List Time! TIFF Essential Cinema Version

As some of you may know, last year the Toronto International Film Festival released its list of the top 100 essential films of all time. They have decided to screen most of these as part of their opening celebrations for its new year-round home, the TIFF Lightbox, which is a great idea because each of these films has a built-in audience. Now, on a quick look at the list I have a lot of issues with it, most prominent of them its ignorance of genre film classics like Terminator 2 and The Exorcist, but it wasn’t until just a few days ago that I decided to craft my own list of 10 essential films, which TIFF asked the public for in order to make up its final list as an amalgamation of a public vote list and a list by cinema experts. I guess I thought it was time to put my money where my mouth is, and I also started the list because I was starting to get excited about finally seeing some of the films listed for the first time, on the big screen and sitting with an audience. Those viewings started yesterday with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which is quite sinister and very watchable despite containing one of the most disturbing performances I have ever seen onscreen, by a then-just-out-of-rehab Dennis Hopper. Tonight I’m going to see Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, and Saturday the 23rd will bring me to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, both films for the very first time.

Now, the process of the list: Since the first thing that appeals to me about a movie is almost always my personal views or the critical consensus on its director, I decided to first craft a list of my ten essential directors and then think of the one film I would recommend anybody to watch if they had never seen any of the director’s films in order to introduce them to that director’s worldview. Of course, I finally ran into a problem I thought I’d never run into, the dilemma of personal favorite vs. essential, which boils down to choosing between what films/directors are your favorites vs. what you think anybody that is interested in cinema should see. Thus, you’ll find some choices in the next two lists that I crossed off or added on, due to wrestling with that duality. Without further ado, in no particular order, my ten essential directors of all time, with honorable mentions being those who were crossed off, and rationalizations for ignoring as well as putting some directors in:

1. Stanley Kubrick
2. Orson Welles
3. Martin Scorsese
4. Steven Spielberg (this one might cause some debate, but in terms of making purely entertaining films, he’s made so many, at least 13 by my count, that he has to be on this list. Surely, he has fallen a good ways from the Jaws/Close Encounters jaw-dropping beginning of his career, but his movies are an essential introduction, as they were to me, to graduating to more paradigm-changing filmmakers like Kubrick and Scorsese later in life)
5. Akira Kurosawa (So far I’ve only seen two of his, and though I’ve only seen four of Welles’s, their titanic influence makes me want to catch up on more of their work before I die)
6. Howard Hawks John Ford Alfred Hitchcock (Sure, the other two have a huge influence and a large number of acclaimed films, but some biggies were going to be left off a very exclusive list of only ten, and I began with these two because although I like their work, it’s not top-ten essential)
7. This one will probably elicit the most response, if I get any out of my three regular readers, and that’s fine, he’s really a love-him-or-hate-him filmmaker, but he’s here because he’s the first director whose films I just had to see when they came out. He’s no more and no less the man that started my film-loving odyssey, and he’s Paul Thomas Anderson.
8. John Huston Francis Ford Coppola (With Huston, love the work he did with Bogart, and have not seen a number of his films that are also very highly regarded, but Coppola came to my mind as a last-minute addition, and I could not ignore him. While this may sound like a backhanded compliment, it’s not. I’ve always told many of my friends that I have a love/hate thing with Tarantino, and that was mostly because I loved all of his movies but hated how people overrated his first two and very much underrated Jackie Brown, which is his best, and now that I finally purchased Pulp Fiction on DVD and have made my peace with the fact that it’s not his best movie but it’s a great and highly enjoyable one anyway, I realize I now have sort of the same thing with Coppola. I don’t currently own any of Coppola’s work, so I haven’t seen it that often, but look forward to owning each of the four outstanding films he directed in the 70s, the first two Godfathers, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. I routinely forget about coppola’s work not just because it’s not in front of me anytime I want to look at it but also because his greatness according to other people is so tied into the two godfathers that the sunshiny aura those two films possess blind others from the brilliance of the latter two movies he made in the seventies as well as the brilliance of other movies about gangsters which i think are even better than coppola’s, Goodfellas and Leone’s Once upon a time in America, a blindness which angers me in so irrational a fashion that I get angry at the director for something he has no control over, the opinions of others on his work. Thus, I look forward to making my peace with his work in the very near future.
9. Sergio Leone (Some may count it against him that he was so evidently influenced by Kurosawa that he can no longer be called influential in his own right, but that ignores the mostly original, mostly distinctive greatness of his work)
10. Woody Allen (Like Spielberg, whatever his modern-day sins might be, the sheer volume of great movies he’s directed, as well as the absolute awesomeness of his best work, films like Manhattan and Hannah and her sisters, get him in here)

