Monday, March 31, 2014

My Top 10 Movies

Twenty–three years ago, late movie critic Roger Ebert published a column in which he named his Top 10 movie list of all time.

Before naming his choices, he established his reasoning behind them:
"If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it's an emotional one. These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another. The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That's what it does best."

Ebert also listed his Top 10 in alphabetical order; readers couldn't tell which movie was his absolute #1. That list probably changed over the years, considering the movies that came out after Ebert wrote it.

So, taking my lead from Mr. Ebert, here is my Top 10 list. These are the movies that moved me the most, not necessarily the ones that made the most money or won the most awards — in alphabetical order:

Amadeus (1984)

I have always had a great appreciation for music. I owe that to my parents, I suppose. You probably couldn't find a couple with more diverse musical tastes than my parents. My mother was fond of folk music. My father's musical tastes were more wide–ranging; he also liked folk music, but he liked Ravi Shankar and Middle Eastern music as well.

They both liked classical music and the music of Glenn Miller.

My primary favorite is the music of my generation that I heard on radios and jukeboxes when I was growing up, but I have a healthy appreciation for most genres. I don't know everything about classical music, but Mozart has been my favorite composer since I was a child (even though I didn't know who he was at that time) and learned how to play some of his simpler compositions when I was taking piano lessons. (Please don't ask me to play them now! I haven't retained that knowledge.)

Mozart had a gift, and "Amadeus" provided ample proof of it. By modern standards — and probably by 18th–century standards as well — he was young (35) when he died, but he was prodigious. He wrote more than 600 compositions of all kinds — symphonies, operas, chamber music, choral music. If he isn't the most influential composer of all time, he certainly is one of them.

He was also, from the accounts I have read, vulgar, profane, generally disagreeable and childlike in many ways — in other words, pretty much as Tom Hulce portrayed him in the movie.

That fueled the urban legend that has evolved over the years about how Mozart's early death was brought about by his frustrated rival, Salieri, who was played brilliantly by F. Murray Abraham — and made for the amazing movie experience that was "Amadeus."

Hulce was wonderful as Mozart, and I thought he was deserving of an Oscar, too, but I understood why Abraham got the nod. The story really was about Salieri.

There were many memorable scenes in "Amadeus," but the most memorable for me came at the end when Salieri pardoned the mediocrities in the asylum with him. "Mediocrities everywhere," he said in a very papal manner, "I absolve you."

After I saw the movie, I did something I hardly ever do — I bought the soundtrack. It was a double cassette, as I recall, so I could listen to it in my car. That tape has long since been replaced by CDs, which I still enjoy after all these years.

I enjoy works by many classical composers, but, as I say, Mozart is my favorite, and a movie about his life, however fictionalized it may be, is a treat for me — a treat I savor often.

Animal House (1978)

"Animal House" is a very special movie for me.

It always entertains me. I laugh at all the best–known stuff — and at the stuff that never gets much attention, too.

For a long time now, it has been a bittersweet experience to watch "Animal House." It's been that way since John Belushi died.

And, with the death five weeks ago of Harold Ramis, who co–wrote it, it is even more of a bittersweet experience for me.

It's still funny, though. If you went to college, you probably knew folks who belonged to a pompous frat like the Omegas. You might even have belonged to the anti–Omega frat — which, in this case, was the Deltas. The Deltas seemed to exist entirely for the purpose of disrupting the social order in which Omegas and the Faber College hierarchy ruled.

It was the classic clash between the establishment (Omegas) and the nonconformists (Deltas) — essentially remade (but not done nearly as well) in the "Revenge of the Nerds" flicks — and it is one of those movies where I find something new to laugh about every time I see it. Oh, sure, there's the usual stuff — like when Dean Wormer puts the Deltas on "double–secret probation" and the Deltas throw a toga party.

And just about everything that John Belushi ever did was funny. I think Belushi was one of those guys who could come out on stage and read the phone book — or, perhaps, not do anything at all — and be funny. Well, perhaps not. But he was a rare talent.

I always laugh when I see him walking down the stairs in the Delta house and, driven momentarily insane by the insipid song being sung by the folk singer, smashes the folk singer's guitar, then says, "Sorry."

