Countdown: The 165 Greatest American Movies Ever Made (66-90)
- Hud (1963)
You don’t look out for yourself, the only helping hand you’ll ever get is when they lower the box.
Another one of those roles Paul Newman could have easily won the Best Actor Oscar for. Here he plays one of the most despicable, amoral characters ever; a full-throated villain in the charismatic package of the perfect physical specimen that was the 38-year-old.
Presented in stark, Oscar-winning widescreen black and white (gorgeously filmed by the legendary James Wong Howe), Hud is an unsparing morality tale that makes the audience just as complicit as the young man played by Brandon DeWilde. We too are at first charmed and fascinated by Hud; by his composure, his cool, his cynicism, the mistaken impression he is merely being his own man.
Slowly, though, the facade is peeled away until the private hell we leave Hud to feels like justice.
Oscars went to a never-sexier Patricia Neal, as the housekeeper torn apart by her attraction to Hud’s virility and potential, and the the fact that she has seen enough of life to know that his rotted core can only mean a life so miserable the sex will eventually not be worth it. Melvyn Douglas also took home the gold for his exceptional work as Homer, a father forever-haunted by his own creation, a man we first see through Hud’s eyes as a scold, and then through wiser eyes as everything that is good in America.
See also: The Hustler, The Verdict, Hombre, The Long Hot Summer, Absence of Malice, Harper, Nobody’s Fool, Winning, Twilight, Cool Hand Luke.
89. Cape Fear (1962)
Go ahead. I just don’t give a damn.
Robert Mitchum had a flashier villain role in 1955’s Night of the Hunter. As Max Cady, though, in director J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear, there is no flash, just the underrated actor’s barrel-chested magnetism. When Mitchum tells Gregory Peck, “I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t never gonna forget,” nothing in Martin Scorsese’s graphic, R-rated 1991 remake tops the horror-show that plays out in your own mind.
Melville Productions, Universal
Unbelievably tense from open to close, and one of Bernard Hermann’s finest non-Hitchcock scores.
- Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)
I want no legal advice. This is a question of truth.
Proving once again that he was the finest actor to never take home a competitive Oscar, Edward G. Robinson perfectly embodies a spine of steel behind a buttoned-down physician constantly at war with the System, even as he is on his way to a number of important breakthroughs, including the cure for syphilis.
James Wong Howe’s cinematography is as unforgettable as Robinson. Max Steiner’s score is merely the icing.
See also: The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, Viva Villa.
- Up (2009)
That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.
Throughout the aughts, the Pixar magic could not stop itself from reaching one artistic height after another. Living toys, talking fish, incorporated monsters… All canon, all high concepts wonderfully realized. Then along comes Up, a decidedly low-concept (balloons transport a house) charmer about a grumpy widower and the adventure he shares with a precocious boy scout.
The first ten minutes exquisitely break your heart.
The rest of this wondrous film exquisitely mends it.
- The Dark Knight (2008)
We burned the forest down.
As far as superhero movies go, director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) was plenty entertaining, while at the same time it did absolutely zero to challenge or lift the genre. Just three years later, Nolan changed everything with his mind-blowingly intense, dark, but still optimistic sequel.
DC Comics/Warner Bros.
After two years filled with more than a dozen box office flops hurling deceptive criticism at America’s War on Terror, using only a thin layer of metaphor and a screenplay steeped in thematic depth, Nolan told the truth.
Heath Ledger as Joker? Words fail.
The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him.
Young people believe it was Marvel that came up with the concept of the Movie Universe.
Some 85 years ago Universal created a thirty-plus movie universe populated with icons such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.
The films that introduce you to each are standalone masterpieces. But each, even the weaker sequels, are masterpieces of mood. So if you haven’t already poisoned your child’s mind and attention-span with MTV, there is no better method to forever capture their imagination in a way they will thank you for later.
Lugosi, Chaney, Karloff, Rains… Don’t tell me giants never walked the earth.
See also: From the 1930s — Freaks, The Old Dark House, Devil Doll, White Zombie, Island of Lost Souls, The Black Cat.
- Scarface (1983)
Chi Chi, get the yeyo.
Director Brian DePalma, screenwriter Oliver Stone, and star Al Pacino turn everything up past 11 for three full hours, and not even for a moment can you turn away.
Scarface isn’t just watchable, this mesmerizing, audacious trip into everything that was larger-than-life about Miami’s cocaine cowboys is compulsively rewatchable.
Everything is iconic. Every scene, every line of dialogue.
