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What are your “must see” movies? (updated)

Over on The Hal Blog (named in honor of the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey – one of my “must see” movies), they’ve posted a long list of “Must-See Films” – 830 of them, on two separate lists.

MUST-SEE FILMS Part 2 «: Five friends and I decided to put together a quick list of what we personally considered “Must-See Films.”

There have been other film lists passed around the internet, but we felt they were often such contemporary, mainstream lists of films that they, well, quite simply didn’t do justice to the art and entertainment of cinema. We also wanted to acknowledge films that were remakes, originals and/or alternate cuts. And while there are TONS of great films NOT mentioned here, the ones that ARE mentioned certainly show a wide range of tastes, styles and interpretations of “Must-see.”

This will hopefully be an ever-growing series of lists. Both from the original six and many other “special guests.”

The idea is to check off all the films you’ve seen in the brackets before each title (x). Pass ‘em around, compare with friends, start seeing the films you have yet to experience… (via The Hal Blog.)

This sort of list making is – as Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity makes so clear – a central part of a particularly male approach to popular culture.

It’s something I do, with great pleasure. Favorite Side 1/Track 1s? I’ve got a playlist for that. In minor ways, it takes place all the time. When you start dating someone who’s never seen a real Japanese movie – something beyond The Ring or a Godzilla movie – and you try to figure out what to show them, a certain kind of list making goes on unconsciously: “best movies for introducing someone to classic Japanese cinema,” say, or perhaps simply “favorite Japanese movies.”

Of course, lists such as these “must-see films” are also powerful invitations to debate – from minor quibbles to outraged attacks. Is that really the best “Three Stooges” short? How could you possibly leave out/include…?

There’s also often a snob/show off component to all this, which seems to be an almost unavoidable component of a certain kind of connoisseurship, and of which I’m certainly regularly guilty. As when the two clerks in High Fidelity argue over which version of “Little Latin Lupe Lou” is better, or attack a customer for not owning a particular album, or for wanting to buy a overly commercial Stevie Wonder hit. Being able to include some fairly obscure film in your list; having a favorite Tex Avery cartoon. That sort of thing.

There’s a lot I really like about the lists from The Hal Blog. They make an effort to reach out across time and space, to the earliest days of cinema and around the world. And they include shorts like The Three Stooges and cartoons from Tex Avery and Chuck Jones – those Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tom & Jerry cartoons that most of us know only from TV, and probably think of as TV programs rather than cinema, though in fact they started life as part of longer programs at movie theaters, along with news reels and other non-feature film elements.

I also have some general quibbles. They frequently include multiple cuts/versions of the same film – such as both the director’s and theatrical cuts of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, two different cuts of Blade Runner, and a number of others. Without even getting into whether these films should be on a “must see” list at all (the first, no; the second, yes), I wouldn’t include both versions. I’d generally privilege the original theatrical release, except in some cases where studios savaged the film for commercial release, but it was later re-edited to more closely correspond to the director’s original vision.  And in very rare cases where the original was not messed around with, but the filmmakers subsequently revisited and improved it.

Another general quibble has to do with that inclusion of foreign films and early and silent cinema. As I said, this is an aspect of these lists that I really like and appreciate, but the drafters of the lists seem to be – and it is almost inevitable that they would be – somewhat less conversant with those areas of cinema than with Hollywood sound films, so they don’t get the same treatment. They are under-served, relative to other areas, genres, periods.

What to do? Leaving these areas out entirely would be far worse than under-serving them. I might be inclined to make separate lists, and indicate that the ones for foreign films and early cinema are more tentative in nature, less complete. The foreign and silent areas of these lists seem to be sometimes a case of rounding up the usual suspects – which is not at all surprising, and they probably do a better job than I would overall, but even so.