"Animal House" was like that — a lot of silly stuff loosely strung together, but it was still funny and it sure launched a lot of careers. You could say that Belushi's career had already been launched with Saturday Night Live, but this marked the beginning and best ("Blues Brothers" notwithstanding) of his big–screen efforts.

It just never gets old for me.

Citizen Kane (1941)

I'd be a poor excuse for a journalist if I didn't include "Citizen Kane."

Of course, lots of folks who aren't journalists think that "Citizen Kane" is one of the best movies ever made, and I can't disagree with that. It's a great story. In addition to being a great story, though, Orson Welles pioneered many filmmaking techniques.

Before "Citizen Kane," movie sets tended to be like theater stages. The rooms that were created on them had no ceilings; the walls just went up into infinity. But in "Citizen Kane," each room was enclosed by ceilings. It had the realistic feel of a room.

Welles, who both acted in and directed "Citizen Kane," experimented with camera angles and sounds as well, and I know his work inspired others. There are little touches in "Citizen Kane" that I can see in many of Hitchcock's movies.

Hitchcock, of course, did his share of film pioneering, but creative types are never above borrowing someone else's idea and putting their own spin on it (which, I suppose, explains why I am borrowing Roger Ebert's 23–year–old idea).

Anyway, in my mind's eye, I can almost see Hitchcock watching a print of "Citizen Kane" and imagining how he could incorporate a technique or two from it in his next project.

But let's think about the story and not the groundbreaking filmmaking techniques. "Citizen Kane" was the story of a man who wanted for nothing when he grew up — except the closeness of the family relationship. He hungered for love throughout the movie, but "he just didn't have any to give," Joseph Cotten observed.

That's the great irony of the story of Charles Foster Kane — and it's what new generations of viewers learn every time they discover the meaning of "rosebud."

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Peter Sellers was one of Mom's favorites, and she passed that on to me. Mom's been gone for a long time now, but I still feel obligated to watch a Sellers movie whenever one is on.

I never tire of watching Peter Sellers movies, whether it's one of the "Pink Panther" movies or "Being There" — or, especially, "Dr. Strangelove." That is one of the few Peter Sellers movies that I didn't watch with Mom. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, I watched it by myself late on a Friday night when I was on my first job after college.

I have a pretty vivid memory of watching it on a Little Rock TV station. I was a general assignment reporter for an afternoon newspaper, and I covered local high school football games in the fall, but we didn't publish on weekends so I had the weekend to work on my story and then enter it in the system on Monday morning.

The game I covered that night must have been local because I was home in time for the start of the movie — which typically began right after the 10 o'clock news. I remember sitting down in front of the TV with a cold beer and being captivated by that movie from start to finish.

I'm not sure if I ever watched it with Mom. I don't remember talking with her about it — and we surely would have talked about it. We did that a lot, anyway, and "Dr. Strangelove" was really no different from the other Peter Sellers movies I had seen.

I've seen it many times, and I have found that there are certain parts that are always funny to me — and other parts that I discover as if I am seeing them for the first time. (In some cases, maybe I am ...)

Sterling Hayden's monologues about "our precious bodily fluids" always make me laugh. So does the scene where Sellers breaks up a fight between an American general and a Soviet ambassador with the classic line, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room." (That's #64 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie quotes — and the movie itself is ranked #39 on AFI's list of the all–time best movies.)

There are so many other reasons to watch it — Slim Pickens riding the bomb, James Earl Jones' big–screen debut and Sellers' multiple roles. I have long said he should have been nominated three times for Best Actor that year (instead of the single nomination he received).

I think of that every time I watch that movie.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

I've never understood why more movies haven't been made about the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

There was a miniseries about 15 years ago starring Alec Baldwin as the American prosecutor. My memory is that it was reasonably true to the facts, but it got a little bogged down in the relationship between Baldwin's character (a Supreme Court justice) and his secretary.

But, other than a documentary on the first war crimes trial, that's about it.