See also: Dressed to Kill, Blow, Savages, Sisters, Body Double, New Jack City, American Gangster, Carlito’s Way, Training Day.
- Dead End (1937)
Nothing for nothing, kid.
Director William Wyler’s masterwork isn’t just the film that introduced The Dead End Kids (who would later become The Bowery Boys) and gives a young Humphrey Bogart another one of those terrific gangster roles, it offers a mood and feel (along with a top-notch story) that completely hypnotizes.
Samuel Goldwyn Co.
Based on Sidney Kingsley’s play and produced by independent maestro Samuel Goldwyn, Dead End takes place mostly on a single stage — a dirty Manhattan street that ends at a pier along an even dirtier river. This is the slums and peering down over everything are the very rich hiding behind the high white walls that protect their expensive view.
The stakes involve the heart of a nobody shop girl and the future of a gang of ruffians no one would want anything to do with.
In other words, the stakes are everything.
See also: Crime School, They Made Me a Criminal, Angels with Dirty Faces.
- Get On Up (2014)
They trying to kill James Brown today. You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?
Director Tate Taylor’s story of Soul Brother No. 1 is many things at once. To begin with, it captures the essence of an entire man. Rather than focus on what too many modern-day biopics focus on — the easy three-act structure found in addiction (Ray), a tempestuous relationship (Walk the Line), and madness ( The Aviator); and even though James Brown imbibed in all three, Taylor tells the story of Brown’s fierce independence, his hard-earned pride in being a self-made man, his supernatural genius, and even manages to give you an idea of where that genius came from — not just an awful childhood, but the spark and unrelenting drive inside that understood that the only way “to bring the super heavy funk” was to make every instrument a drum.
Chadwick Boseman is simply astonishing as Brown, as are the musical set-pieces.
Get on Up does not gloss over the part-time monster that lived within this talented, complicated, difficult, and troubled man. But it also does not dwell on that monster. By the end, you might not like James Brown, but you will respect his genius (both “show” and business”) and you will admire that, above all, his greatest accomplishment was remaining his own man.
Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth not only accomplished the above, they filled a 140 minute movie too many great scenes to count.
- The Last Picture Show (1971)
Never you mind, honey. Never you mind.
In only his second feature film, director Peter Bogdonovich revealed a filmmaking genius that would sadly flame out just two years and two feature films later. Whatever the muse that put this one over (Cybill Shepherd?), Bogdonovich created what few ever create — a timeless, coming of age masterpiece.
As Sam the Lion, Ben Johnson finally won his Academy Award, and all it took was just a few minutes and one of the most poignant monologues in film history.
Cloris Leachman also won an Oscar for her shattering role as the first desperate housewife.
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Match me, Sidney.
If I had a 16 millimeter copy of Sweet Smell of Success in a steel canister, I cannot think of a better club to use on anyone who claims Tony Curtis could not act. Even competing against The Mighty Burt Lancaster, Curtis is the whole show as a man offered everything he has ever dreamt of for the small price of his soul.
Filmed by James Wong Howe, and mostly on-location and in glorious black and white throughout New York City, what you have here are 96 of the tightest, meanest, most deliciously nasty minutes ever captured. Every line of Lancaster’s dialogue is a prison yard shiv. And don’t let my defense of Curtis fool you. Lancaster is also superb; buttoning up that larger-than-life personality into a tough little hickory knot of evil.
Movies like this breed lifelong movie fans like rabbits.
79. Annie Hall (1977)
Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat… college.
The most WoodyAllen of all Woody Allen movies won four major Oscars (picture, screenplay, director, and actress) and for decades to come changed the course of the American romantic comedy.
Allen’s narrative has no respect for linear storytelling, or even story-story. What started out as a murder mystery morphed into an insightful, hilarious, and oftentimes touching autopsy of a failed relationship. Every scene is a gem; an exquisite short film all its own.
- The Wild Bunch (1969)
We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.
The anti-hero was nothing new to the Western in 1969. Although he is given no credit, by 1969, John Wayne had already played a handful of them. With his masterpiece, director Sam Peckinpah took the idea of the anti-hero a step further. He made villains — a group of murderous bank robbers — our heroes, and somehow pulled it off.
You could argue that Peckinpah accomplished this through the stereotyping of Civilized Law and Order as stiffs, hypocrites, and corruptocrats, but that is too easy and has failed too many times in the hands of lesser filmmakers.
Without a word of exposition, Peckinpah immediately communicates that through the most unsavory characters imaginable, he is telling the most American of stories: the rugged individualist versus the System. We root for the bad guys because the alternative is an even slower kind of death.