And now, most of these directors, except my personal fave P.T. Anderson, whose movies are just too recent, (i’ll write another list in ten years and we’ll see if he can get on) have an entry in my top ten most essential fims of all time, in no particular order (though it’s really 11 and I cheated, I could not snub any of these and believe I have earned forgiveness by snubbing P.T. despite the sheer injustice of it):

1. Casablanca (it’s too good, and too essential, to leave off)
2. Citizen Kane (as i’ve said many times, he’s done more interesting work, including the very underseen F for Fake, but as a whole on this list i tried really hard to balance personal faves with essential films that people that want to know the history of cinema have to see, and that’s why this list is a lot more canonical than some of you who know my iconoclastic ways might believe)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (thought long and hard about clockwork orange here, but if i only get one film per director that I want everybody to see, 2001’s stunning visuals as well as the fact that clockwork orange is just too disturbing to be liked by the majority of the world’s population clinch it by an eyelash)
4. Magnolia City Lights (really the only silent film non-obsessives need to watch; a lot more sophisticated and filled with realistic emotion than the label “silent cinema” would lead you to believe)
5. Goodfellas (Though Raging Bull and Taxi Driver are the ones on TIFF’s list, I don’t love Raging Bull and I love this more than Taxi Driver)
6. Manhattan
7. Seven Samurai (as of today, April 14, 2012, I’ve now seen this film twice and it’s very deserving of a spot on this list)
8. Once upon a time in the west (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the Leone western everybody else would put on this list, and it’s without a doubt scintillating cinema, but i like this one just a little bit better)
9. Jaws (Close Encounters and Schindler’s list are also clear options here. I thought a couple of minutes about what of the two main yet completely contradictory things that spielberg’s work has brought to me was more important. Was it the ability to look at the world with childlike wonder or was it the ability to see the darkness that also envelops us? Close encounters is the best film of his of the several that tried to unite these two streams, but jaws’s influentiality and sheer entertainment value as “the first blockbuster” won over it, and schindler’s list is just so depressing that i’ll never see it again, and I’m not about to put a see-one-time-only film on this list)
10. Apocalypse Now tied with Vertigo (again, each director has made other films that are very worthy of a spot on this list, but again I chose the personal favorite)

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3 Responses to “List Time! TIFF Essential Cinema Version”

  1. Muise Says:

    Casablanca bothers me. It just doesn’t hold up like The Godfather does, and I think it should be on the list. An ‘essential’ list to me are movies that have altered cinema, like Kane and its photography, or Jaws and the concept of the summer blockbuster. I think Godfather adds a level of personal complexity about gangsters and murderers that was not really explored before (or maybe it had been I’m no expert, but this movie stands out as the first). All people have levels, no matter how cold they seem. The opening scene with the wedding and vitto agreeing to commit murder shows this. What has Casablanca done for cinema?

