|Left to right: Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave|
Today marks the release of the latest "Best Movies Ever" list. This time, it comes from BBC Culture and it focuses on the Best American Films (click link for commentary on Top 25). While it features a lot of familiar, obvious choices (Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Vertigo tops yet another list), the list has its share of surprises both great and bad (omission of most recent films, animated films, and directors). Instead of arguing about every last thing that is wrong with this list (where's Paul Thomas Anderson and The Coen Brothers?), it does feature a lot of pleasant surprises. The following is a list of films that made the list that you wouldn't expect and definitely should check out ASAP.
*Note: The list is presented by film name, year of release, director, and placement on the BBC list.
1. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
dir. D.W. Griffiths - #39
There's a lot that is unfortunate about the film. It was based off "The Clansman" book and helped to reinvigorate the KKK membership. The depiction of blacks is especially poor in the third act, demonizing them and turning the supremacists into heroes. Despite its objectionable nature, it holds a special place in film history for being the first realized attempt at a full length feature. For what it's worth, Griffiths manages to make quite an ambitious film in which the Civil War is brought to life with groundbreaking editing and narrative techniques. It is why its legacy remains largely ignored and is especially a surprise to see it on any list (AFI chose the less problematic Intolerance for their list). Still, for any film historian, this is one that is as integral as it is uncomfortable to watch.
2. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
dir. Buster Keaton - #44
There's a lot of older films missing from this list, including all of Harold Lloyd's contributions (The Freshman, Safety Last). With Charles Chaplin earning three spots, it is interesting to see which Buster Keaton was chosen. While the obvious vote is to go for The General, there's a lot to applaud in them choosing Sherlock Jr., which reflects a more movie-centric plot full of the physical silent comedian's penchant humor. My one complaint is that it isn't reflective of his best, but it is better to see him on this list than totally annexed. While there's likely no one complaining about the silent films missing, I argue that we need to raise more awareness to films not made by Chaplin.
3. In a Lonely Place (1950) - #89
& 4. Johnny Guitar (1954) - #64
dir. Nicholas Ray
Much like the aforementioned silent films, I do think that Nicholas Ray doesn't quite get the credit that he deserves. He has made a career out of making beautiful films with dark and complicated characters. His two entries on this list reflect him providing his expertise in the film noir and western genres. While In a Lonely Place features the reliably morose Humphrey Bogart turning in one of his finest performances, Johnny Guitar is an interesting western in that it is one of the few to feature a strong, confident woman in a central role. If you need to find a new classic director to really enjoy, I highly recommend Ray's impressive output and these two films are two strong starting points.
5. Rio Bravo (1959)
dir. Howard Hawks - #41
If you must know one personal fact about me, it is that Rio Bravo is my favorite John Wayne film. While John Ford produced a lot more consistently great movies, this epic features a lot of iconic characters, beautiful cinematography, and humor. With four spots on this list, Hawks is someone who doesn't need any more hyperbole - even though there's a handful of other films that could have easily made this list without complaint. Even then, Hawks was a master at making genre films that weren't just entertaining, they were well made and captivated you from the very first frame.
6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
dir. John Ford - #45
John Ford is a director who doesn't need any introductions. He has three deserved spots on this list for his most iconic westerns. While I am ecstatic to see The Searchers in the Top 5, I am also glad to see this film that pitted John Wayne against James Stewart on the list. Its story of civilizing the west is one that may be beloved among fans of the genre, but I don't feel gets mentioned enough on lists of these sorts. It is probably among the director's best and reflects a nice balance of hostile humor and beautiful western scenery along with being one of the strong stories and performances by everyone involved.
7. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
dir. George A. Romero - #85
While zombies aren't a monster deserving of much cinematic respect on lists like this, there's some magic to George A. Romero's small budgeted film that deserves more credit. Using minimalist sets and an ingenious series of plot twists, it invents the genre with an effective effort. Even if it doesn't rank among my personal favorites, I have to give it credit for being possibly one of the best independent films in history just from a production standpoint. Even if you don't like zombies, this film is still a really good and simple story of survival against a world out to get you.
8. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
dir. Robert Altman - #16
Robert Altman is a director who comes and goes on lists like this. While he remains one of the most captivating American directors of his time, they are often challenging ensemble pieces that mainstream audiences would be quick to dismiss. While Nashville has become the go-to film to describe his genius (deservedly so), it is exciting to see this take on the western genre so high and noteworthy on the list. While it is in many ways unconventional, including being an early adopter of characters talking over each other, it still is a captivating and unique entry into the western genre that is more drama than shootouts, which is more of a compliment than you'd think it would be.