See also: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Straw Dogs, the Getaway, Convoy, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
- Jackie Brown (1997)
I can do it, Max, I know I can. I just can’t do it without you.
Though he would never do it again, director Quentin Tarantino proved that his unique spin on character, story, and dialogue, actually improves without all the hyper-stylized violence he is most famous for.
He also proved that blacksploitation star Pam Grier is every inch the actress and movie star we her fans had always known she was.
See also: Coffy, Foxy Brown, Cheba, Baby, Friday Foster, Fort Apache the Bronx.
- Mulholland Drive (2001)
Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up.
Nightmare. Fantasy. At times, simply inexplicable. Director David Lynch has made a number of terrific films over the years. Mulholland Drive, however, is as close as he or anyone has ever come to recreating our own dreams. The kind of dreams you can never quite shake. There isn’t even a close second.
For those of you long-tired of Hollywood movies about Hollywood, Lynch’s masterpiece manages to be both truthful and original, abstract and honest.
And to think it all started as a failed television pilot.
Pressure makes diamonds.
See also: Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks (season one), The Straight Story
- The Deer Hunter (1978)
We gotta play with more bullets.
Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner is not really about Vietnam. It is not even about war. This is a movie about the men who fight our wars, the everyday men who are not famous, who are not rich, who are not notable in a culture that makes celebrities of smug pundits and journalists, heroes of fame whores, and icons of those willing to demean themselves while looking good on TV.
The men who fight our wars work in factories, and when asked, out of a sense of family honor and duty, they then leave everything they love to go Over There. And Over There is oftentimes a Hell that follows them all the way back over here.
These are the men who time and again save the world and pay a price those of us on the sidelines cannot begin to imagine.
We now return you to the Kardashians…
See also: Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, We Were Soldiers, Casualties of War, Coming Home, The Boys in Company C, Dead Presidents.
- Targets (1968)
Gonna shoot some pigs.
With just $130,000 from Roger Corman and only two days to film his star Boris Karloff, with his first feature film Peter Bogdonovich crafted an extraordinary (and still timely) look at a post-war America so prosperous it has lost its sense of purpose.
What happens to a country so spoiled that the least of our concerns are food, shelter, safety, comfort, and material things? What happens when your “culture” is junk food and strip malls and pop stars and horror films and freeways and cement?
If you are aging horror star Karloff, you wonder aloud what’s become of a people no longer scared by your old films. If you are all-American, suburban-dwelling Bobby, you answer his question by positioning yourself high above a freeway with a sniper rifle.
See also: The Deadly Tower (1975 TV movie), Tower (2016 documentary).
- Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Was it murder or something serious?
No one loves Humphrey Bogart more than I, so it pains me to admit that there will never be a better Philip Marlowe than Dick Powell. Facing 40, Powell knew his crooner days were coming to an end. He needed to switch gears, and what a switch it was.
Not only is Murder My Sweet one of the great noir-mysteries of all-time, but until Jimmy Stewart met Anthony Mann, Powell pulled off the greatest movie star transformation of all time.
- Vanishing Point (1971)
They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape… the last beautiful free soul on this planet.
A driver named Kowalski (Barry Newman). A disc jockey named Super Soul (Cleavon Little). A 1970 Dodge Challenger. The open road. The desert. The music. Fifteen hours to get from Colorado to California just because. A shitload of cops.
Oh, and a naked girl on a motorcycle.
Kowalski tried to fit in, tried to play by the Establishment rules. But it was all so corrupt; and the only alternative — the counterculture hippies — well, they are every bit as empty and hypocritical as the Straights they mock.
So, only on the margins can Kowalski live by his own code, and that he does by walking between the winds where stopping for the flashing blue lights in your rearview just isn’t an option.
One of the greatest genres of the late 60s and 70s was the car genre, a short-lived slate of movies, most of them stripped down to nothing and aimed at the drive-in crowd, that celebrated American muscle, the freedom of the road, and throwing a middle finger at Authority. Men were still men. Women were fun. Gas was guzzled, and the uptight squares were left to stand by the side of the road cloaking their jealousy in sputtering Well-I-Never outrage.
See also: Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry; Two Lane Blacktop, Gone In 60 Seconds (1974), Le Mans, Gumball Rally, Last American Hero, The Driver, White Lightning, Corvette Summer, Grand Prix, Bullit, Bobby Deerfield, Smokey and the Bandit, The Rockford Files (TV series).