"Judgment at Nuremberg" was fiction that was based on the original trial. It was about the last of the Nuremberg trials, when the victors of World War II had gone through all the vanquished's military defendants they could find and were left to prosecute German civilians — the legal authorities who carried out state policy.

There were, as Spencer Tracy's character observed, those who believed civilians shouldn't be tried at all. In reality, that was certainly a factor in the wrapup of the trials.

Ah, Tracy. I admire his work every time I see him in a film, and many of his best were made with his soulmate, Katharine Hepburn, but he made some good movies without her, too, one of which was "Judgment at Nuremberg." To be honest, I had to think long and hard about whether to include this movie or another one that he made without Hepburn — "Inherit the Wind."

Is it a coincidence that both movies are about the legal system? Probably not. It has a lot of personal relevance for me.

There was a time in my life when I covered the police beat, and part of that standing assignment meant covering trials. That can be a tedious task at times. It isn't always as exciting as it seems in the movies or on TV shows — but the potential is always there.

And sometimes, some truly dramatic events do occur in courtrooms.

I recall once when I was covering a murder trial in Arkansas. The defendant had been found guilty (there really wasn't any question about his guilt), and the trial was in the punishment phase in which the jurors were to decide between a life sentence and a death sentence. During the punishment phase, the defense was permitted to present evidence of extenuating circumstances that would justify a life sentence.

In this case, the defendant heard testimony of how his alcoholic father had abused him and his mother. He knew about that. But then he heard testimony about something he did not know — that his mother had been mentally retarded. His face showed total shock when he heard the news, then he dissolved into tears. It was the kind of deeply intimate, personal moment that one recoils from witnessing.

I always think of that whenever I see Monty Clift's tragic character, sterilized by the Nazis, in "Judgment at Nuremberg."

It's a hard movie to watch at times, but a necessary reminder of, as Tracy puts it, the necessity of standing for something.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

I am tempted to label "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" a guilty pleasure.

I laughed at it all when I was a kid. I understood some of the references, didn't understand others, but I was old enough at the time to realize it was all just silly.

I suppose I had a vague understanding of the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table so I got certain jokes — and it helped that I had seen Monty Python's TV show. I knew how off the wall they could be.

Well, I'm still watching it and still laughing at the same jokes (plus some more that I got only after later viewings).

Like the running joke of how the knights' servants would follow behind and strike two coconuts together to make the sound of horse's hooves.

Or the logic of determining whether someone was a witch:
Peasant 1: If she weighs the same as a duck ... she's made of wood.

Sir Bedevere: And therefore ...

Peasant 2: ... A witch!

See what I mean? It's silly, the stuff that guilty pleasures are made of, but it is silliness with some wit attached to it. It isn't slapstick funny like the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy. In its own way, it is as good a satire of the Medieval times as "Dr. Strangelove" is good Cold War satire.

And I laugh every time I watch it.

Network (1976)

And while I am on the subject of satire, I would be remiss if I left "Network" off the list.

I don't think there are any words I could use in praise of "Network" that have not been used before. Even the word that comes to my mind with a natural ease — visionary — has been used before, probably many times.

Peter Finch's rant — "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore" — summed up national frustration and captured the popular imagination in the way that few movie lines have. (The American Film Institute ranks it 19th.)

But, as Roger Ebert observed, the story really wasn't about him. It was about Faye Dunaway and Bill Holden and their May–December affair. Finch was, as Ebert wrote, a "sideshow" — a very entertaining one, to be sure (I still laugh at not just his "mad as hell" but other things as well), but still a sideshow.

"The movie has been described as 'outrageous satire' ... and 'messianic farce' ... and it is both, and more," Ebert wrote. "What is fascinating about Paddy Chayefsky's Oscar–winning screenplay is how smoothly it shifts its gears."

That is good writing — and I'm a sucker for good writing. You can take away all the splashy special effects and leave me with a good, well–written story, whatever form that story may take, any time. I'll get the better of that deal. Always.

Finch's on–air rant seems to be the only thing that people remember from "Network," but there are so many little touches that keep bringing me back.

More than anything else, though, I think "Network" remains on my list nearly 40 years after it was in the theaters because it remains relevant.