9. Mean Streets (1973)
dir. Martin Scorsese - #93
There's four spots for Martin Scorsese film. And deservedly so. He is one of the most consistently impressive directors currently working. He has made a lot of great films that deserve to be on this list. However, I still find something odd about including one of his early breakout hits. It isn't an awful film, but considering all of the greats that he has done since, it is a compelling choice. It is an early look into his love of thuggish people acting in morally challenging ways. It is also a decent reflection of his religious roots that run throughout all of his movies. It is a strong film and one not to be scoffed at. However, I think that this is both surprising in that it made the list and that it did so over other greats.
10. The Shining (1980) #62
& 11. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) #61
dir. Stanley Kubrick
Depending on who you ask, Stanley Kubrick is the greatest director of all time. He has made so many masterpieces that you'd be hard pressed to name any that isn't considered perfect. However, there are two decisions on this list that I find rather controversial, and they both feel like odd horror films in different ways. There's the more iconic The Shining, which earned a ton of Razzies in its heyday and was misunderstood. Equally so, Eyes Wide Shut was a baffling sendoff. While both have been reassessed as classics, they seem like odd but great choices to make a list like this, as they reflect a great director working at the top of his game of dreamlike direction.
12. Blue Velvet (1986) - #60
& 13. Mulholland Drive (2001) - #21
dir. David Lynch
Love him or hate him, David Lynch is the auteur of weird cinema. He isn't surreal in the obvious ways, either. His stories take inexplicable as a compliment and reward multiple views that pull dark and twisted concepts out of every frame. Because the films are in every sense unconventional, it is always bizarre to see his work make lists like this. His two entries on this list are deservedly so, as they reflect his growth as a director and writer who has only become more assured in confusing his audience and being confident enough in us to take our time in understanding his grand visions.
14. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
dir. Michel Gondry - #87
Here's where the list becomes more empty and full of odd choices. Unlike all of the previous decades, there's not a lot post-2000. Among the few that made it is this surreal sci-fi story that explains love in new and inventive ways. It is quite possibly one of the most definitive looks into what makes romance so integral to ours lives. With great performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet and mind-bending direction by Michel Gondry, this is a film that works as lightning in a bottle going off in a storm. It is profound, comical, and a lot of the effects are still very astounding. It is a production unlike any other and reflects what makes Gondry such an interesting eye when he is able to make his work fully realized.
15. The Dark Knight (2008)
dir. Christopher Nolan - #96
Among the many surprises on this list is the fact that there's a superhero film. Of course, The Dark Knight wasn't just any other superhero movie. It was a phenomenon that still remains inexplicable. With a career best performance by Heath Ledger, it was a film that mixed being a hero with being morally correct. It mixed everything that people loved about Christopher Nolan films into one great zeitgeist moment. It is a great superhero film. It is a great crime film. It is a great film period, and it is interesting that it is finally getting some modicum of respect from a list that is likely to take offense with it receiving a spot over modern classics like, say, There Will Be Blood or No Country for Old Men.
16. The Tree of Life (2011)
dir. Terrence Malick - #79
The closer to the modern date that things get, the more interesting the selections get. While we have seen sci-fi romances and superhero films, this is the only straight up art film on the list and the only Terrence Malick. For a director who is beloved for his meditative stream of conscious style, it is interesting to see this on here. It is a film that even the actors claim don't make sense. However, it is a beautiful, nonlinear story that reaffirms the beauty of the world and challenges the notion of what film can be. It may be a more divisive film for those not willing to give it a chance, but it definitely is a film so full of craft that it would be criminal not to at least give an honorable mention.
17. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
dir. Steve McQueen - #99
My biggest welcomed surprise on this list is the fact that this made the cut. On a list that is missing contemporary classics, I am very enthused by this inclusion, even if it is barely there. It is a powerful and gripping film that reassesses how we talk about slavery. It is a film that is so important that it already has become part of the school curriculum. Even then, it is a film that is so rich with iconic and important moments that will leave you emotionally torn that its reputation is only likely to improve as history moves on and we're able to judge it not as a contemporary, but a classic.