  2. larsaumueller Says:

    Thanks for sharing your opinion Cliff, and it’s a considered one. Both “The Godfather” and “Citizen Kane” have so many fans because they’re so well-filmed and acted and are almost perfect in every sense, but I often find the thought of watching them dry and unexciting, so I made up my mind early on that I wasn’t going to put both of these so-called obvious choices on the list. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to explain it better than that, though I’ve tried. I ended up putting “Kane” on the list because it’s a little less dry and unexciting as “the godfather” and because it came earlier and thus has had a longer time to build up a huge influence on cinema. A small part of the reason I snubbed “The Godfather” is also the fact that I’m so tired of hearing people say it’s their favorite film of all time because it’s such a cliched answer, and I tried hard to make this list a little more personal instead of being a bunch of obvious choices, most of which it ended up being anyways because I do agree with some of these films’ ranks among the titans. Thus I’m proud that I have three films on this list that, while they are very highly thought of, I don’t feel would show up on such a list for most people, and those are “Manhattan,” ‘Once Upon a Time…,” and “Apocalypse Now,” because they give this list a little more of my personal touch.

    As for “Casablanca,” it’s a great film that I will always love much more than “the godfather” simply because it’s more entertaining. Moreover, what it’s done for cinema should be, to a person of your intelligence and film-watching knowledge, self-evident, but I will give you a few pointers nonetheless. Speaking of three-dimensional characters, Rick Blaine starts Casablanca as a guy who doesn’t care about WWII going on around him and in fact profits off people on both sides of the conflict, and his initial coldness is so entrenched that he ignores a beautiful old girlfriend’s pleas to help the Allied Resistance, and by the end of the film he changes his mind completely, helps out the Allies and lets go of his rekindled love of Ilsa. This kind of character arc is pulled off so well that Casablanca is one of the few films ever to so skillfully balance three different genres: drama, romance, and war film. “Casablanca” is also highly satisfying, because it mirrors the reality of the time as Rick Blaine stands in for his native country, the US, which reluctantly got into WWII and then helped end the reign of Adolf Hitler, who is easily one of the most reviled men in history. Who doesn’t want to see a film that is funny, sad, romantic, suspenseful, and where the fascists get their comeuppance? Much like “the Godfather,” Casablanca has inspired many parodies, and films that try to be similar, but while even the great Roger Ebert, one of the three or four greatest film critics ever, has said that “Goodfellas” surpasses “The Godfather” as a mob film, “Casablanca” still stands on its own because it has no one genre, is very hard to classify, and it’s so very much of its time. As another esteemed critic, Richard Schickel of Time Magazine, wrote in his book, “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story,” “It sometimes happens that, almost by chance, all the elements required to make a memorable popular movie are accidentally assembled and that nothing happens in production to sour the mix. And that it arrives at its perfect moment in a troubled world when, as in this case, the larger issues hovering behind the story are in doubt, when people need to be reassured that the spirit of common decency can still assert itself against a gloweringly indecent world. You could see at the time what it meant to people, and even now when Casablanca plays as a period piece it retains the power, if only by analogy, to assert without embarrassment those simple values we all still like to believe are alive in the world, even if they’re in hiding. Besides which, but never to be forgotten, the film’s dialogue retains its snap, sass, and swoony romanticism.”

    In short, what hasn’t Casablanca done for cinema? It’s shown that anti-heroes can become heroes if they finally decide to act at the right moment, that one film can be funny, sad, suspenseful, politically relevant, and romantic, that old romance can be rekindled, and that films that have highly topical political content can still be entertaining. Again, what more could you want in one movie?

  3. Muise Says:

    Your right Lars I agree with some of that. I did a little research and the historical context of the film, especially since the film came out before the war ended is very important. As well the emotional arc is well put. But if Godfather is a cliche then Casablanca is no different for a favourite movie, or an ‘essential’. Really what it come down to, as you said, is personal preference. As a history major myself, it is impossible to separate oneself from judging a piece of work.
    On another note I think i will take you up on your idea of giving my personal top 10 essential list. I assure you it will bring some nice discussion, but i can see 1 or 2 movies will be similar. My knowledge of cinema is not as extensive of yours but I hope it will be wide ranging. Lets aim for Tuesday evening.

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