Tuesday 17 July 2018

The greatest American movies of all time

Breaking the mould: Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
Breaking the mould: Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

In a new poll by the BBC Culture website, Citizen Kane was voted the greatest American movie of all time. Only a fool would argue much with that choice, as Kane is also considered by many to be the best film ever, full stop. But the group of critics consulted by BBC Culture didn't stop there - they went all out and named the best 100 American movies ever. And that, for me, is when the trouble starts.

Included, for instance, in their top 25 is David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, an interesting but hugely frustrating film. So is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which is, incredibly, ranked higher than Raging Bull, Some Likeit Hot, Double Indemnity and The Wizard of Oz. Michel Gondry's pretentious psychodrama Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also makes the list, and so does Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, which really is not a good film.

Worst of all, three of my top 10 don't appear anywhere in the BBC Culture top 100 list. Yes folks, I'm afraid I couldn't resist posting my best ten American films ever, and I've included some honourable mentions in the panel. See what you think.

1. Citizen Kane

Reshown extensively this year to mark the centenary of its creator's birth, Orson Welles' 1941 drama stands the test of time terrifically, and has some challenging things to say about America's love affair with wealth, and its toxic effect on democracy.

Welles plays Charles Foster Kane, a lonely child who inherits a fortune and grows up to become a campaigning publisher and would-be politician til his own hubris destroys him. Never having made a movie before, Welles broke all the rules with the help of his cinematographer Gregg Toland, and the film changed cinema forever.

2. The General

Orson Welles called Buster Keaton's 1926 silent comic drama "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made". And he's not wrong, because although The General is above all a comedy, it's underlain with sadness, visual beauty and what Welles called "an odd kind of dignity".

Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a southern railway engineer who's devoted to his locomotive, The General, and his beautiful girlfriend. When war breaks out, Union spies steal The General, Johnny chases them on foot, side-car and bicycle, passing through the raging Civil War and hardly even noticing it.

3. The Searchers

The Searchers was the culmination of a long and fruitful collaboration between John Wayne and John Ford that had already produced such classics as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stagecoach. But the subtext of this film was far darker, exploring the themes of obsession, racism and revenge.

Wayne is Ethan Edwards, an embittered Civil War veteran who is out looking for missing cattle when a Commanche raiding party kills his brother and sister-in-law and kidnaps his niece Debbie. Ethan vows vengeance and embarks on a quest to find her that will last years and take a huge toll on his personality. Natalie Wood and Jeffrey Hunter co-star in this spectacular-looking film which has been often imitated, never equalled.

4. Vertigo

Dismissed as "too long" and "too slow" by contemporary critics, Vertigo is now regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock's very best films. It's certainly one of his most disturbing. James Stewart is John 'Scottie' Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective who's chasing a suspect across the city's rooftops when he ends up clinging from a ledge, and watches a colleague die trying to save him.

He retires a broken man, but is later hired by an old school friend to follow his neurotic wife. When he trails Madeline Elster (Kim Novak), he soon realises she's suicidal, but that doesn't stop him falling in love with her. It's a dark, haunting film, highlighting Hitchcock's deep ambivalence towards women.

5. Taxi Driver

By 1976 Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had already made a couple of films together, but Taxi Driver was a huge leap forward, an explosively powerful contemporary drama that used the conventions of film noir to explore urban America's seedy underbelly.

De Niro delivers an almost unbearably intense performance as Travis Bickle, a New York taxi driver full of simmering rage. Travis drives his cab by night, and when a 12-year-old hooker (Jodie Foster) jumps into his back seat to escape her creepy pimp, Travis decides to become her knight in shining armour.

6. The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola's classic drama had a famously troubled beginning. The story was based on a 1969 best-seller by Mario Puzo, but Paramount wanted Sergio Leone to direct their adaptation, and turned to Peter Bogdanovich when Leone said no. When the studio eventually asked Coppola, he was worried the film would glorify violence and demonise the Italian-American community.

But when Coppola hit on the idea of making the story of the Corleone family a metaphor for American capitalism, he realised he had an opportunity to make a great film. He fought hard to get Paramount to cast Al Pacino as Michael, and even harder to get them to agree to hire the - at the time - virtually uninsurable Marlon Brando.

7. All the President's Men

If one film sums up the dark paranoia of the Nixon era, it's Robert Redford and Alan J Pakula's 1976 thriller. It doesn't even make the BBC Culture top 100, but it's a masterpiece. Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are reporters with The Washington Post when they investigate a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

They follow a trail of money that suggests a possible link between the burglary and the Nixon administration, with the help of a source called 'Deep Throat'. All The President's Men is suffused by an atmosphere of dread and manages to make a dry forensic investigation thrilling,

8. Sunset Boulevard

From the opening scenes in which a corpse floating in a Hollywood swimming pool begins to narrate the story of his life, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is an unforgettably original film. William Holden is Jake Gillis, a struggling screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood who chances on a run-down Sunset Boulevard mansion.

Inside he finds Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent movie star. Norma takes a shine to the writer, and engages him to work on a script she imagines will drive her comeback. But Gillis soon finds himself morally compromised in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the mansion. A gothic classic, Gloria Swanson is outstanding as Desmond.

9. Paths of Glory

Though later films like 2001 and The Shining are more celebrated, this 1957 Stanley Kubrick drama is for me his best. Paths of Glory offers a savage indictment of the casual abandon with which politicians and officers squander their soldiers' lives, and stars Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the commander of a French army regiment during World War One.

Dax can't believe it when his general orders him to lead his men on a suicidal attack on a heavily-defended German hilltop position and when the mission inevitably fails, the general looks for scapegoats and orders three men to be court-martialled for cowardice. Dax decides to defend them, but faces a rigged court and the breathtaking hypocrisy of his superiors.

10. Singin' in the Rain

The greatest musical ever made, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain is also an hilarious satire on the whims of fame and the madness of Hollywood. Kelly is Don Lockwood, a silent film star who's appeared in a hit series of melodramas with glamour-puss Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen).

Then, The Jazz Singer happens, and when the studio rushes to turn the latest Lockwood/Lamont film into a talkie, they hit a problem - Lena's dreadful voice. Don has met a girl called Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and as she sings and talks off-camera for Lena, Kathy and Don fall in love. Donald O'Connor plays Don's faithful friend Cosmo, and the pair's dance routines are absolutely breathtaking.

Honourable mentions

If I'd had space to post a top 20, this lot would definitely have made the list. Most people remember Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life as a schmaltzy Christmas film, but it's much darker and more substantial than that. Manhattan is Woody Allen's best film, a lush tribute to his first love, New York City. My favourite of all the film noirs, John Huston's Maltese Falcon stars Humphrey Bogart as a private detective who oozes world-weary cynicism.

Robert Altman's anti-western McCabe & Mrs Miller is a unique, terrific film, and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is one of the great crime thrillers. Though hell to make, especially for Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz is a magical, special film. I love the cynical screw-ball comedies of Preston Sturges, and Sullivan's Travels is the best of them. Roman Polanski's later career has been overshadowed by controversy, but his 1974 neo-noir thriller Chinatown is a mean, moody masterpiece.

The great actor Charles Laughton only directed one picture, but Night of the Hunter is an extraordinary impressionistic nightmare. And what can one say about Casablanca that hasn't already been said. It was supposed to be a B movie - it's anything but.

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