If you read my “Understanding Screenwriting” column at The House, you may be aware that I generally do not do Top 10 lists (“Top 10 Scripts of the Year,” “Top 10 Scripts Most Likely to be Nominated,” “Top 10 Scripts That Should Have Been Nominated,” etc.), because I try to keep the column an Oscar-hype-free zone. But the idea of going up against the legendary Sight & Sound lists was just too delicious to pass up. Of course, there are more than 10 great films, and any list is bound to change, so this is my list on the days the I wrote this: June 19 and 20, 2012. If I made up a list a month or a year later, some, if not most, of the list would change. Since I have tried to pick films from a range of time periods, the films are listed in chronological order.
Variety (E.A. Dupont, 1925)
A simple story: trapeze artist Boss Huller and his wife Berta-Marie (his mistress in the original German version) bring a new partner into their act, who seduces the wife. There is great intensity in E. A. Dupont’s Variety, especially in the performances of Emil Jannings as Huller and Lya De Puti as Berta-Marie, which show how beautiful acting in silent films can be. Karl Freund’s cinematography is spectacular, putting today’s flashy camera movements to shame. Unfortunately, the film is not available on video and has never been restored.
Seven Chances (Buster Keaton, 1925)
Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances is the most elegant comedy ever made, not in terms of costumes and sets, but in the precision of its visual flow. Its story, about a man who proposes to many different women to get his inheritance, is one that could only be told silently. We don’t have to hear him each time, but we see that the reactions of the women are different. The comedy builds so effectively in the second half that, at any moment, somebody in the film’s audience is sure to be laughing during the last 20 minutes.
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
The Hecht-MacArthur play The Front Page is brilliantly re-imagined for the screen in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (read the play to find out how much was changed), with the greatest, fastest dialogue in film. It’s the best of all newspaper comedies, and like most comedies, it is about a lot: love, politics, newspapers, and the importance of charm. The film is filled with a great cast of actors who know what to do with the script, and directed by a filmmaker aware of how to step out of the way of great acting and screenwriting.
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)
John Steinbeck said Nunnally Johnson’s script for The Grapes of Wrath was more dramatic in fewer words than the author’s own novel. Directed by John Ford, the film is a great collaboration between producer Darryl Zanuck (who had the guts to make it), writer Johnson (who superbly crafted the script), and a group of actors driven to give their best performances by a director at the top of his powers. Dorris Bowden (Rosasharon) said that Ford was a terrible human being, but a great director. True on both counts.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Another great collaboration. Remove writer/director/star Orson Welles, co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, or cinematographer Gregg Toland, and the picture is diminished. In one complete and satisfying whole, Citizen Kane is also a film about everything: life, death, love, power, America, the past, and the present. It’s one of the two or three most influential movies of all time—everybody’s been trying to top it, yet no one has. Many argue it is not the greatest film of all time, and my answer to that is: name one that’s better. You can’t. Except maybe the last two on my list…