"The movie caused a sensation in 1976," Ebert wrote. "It was nominated for 10 Oscars, won four ... and stirred up much debate about the decaying values of television. Seen a quarter–century later, it is like prophecy."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

North by Northwest (1959)

I could probably make a Top 10 movie list of nothing but Hitchcock movies — but if I am going to limit myself to one (and that is what I have decided to do in this article), "North by Northwest" is it.

"Psycho" and "Vertigo" came close — and I had to give some consideration to "The Birds" and "Rear Window" and "Strangers on a Train."

But "North by Northwest" prevailed.

It certainly has plenty of Hitchcock's mind–bending touches. And talk about cliffhangers! I mean, at the end, when Cary Grant reaches out his hand to Eva Marie Saint on Mount Rushmore, the very next thing we see is the two of them on a train — which is going into a tunnel. You don't have to be Fellini to figure that one out.

But it's an unresolved cliffhanger. How did she manage to get out of that particular predicament? Obviously, she did, but how did she do it?

That may be why I watch the movie — to try to figure out how she did it.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

You know, it really doesn't surprise me that Harper Lee published "To Kill a Mockingbird" and nothing else.

It wasn't from lack of talent. Anyone who has ever read that book knows what a remarkable work it was. It took a remarkable talent to create it.

Sometimes, though, writers only have one book in them, and Lee appears to be one of those writers — J.D. Salinger is often thought to be one of them, too, but he wrote things other than "The Catcher in the Rye" (his will stipulates that most not be published until 50 years after his death, which will be in 2060). Nevertheless, that is the work for which he is and always will be remembered, I'm sure.

For a few actors, even if they play many roles in their lives, there is one role that defines them.

Gregory Peck is such an actor. He is remembered for many great performances in his career, but I've always thought he was born to play Atticus Finch. To a great extent, it seems that Peck was Atticus Finch, a real–life version. I once heard Mary Badham, who played Scout, say that he was like a father to her off–screen as well as on. I devoutly believe no one else could have played the role so convincingly. He won his first and only Oscar for it — the fifth and last time he was nominated.

Anyone who talks about "To Kill a Mockingbird" will mention the courtroom scenes, and those are certainly worth the price of admission. Atticus offers a stirring defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman at a time when that kind of thing simply did not happen — most of the time. As I understand it, though, Harper Lee's father was a lot like Atticus. He was a lawyer, too, and he may have defended a black man accused of a similar crime.

I know Lee was inspired by something she saw as a child in the South.

But my favorite scene is when Atticus shoots the rabid dog in the street. His son, who earlier had been embarrassed by his father's apparent lack of toughness when he declined to play football for the Methodists, was dumbstruck.

"What's the matter, boy?" the sheriff asked him. "Didn't you know your daddy is the best shot in this county?"

I'll watch the whole movie just to see that scene.

But there's so much more. This was Robert Duvall's debut. He probably would have risen in the film industry without this to his credit, but his performance as the reclusive Boo accelerated things.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

More often than not, I will watch "Young Frankenstein" on Halloween. I've never really been much for dressing up for Halloween, but I've fallen into the habit of watching that one on Halloween, anyway.

I tend to name it as my favorite Mel Brooks movie, but there are so many others that are nearly as good. "The Producers" was wonderful — I nearly mentioned it in this list — and, of course, "Blazing Saddles" was hilarious.

And the truth is that I am just as likely to watch those movies — or "High Anxiety" or "Silent Movie" or "History of the World, Part I" — as I am to watch "Young Frankenstein."

But "Young Frankenstein" is special. I could rattle off scene after scene, line after line that I enjoy.

One of the things I enjoy the most is Marty Feldman as Eyegore who was sent to retrieve the brain of a thinker and returned with the brain of "Abby someone ... A.B. Normal."

"My grandfather use to work for your grandfather," Eyegore tells Frohderick. "Of course, the rates have gone up."

It's funny when the horses whinny when Frau Blucher's name is mentioned by anyone.

It's funny when Gene Wilder gets caught between the revolving bookcase and the wall.

It is always an entertaining movie.