I’ll sidestep the usual throat-clearing about the thought process behind my all-time 10-best-movies list (the agonizing, the second-guessing, the hair-splitting between “bests” and “favorites,” the last-minute changes—yes, it was quite a ride), and cut to the chase. My picks deceptively cover six decades of film history, albeit hopscotching over three of them. Nine of my 10 choices hail from the 1960s and 1970s, making the one remaining look like a token acknowledgment of the silent era when it’s anything but. Nevertheless, six of my films were released between 1967 and 1970, which suggests what I’ve often suspected: that that era of cinema is my favorite. I hasten to add, however, that none of my selections are Easy Riders; and my timeframe stops short of any Raging Bulls. In alphabetical order, my Top 10 movies are:
Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
Among the least nostalgic of all World War II films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s clear-eyed view of a grim, dark struggle depicts a prison camp devoid of Great Escape shenanigans, rescue missions with slim chances of success, or assassinations of compatriots ordered by self-preserving French resistance leaders doomed to die anyway. Interior monologues are distributed among a handful of characters, but Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is the man in the middle, carrying himself like he’s seen it all, yet occasionally letting fear and uncertainty slip out of his rock-solid center. We see it before a parachute drop, when he’s executing a young, terrified traitor (“We haven’t [done this before] either, isn’t it obvious?”), and while he’s running for his life from German soldiers shooting at captives for sport. Melville scoffed at the comparisons of Army of Shadows to his gangster movies from the same period, and while filmmakers are normally among the least reliable interpreters of their own work, the analogy does feel trite. This is the movie that bears the deepest imprint of Melville’s life and worldview, one that divulges the defeats en route to victory.
The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
In a lecture on the history of film via technology, Paul Schrader divided movie history into “pre-Conformist production design and post-Conformist production design.” Indeed, the extraordinary look of Bernardo Bertolucci’s moody political thriller (by his frequent collaborator Ferdinando Scarfiotti) neither overwhelms the characters nor externalizes their mental states. In the case of Marcello, an assassin employed by pre-World War II fascist Italy (and played superbly by Jean-Louis Trintignant), his failings and torments all feel heightened, part of a grand opera. Rather than making a didactic political statement, Bertolucci crafts, scene by scene, a kind of political poetry told through indelible images. If at times The Conformist resembles the starkness of Army of Shadows (a harrowing execution in snowy woods), other scenes are more variedly vibrant (a joyous dance that sweeps up Marcello against his will, like everything else). This is one of the beauts of cinema.
The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
The most reluctant of my picks, the one where I can hear Piper Laurie from Carrie screeching, “They’re all going to laugh at you!” Mike Nichols’s landmark comedy has become the scapegoat for self-flagellants from the 1960s, eager to prove how they’re all older and wiser now. Even Nichols has never missed a chance to have the last word on The Graduate’s meaning (“I was saying that Ben and Elaine would end up just like their parents,” he’s said, despite making that certainty anything but certain, what with the dismantling of church and family in one fell swoop). I’ve seen this “dated” movie with three different sets of college-age audiences over the years, and it casts the same spell over the audience every time. The ending, for me, is less concrete than Nichols claims; rather, it’s the open-ended, oh-shit cultural equivalent of the political question raised a couple of years later at the end of The Candidate: What do we do now? What we can do still is marvel at Dustin Hoffman’s star-making, game-changing performance, laugh and cringe at Buck Henry’s trenchant dialogue and elaborate bedroom-farce scenarios, and absorb ourselves completely in some of the most innovative subjective camerawork ever put on screen. David Denby once quoted Pauline Kael’s complaint about the protagonist: “There’s nothing in his head.” Sure there is, Pauline: we are.
High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
Akira Kurosawa’s urban epic is one of his lesser-known great films, and I’m not being deliberately contrarian when I state that it’s my favorite of all his works. Through a serviceable pulp genre—the kidnapping thriller—Kurosawa channels all of his obsessions. The most important is the clash and collusion between individuals (represented by a pair of polar opposites, Toshirô Mifune’s wealthy shoe magnate and Tsutomu Yamazaki’s resentful medical intern, who abducts the son of Mifune’s chauffeur) and the collective (the nearly personality-devoid ensemble of detectives, who pursue the case and take over the movie from its international star). Critics have pointed out the samurai elements in High and Low as eagerly as they did the gangster touches in Melville’s Army of Shadows, but here they feel more pertinent, deriving from the contemporary culture the movie is depicting (early 1960s Yokohama, in all its social stratification and Western encroachment) rather than exclusively the director’s head.
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
My choice for the greatest of all cinematic “spectacles” is also, not coincidentally, the most intelligent, searching and intimate. David Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson structure their sprawling tale—from Cairo to Aqaba to Damascus, amid vast stretches of desert— almost like a Kipling critique. His every triumph offset by a tragedy, Peter O’Toole’s Anglo hero gives in to savagery, while Omar Sharif’s “barbarous and cruel” Bedouin prince emerges as the film’s troubled conscience. “Who are you?” is the question shouted to the protagonist across the Suez (by the director himself, in a cameo as a British soldier on a motorcycle), and Lean earns a nearly four-hour running time by offering an array of tantalizing answers. With all due respect to Travis Bickle, it’s T.E. Lawrence I think of when I hear the words: “He’s a prophet and a pusher; partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.”