For instance, looking just at Japanese films, they include a large percentage of the filmography of Kurosawa. I wouldn’t quibble with that – he’s one of my favorite directors. But they don’t move that far beyond Kurosawa in looking at classic Japanese cinema. There seems to be only one Ozu film – Tokyo Story – and nothing from Mizoguchi or Imamura (I think – they don’t include years or directors for some films and it was a lot to process and remember). Yet they find room for two films from Takashi Miike, neither of which I think are really “must sees,” and two from Suzuki Seijin, who I do think deserves inclusion, but not at the expense of more Ozu – Ohayo, perhaps – and some Mizoguchi and Imamura.

The Japanese film selection displays a particular approach – I’m tempted to say “fan boy” or otaku (those Miike films and Branded to Kill) or to invoke Quentin Tarantino’s sometimes lamentable influence, but I don’t want to seem overly critical. I respect and admire these lists and the thought that went into them, so that would be wrong. Really, I think it’s simply a case of not being able to know everything equally well, and also a bit of that usual suspects thing.

After the Miike and all those samurai movies, I was sort of expecting to see some Shaw Brothers kung fu movies crop up – films I love – but the Hong Kong and Chinese films doesn’t seem to reflect precisely the same sensibility, though again it is a limited and “usual suspects” kind of selection: Farewell My Concubine but not Yellow Earth; Chungking Express (a Tarantino pick, though also a favorite of mine) but not In the Mood for Love, and also not really anything else from Hong Kong, and nothing from the earlier period of Chinese film, like say The Goddess with Ruan Lingyu (which I might also call a “usual suspect”). No Indian films other than Satyajit Ray’s “World of Apu” trilogy. Only one film, I think, from all of Africa. Like I said, a limited and usual suspects approach to many foreign cinemas. Of course, it’s much easier to quibble than create and I’m not at all sure I could come up with suggestions for additions or changes without doing some research. The fact that the only African filmmaker I can think of off the top of my head is the same one they’ve included – Ousmane Sembène of Senegal – says a lot.

UPDATE: Predictably, I overlooked some items on my initial review of the lists, and so have done the lists a disservice, shortchanging their breadth and inclusiveness. A friend pointed out to me that there is an additional Ozu movie and another movie by Satyajit Ray that I didn’t notice; no doubt there’s more.

And two films from Richard Linklater? Really? Well, now we are deep into quibble territory and we could be lost in there for days. And it’s too negative a way of responding to such a generous and inclusive list. Instead, I’d like to do some anti-quibbles – singling out some of the movies they include that particularly pleased me, favorites of mine, some of which I’d be nervous about claiming as “must sees” even though I like – and in some cases love – them.

One of my favorite comedies of 1930s made their list, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. I think there’s probably a broad consensus on how great this movie is, but even so it is not nearly as well known as it deserves to be, so I was glad to see it included. The same thing goes for the two Jean Vigo films, Zero de Conduite (after which this blog is named) and L’Atalante. The latter is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever, but Zero de Conduite doesn’t get the props I think it deserves. The lists also contain two other great films of schoolboy rebellion, both inspired by Zero de Conduite – Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson’s If… The Truffaut film again is generally and justly considered a masterpiece. If…, on the other hand, not so much – but it is a movie I think is terrific, and one I might tentatively put forth as a “must see,” so I was glad to see it there.

As with the quibbles, we could on like this at length, singling out movies we particularly love that got included. Speaking more generally again, though, I was surprised both by how many of the movies on the lists I’d seen, and how many I hadn’t – or in some cases have seen but don’t really remember well enough. As with – shocking confession time – many of the Fellini movies.  Back in the early 1980s, I saw pretty much everything he’d done, but some of them didn’t really register that strongly at the time and I haven’t seen many of them since.  I need to go back and watch all of them again – a reminder I was thankful to get from these lists. The same is true of the Ingmar Bergman films.  Lately, I’ve been working my way through all the Howard Hawks films (a number of which made these lists), but I know them well enough already. I really should be refreshing myself on some of these classics of world cinema.

It’s these kind of reminders, and the debates – how could they include those Linklater films? what Hong Kong films did they leave out? – that make lists like this so valuable – as spurs to our film viewing, and ways to get us thinking and talking critically about the movies we love, and why we love them.

For more…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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