The best Best Picture winners

Out of the ninety-one Best Picture nominees since Herbert Hoover promised a chicken for every pot, only twenty-one I’ll deem good to great. Here they are in order of which I would watch right now, the only criterion.

1. All About Eve
2. Annie Hall
3. The Best Years of Our Lives
4. The Apartment
5. Lawrence of Arabia
6. The Godfather, Part II
7. Rebecca
8. The Godfather
9. In the Heat of the Night
10. On the Waterfront
11. It Happened One Night
12. No Country for Old Men
13. The Silence of the Lambs
14. All Quiet on the Western Front
15. Schindler’s List
16. Casablanca
17. How Green Was My Valley
18. Midnight Cowboy
19. The Deer Hunter
20. Moonlight
21. Spotlight
22. 12 Years a Slave

Ranking Otto Preminger

An émigré whose years as a producer culminated with snatching Laura from the capable Rouben Mamoulian in 1944, Otto Preminger excelled in pot boilers, musicals, and procedural dramas; he was the only hitbound Hollywood director of his era who understood pace. Biographers have stressed Otto Preminger’s training in Viennese law as an explanation for his unusually catholic approach to filming good and evil. He has nothing in common stylistically with Jean Renoir yet both accepted evil as a matter of course. After the promotional hysteria for Carmen Jones, The Moon is Blue, and The Man with the Golden Arm ebbed, the pictures remain rather sober. The JFK-era epics look better all the time: rigorous examinations of power and prestige, with Preminger’s camera coolly taking it all in, fooled by nobody. Continue reading

Ranking Preston Sturges films

The sanctity of marriage and the holiness of the American home were never in safer hands than in Preston Sturges’, who showed what a tussle of horse feathers both were. Watching The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, it’s clear Sturges thought Americans went gaga over marriage and childbirth because they acted as suppressors of anarchic impulses. The eight films he directed in a period that rivals any writer-director’s in film history remain unparalleled for their verbal sophistication, polished comic performances, and mixes of farce and drawing room comedy.

1. The Lady Eve
2. Unfaithfully Yours
3. The Palm Beach Story
4. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
5. Sullivan’s Travels
6. Hail the Conquering Hero
7. The Great McGinty
8. Christmas in July

UNSEEN: The Great Moment, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

Ranking Meryl Streep’s Oscar-nominated performances

For twenty years she was RoboStreep, able to mimic accents and the colorings of humans stunning accuracy — a figure of fun, especially during her eighties run when except for Out of Africa a Meryl Streep Picture, like Gucci or Greer Garson, signified respectability: dinner before a movie, a kiss before a grope, that sort of thing. Continue reading

Ranking Robert Bresson

Distinguishing okay Bresson from Bresson is silly. Audiences should watch them all; after all, the combined length of his released films is less than two of Tarkovsky’s. On occasion clarity requires explanation. His films hold no hidden meanings — Bresson lays out the facts like a housekeeper does utensils atop a clean white tablecloth. Notes on the Cinematograph, reissued by New York Review Books Classics a few years ago, collects a lifetime of Bresson koans useful for any occasion. This one has stuck with me:

A film cannot be a stage show, because a stage show requires flesh-and-blood presence. But it can be, as photographed theater or CINEMA is, the photographic reproduction of a stage show. The photographic reproduction of a stage show is comparable to the photographic reproduction of a painting or of a sculpture. But a photographic reproduction of Donatello’s Saint John the Baptist or of Vermeer’s Young Woman with Necklace has not the power, the value or the price of that sculpture or that painting. It does not create it. Does not create anything.

Now get to viewing. Continue reading

Ranking Olivier Assayas

Determinedly expanding his range, one of the best writer-directors in the world has, like David Lean, epic and smaller scale projects in his filmography. If any theme persists in the work of Olivier Assayas, it’s the destabilizing of identity. Carlos the Jackal, Maggie Cheung’s actress in Irma Vep, Kristen Stewart’s weary, wary assistant in Clouds of Sils Maria — their personalities get sanded away while playing the roles for which they’re paid or have a philosophical kinship. With a texture just shy of weightless, Summer Hours smells like sunlight, grass, old rooms, and perfume commingled with sweat — one of the wisest of films about family, or, how the duties to family become indistinguishable from the disposal of possessions.

1. Summer Hours
2. Carlos
3. Something in the Air
4. Irma Vep
5. Clean
6. Personal Shopper
7. Cold Water
8. Sentimental Destinies
9. demonlover
10. Clouds of Sils Maria
11. Boarding Gate
12. Late August, Early September

Ranking David Lean

With a masterful eye for men interacting with their landscapes and one of the few directors to understand Dickens, David Lean assembled a body of work that vacillated from the intimate to the epic. In Lawrence of Arabia, he fused both tendencies: an epic about a beautiful enigma. I enjoy A Passage to India more than most viewers (deep reservations about Alec Guinness’ goon show Godbole noted) and The Bridge Over the River Kwai less. Continue reading

Agnès Varda — RIP

To regard the late Agnès Varda as a painter and writer enlarges our capacity to understand how good filmmakers capture a sense of molecules in constant motion. Think of Mary Cassatt, of her portraits of arrested movement in all their embarrassment and capacity to surprise. In Varda’s debut feature Cléo from 5 to 7, the audience’s sharing a secret with Corinne Marchand’s title character, a singer who will likely die of cancer, lends a poignancy to her adherence to routine. The accidental poetry of the found object. The person as found object. Varda didn’t transform her men and women into people worth studying; her approach insisted that men and women as they are were all worth studying. Continue reading

Ranking Jack Nicholson movies

In a filmography studded with performances consisting of arched eyebrows, oil-covered sneers, and raucous laughter, Jack Nicholson also gave performances of touching quietness. He also was good in hellion roles and boring in quiet roles. This made Nicholson the American actor-star well into the nineties – and beyond. It’s impossible to think he’s retired, not when he’s one of the few “old” actors my students recognize.

Whether you think Nicholson “works” in The Departed depend on your weakness for this kind of look-at-me-Ma performance that can’t stop doing bits of business unrelated to his character, intended to wrench the spotlight from whomever he’s acting with: slamming a hand down on a sketch, smacking his lips, imitating a rat, that sort of thing. On the other hand The Departed is so purple anyway, so far from its origin as a taut Hong Kong police thriller, that the picture needs him like Marty finally needed that Best Director Oscar.

Below is how I’d rank the films I’ve seen; it’s a vast corpus, extending back into the sixties when he tolled as a writer for the likes of Roger Corman and Monte Hellman. I’ve included lead and supporting performances.

The Hague

As Good as It Gets
The Shining
Goin’ South


A Few Good Men
The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Departed
The King of Marvin Gardens
About Schmidt
Something’s Gotta Give
Blood and Wine

Sound, Solid Entertainments

Easy Rider
Mars Attacks!
The Witches of Eastwick
Drive, He Said
Terms of Endearment
The Missouri Breaks
Broadcast News
Carnal Knowledge
The Crossing Guard

Good to Great

The Last Detail
Five Easy Pieces
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Border
Prizzi’s Honor
The Passenger
The Pledge