When I first took the screen beat at The Cultural Gutter, I vowed never to do a list article. But promises, like Corningware, are made to be broken.
The London Times recently released a new list of the top 100 films of all time. I know, I know. But this list, “intended to cause debate and maybe consternation” fires a cannon and the cannon and makes some really interesting picks. For instance, There Will Be Blood ranks number two. There’s no Citizen Kane to be found. And the list includes two–count ‘em, two–Keanu Reeves films.
In short, the list is article worthy.
To make it interesting, I decided to write 100 words each about six films from the list, plus 150 words or so of introduction (plus incidental words), to give myself the 850 or so words required for a Cultural Gutter article.
But how would to choose the six films, I asked myself?
I answered the question with another question: WWGGD? (What would Gary Gygax do?) I found an online D-100 emulator, rolled six times, and wrote about the films whose position on the list corresponded to each roll of dem digital bones.
What you are about to read is the result of that questionable thought process. Enjoy. Debate.
Film: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
John Ford’s Liberty Valance has one of the most hyperbolic theme songs ever recorded: “The man who shot Liberty Valance / He shot Liberty Valance / He was the bravest of them all.” And yet that hyperbole fits perfectly; Liberty Valance rides alongside High Noon in obsessive focus on the lies we tell and accept in the service of building a society. I’d rather live in Jimmy Stewart’s world than John Wayne’s, but Liberty Valance’s point is that you don’t get to choose: their worlds are the same world. Lee Marvin gets to opt out, but only because he’s dead.
Film: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
There’s a word for films like this: jaunty. In one of its jauntiest sequences, the film’s hero, British officer Clive Candy, fights a duel with a German officer to avoid a diplomatic incident. The preparations and negotiations that precede the duel are painstakingly detailed, but when the duel finally starts, the camera cranes up, up and, unbelievably, out of the building. We never get to see the fight. This negation of gentlemanly conduct in the face of military struggle encapsulates the central thematic that gives this film its power–and that makes Blimp’s jauntiness so counterintuitively affecting. Also, glorious Technicolor.
Film: Grand Hotel
I would have thrown a saving roll to get this on my list; luckily, I didn’t have to. Without this film, we wouldn’t have movies like Short Cuts (number 91 on the list, incidentally)
or Boogie Nights. Of course, we probably wouldn’t have Paul Haggis’ Crash either, so maybe it’s a mixed blessing. Grand Hotel opened my eyes to the considerable charms of Joan Crawford, but the real revelation here is Wallace Beery (see The Champ
(1931)). Best known for formulaic wrestler/boxer movies (see Barton Fink), Beery really shows off his acting chops as German businessman Preysing in Grand Hotel.
Film: Duck Soup
This is the film that convinced me I like the Marx Brothers more than the Three Stooges (although that’s kind of comparing apples and eye-pokes). There’s a reason the memorable quotes page for Duck Soup on IMDb scrolls on and on for what seems like ever, and it’s because while Duck Soup is comedic chaos at its best, it has a vein of unsettling truth running through it. As the nation of Freedonia is reduced to smoldering ruins, the comedy gets more desperate, stranger, and funnier. Duck Soup makes films like Wag the Dog or Charlie Wilson’s War completely unnecessary.
Film: The Towering Inferno
One of the many surprises on the Times list, The Towering Inferno easily has the best title of 70s disaster films (The Swarm probably comes in second). I would have put one of the Airport films on the list in place of Inferno, but the Airport franchise vibrates on a slightly different frequency than Irwin Allen’s disaster films, so I can see the logic. Like all Allen’s films, Inferno takes place at the corner of hubris and mishap, but when the hubris is 135 stories tall, it earns its Dante-referencing title. Plus, Inferno inspired one of the best SCTV sketches.
Film: Jungle Book
Here’s a film I never would have written about if the D-100 hadn’t rolled its way. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that I was a Cub Scout during my formative years, I don’t really have any affinity for Disney’s The Jungle Book. The Kipling-inspired film I do respond to is Chuck Jones’ Riki-Tiki-Tavi, with Orson Welles as narrator. In my world, mongoose-versus-cobra beats boy-versus-tiger any day. Okay, so I didn’t really write anything about The Jungle Book here. Is that breaking the rules? Maybe.
But maybe rules are like promises and Corningware.
Ian Driscoll believes God does not play dice with the universe. It’s probably more like Hollywood Squares.