55. WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990, Clint Eastwood)
Overshadowed by the subsequent acclaim of UNFORGIVEN, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART remains somewhat forgotten, but the film, for me, is cleary Clint's masterpiece. And it's as much "about" Clint (and his iconic tough guy status) as it is about John Huston. Clint is the Huston stand-in here (as "Wilson"), and the film loosely chronicles the making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN, when Huston collaborated with writer Pete Viertel (here, "Verril"), who also wrote WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART. It tackles some of the most difficult questions which all filmmakers, writers, and artists have, at one time or another, been forced to confront: How does one come to terms with the desire to live out one's own stories? How does one reconcile the multiple, fractured personae that grow out of this eternal, internal debate of thought vs. action? A lot of the greatest American filmmakers of the era (Huston, Fuller, Peckinpah, etc.) seemed to be chasing (and sometimes successfully, for what it's worth) that elusive macho persona. For 'Wilson,' however, the mouthing-off, the barfights, the drinking, the womanizing- it's never enough. He seeks adventures and experiences that raise the stakes exponentially, until it's putting lives at risk and coming face to tusk with the most powerful, unpredictable creatures on the planet. He becomes something of a pure force of Id, with 'Verril' (played exceptionally by Jeff Fahey) acting as his Ego, his conscience, and the only voice of reason amid the chaos. The film's not entirely a somber rumination, however- it has visceral action, witty exchanges, and thrilling visuals. It's highly enjoyable. But when it all comes down to it, the film's impact is something akin to long night of excess and libation- the exhilaration of endless possibility and unlimited hubris is taken down a notch by the punch in the guts of the morning after. Something lost, something gained.
54. DEEP RED (1975, Dario Argento)
I previously gave four reasons why DEEP RED is an enduring masterpiece, not just as a giallo, but as something that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the other magnum opuses that emerged from the cinema of the 70's. Here they are:
#1. The visuals. DEEP RED pops and astounds in a manner that puts other filmmakers to shame. Whether it be incredible camerawork that was only possible because they were shooting non-synch sound, magnificent closeups with precise tracking, or exquisite architecture framing the scenes, Argento hits every shot out of the ballpark. And even though it lacks the sustained lighting of SUSPIRIA, I still might name this as Argento's most beautiful film. Every lesson he learned from Bava is on display here, and it is visually breathtaking.
#2. GOBLIN. In their first collaboration with Dario, Goblin shines, crashing onto the scene as a combination of ELP, J.S. Bach, and 70's hardcore bass lines. They would later evolve into Italo Disco of similar weight, but here they are perfect. I think anyone would be ecstatic to have this stuff be their theme music.
#3. The banter. Daria Nicolodi and David Hemmings cultivate a genuinely amusing relationship, with arm-wrestling and awkward Italo-British tension. The fact that it's done with Hawksian zest reminds the viewer that all too often, banter is utter crap or detrimental to a story.
#4. The ornately crafted mystery. Argento keeps a flawless balance between the heroes, background characters, and the audience, with each knowing more and less than the others at any given time. Layers of mystery are peeled away visually (writing on a steam-covered mirror, a walled-in room, a buried mural) so that YOU discover the answers firsthand, along with the characters. And the icing on the cake is the fact that a crucial clue divulging the killer's identity is hidden in plain view at the start of the picture, and not unveiled at the end as a deus ex machina letdown. It holds you in its grasp until the final, absurdly abrupt moment... "You have been watching...DEEP RED."
53. THE PIANO TEACHER (2001, Michael Haneke)
Hoo boy, we're gettin' into the rough stuff. A near-minimalist masterwork on the whacky things we want and the whacky things we only think we want. I shouldn't give too much away here, but it's the tale of an extremely, uh, committed masochist-pianist who's about to take things to a new and jaw-dropping level with her latest student. Oh, and she lives with her mom. Anyway, I suppose what I'm saying is that this ain't the movie you bring back over Christmas break to watch with the folks.
