19. The Ruling Class (1972) – I find that people are not generally familiar with this picture, although it lies waiting to be discovered by this and future generations. Hilarious, acerbic, savage in its depiction of class, filled with odd bursts of song, and then finally, shockingly, violent – this is one of the unique film experiences one can have. The lead role is perfect for Peter O’Toole and he is perfect in it; if you can, read nothing about it and then see it with no distractions.
18. The Searchers (1956) – The one John Ford picture that really hits home with me, this bizarre but often gorgeous film reveals a real ambivalence in America’s treatment of the Indian populations and the Western genre in general. Wayne is brilliant as a character who becomes an anachronism in his own time and – despite his own “heroic” actions – finds himself forever isolated from the world. See a brief discussion of it between myself and film historian Joseph McBride in the interview section of Dissenting Views II.
16. Chinatown (1974) – Robert Towne’s terrific noir script is given the old Hollywood treatment in a film that one-ups many of the great 1940s films it evokes. Incredible performances by Nicholson, Dunaway, and Huston, and a story that taps into the true story of how Los Angeles came to be.
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15. The Exterminating Angel (1962) – Luis Bunuel’s farce with no explanation is hilarious, but also kind of sickening in a way. On a logical level, the film means nothing; and yet it drives deeply into ourselves in such a way as to be existentially horrifying. Which is probably the point. In the meantime, there’s no way out of dining room…
14. Brief Encounter (1945) – David Lean is mostly known for his huge entertainments – Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago – and I enjoy those. However, by far my favorite of his films is the smallest, this wartime romance between two ordinary people played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. After an accidental meeting at a train station, they become obsessed with one another (in a very British way) despite being married to other people. Celia Johnson’s performance is devastating; her final decision about what to do in her life heartbreaking.
12. Grand Illusion (1937) – One of the most famous films of all time, and justly so, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece deals with friendship, war, and class in equal measure. It is also one of the first prison camp films, a genre that produced The Great Escape, Stalag 17 and many others of lesser quality. Hard to express the depth of humanity that Renoir reaches, with the help of his incredible cast, including Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim. Renoir's camerwork, in this and other films like La Bete Humaine and Regle de Jeu, is so identifiable it infected close family members; by accident, I happened to catch The Spy Who Loved Me on television recently and marveled at the cinematography in the opening. (Seriously, go back and watch it. Amazing.) The credits later revealed: Claude Renoir, his nephew. Ah.
11. City Lights (1931) – When you look back on this film, like many of Charlie Chaplin’s films, the elements contained seem very simple. And yet the effect, taken together, is devastating – both in the comic but then, especially, the emotional elements. The ending has been called the greatest of all time by more than one critic, and more than one auteur, and it is entirely justifiable.