s Oscar winning cinematography created a beautiful and bleak landscape with recognizable characters carried away by their own greed, fear and circumstance. The cast could not be better. This is probably Beatty’s best performance along with Bugsy (1991) (gangsters seem to bring out the best in him). Dunaway is equally good as Bonnie – on par with her work in Chinatown (1974) (thirties period pieces seem to bring out the best in her). Also making a major impact are Estelle Parsons (Oscar winner for supporting actress), Gene Hackman (he should have won supporting actor), Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder. Everything works together seamlessly and, 51 years after it’s initial release, the impact is still as powerful.
10 Honourable Mentions: Mildred Pierce (1945), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Searchers (1956), All About Eve (1950), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Mary Poppins (1964)
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.