Isabelle Huppert, who's kind of the female Harvey Keitel when it comes to sheer, cuckoo devotion to the art of acting, delivers her finest, most subtle performance. (And, while obviously the Oscars are an exercise in senselessness which generally serve to only hasten the sweet union between head and wall, I have to point out that Renée Zellweger was nominated- for BRIDGET JONES' DIARY, no less- over Huppert that year, which infuriates me to such a degree that I may at any moment explode.)
Anyway, the less said, the better, but Michael Haneke's quotidian "horror" films (i.e., FUNNY GAMES, CACHÉ, BENNY'S VIDEO, et al.) are some of the best stuff around, and I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with his output if you haven't already.
52. THE BEGUILED (1971, Don Siegel)
It's difficult to single out one film from Don Siegel's exceptional oeuvre (DIRTY HARRY, THE SHOOTIST, CHARLEY VARRICK) and call it his 'masterwork,' but my gut reaction after viewing THE BEGUILED is to do just that. It's an atypical work, not merely for Action/Western icons Eastwood and Siegel, but for studio-financed American cinema as a whole. It's the sort of film that sticks with you for hours, days, and weeks… Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, it invokes the spirit and temperaments of Poe, Bierce, Hawthorne, and Capote, and the resulting film possesses a sort of 'Southern Gothic psychedelic existentialism.' It almost has the feel of SPIDER BABY combined with THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY. As the Civil War rages, a small Confederate girls' school carries on with business (nearly) as usual, learning French and proper napkin etiquette even as cannons blast and patrols pass by. Their existence is interrupted by a wounded Union soldier, McB (Clint Eastwood), who isn't quite the saint that he pretends to be...of course, neither are they.
Stifling, hypnotic, even baroque, the film is presented from an omniscient perspective: different characters' thoughts, memories, and hypocrisies bleed into one another, like wreckage upon wreckage. You can blame it on the war or you can blame it on human nature, but no one- not even the sweetest, most innocent of little girls- emerges from this thing unscathed.Clint gets a chance to really ACT this time: it's not chewing on a cigarillo, gunning down dudes, or growling one-liners; the legendary Geraldine Page maintains a calm exterior which brilliantly belies her inner tumult; and Lalo Schifrin delivers his most mature, complex score (full of deep, echoey flutes, mournful oboes, and intricate harpiscords), and it perfectly complements the mood of the film. An eloquent meditation on survival, human folly, psychosexual longing, and race (and bookended by Clint singing, a cappella), THE BEGUILED is truly a masterpiece.
51. LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970, Jean-Pierre Melville)
Jean-Pierre Melville– he's sort of the gold standard for cinematic "cool," and he imbues his films (they're mostly somber gangster flicks) with an elegant detachment which has reverberated across the decades and influenced almost every crime film made in its wake. As far as Melville goes, LE CERCLE ROUGE is one of his absolute best. Beginning with an ersatz Buddha quote and ending in a maelstrom of, uh, melancholy, the red circle brings together a suave, mustachioed Alain Delon; a wild-eyed, badass Gian Maria Volonté (of Sergio Leone fame); and a dapper but glum alcholic Yves Montand, who suffers incredible, creepy-crawly marionette hallucinations during unfortunate bouts with the D.T.'s. Yes, this unlikely trio is brought together for a tremendous heist sequence which rivals the classic in Jules Dassin's RIFIFI, and they are investigated by cat-loving sad sack cop André Bourvil who pursues them across a cool blue, olive drab landscape occasionally punctuated by sharp bursts of red. It's got the bonds of Hawksian friendship tempered by French existential foreboding– and it has shaped the worldviews of filmmakers from John Woo to Quentin Tarantino. One of the greats.
Coming up next... an ape funeral, a silent classic, and a shitload of dynamite!
Previously on the countdown:
Runners-up Part 1
Runners-up Part 2