- The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
After decades of feuds with everyone who was anyone in Hollywood, and over issues that ranged from very petty to just petty, legendary independent producer Sam Goldwyn finally won his Best Picture Oscar. According to one of his biographers, after the ceremony and the lavish parties, Goldwyn and his wife went home. She went to bed, leaving him alone with his Oscar. Later she woke to the sound of this complicated and difficult man weeping with relief over a recognition long overdue, and one received from the same peers he had feuded with for so long.
Samuel Goldwyn Co.
When you are an independent producer, every film is a risk, and Sam Goldwyn risked much to tell a story he believed — with so many servicemen coming home from World War II — was vital. Goldwyn understood that they would need more than a hero’s welcome, or pity. These were men who needed to be treated like men. And thanks in no small part to this beautiful, deeply moving film, America got the message.
Often overlooked, though, is that this is also a story about the women, about the problems they face when the men they love, forever changed, come home. Goldwyn understood that without them, all men would be lost, not just veterans — all of us.
- The Right Stuff (1983)
That’s a man.
You damn right it is.
The greatest love letter to American individualism, moxie, and ingenuity, comes in the form of Philip Kaufman’s quirky, hilarious, and exhilarating look at what it took to get an American into space.
The shortest 193-minute movie ever made. This is Americanism not patriotism, and if the movie was nothing more than a black screen playing Bill Conti’s score, it would still be pretty great.
69. Clint Eastwood Western Trilogy — High Plains Drifter (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Unforgiven (1992)
Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.
If this is not the trilogy you are looking for, that might be due to the fact that director Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy is Italian, or maybe…. These three films, all of them directed by Clint Eastwood, are more deserving.
Is that heresy?
I do not think so. As good as the Dollars trilogy is (good enough it was the no-brainer choice to inaugurate a home theater my wife and I built for ourselves), Eastwood’s trilogy (as it should now be known), has so much to offer. To begin with, all three titles are wildly entertaining revenge pictures, beautifully shot, perfectly written, expertly edited (Eastwood does not get enough credit for his choice of editors), iconic, and unforgettable. Back in the time of the dinosaur, when the three broadcast networks still aired theatrical movies, High Plains Drifter and Josey Wales always seemed to be on. Oh, and Unforgiven won four major Oscars: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (a no-brainer for Gene Hackman), and Editing.
If that is not impressive enough, look at how different these three titles are. Long before critics began to take Eastwood seriously as a director, he gave us High Plains Drifter, the story of a ghost come back for revenge against a cowardly town. Although he has never tried it again, High Plains Drifter might be the most successful blend of the abstract and straight-up commercial film-making we have ever seen. Outside of painting the town red, within the first half-hour, Eastwood’s “hero” rapes a woman. These are extraordinary choices, even for the free-wheelin’ 70s. Stylistically, High Plains Drifter might still be Eastwood’s greatest achievement.
Just three years later, Eastwood again switched things up with Josey Wales, which takes the action from the “town western” to the frontier, and again evokes a ghostly, oppressive mood that perfectly captures the title character, a man who beat his Civil War sword into a plowshare only to be pulled back into the war his side lost.
Unforgiven, of course, has a reputation that has only grown over the last 25 years; a shattering mediation on redemption, human nature, and what it truly means to kill a man, all wrapped in a very satisfying revenge-thriller. Hackman’s Little Bill, Richard Harris’s English Bob, and Saul Rubinek’s reporter W.W. Beauchamp, are marvels of performance and character in a in a story full of them.
See also: The Dollars trilogy, Hang ’em High, Joe Kidd, Pale Rider, The Beguiled.
69 1/2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
I’m singin’ in the rain, just singin’ in the rain…
Kind of a joint US/UK production — so I’m slipping it in as a 69.5… Hey. this is my list. I’ll do what I want.
Through Malcolm McDowell’s monstrous Alex DeLarge, director Stanley Kubrick presents one of the most despicable, unrepentant villains in film history, but does so with the most moral of purposes — to make a case for free will and the dignity of every individual versus the State.
Oh, and the film’s moral compass is a Christian man of God.
An audacious film 46 years ago is even more audacious today.
A Clockwork Orange is also Exhibit A for why you cannot judge the morality of a film by its content or MPAA rating.
Then the police came. I went into the house. Cause they got magnums too. And they don’t kill Cars. They kill Nig-Gars.
The first full-length feature film that captured a stand-up comedian’s performance is still far and away the best. In fact Richard Pryor: Live In Concert is the greatest live performance — music, stage, comedy, or otherwise — ever caught on film period.
Special Events Entertainment
Unhindered by the censorship of an earlier era; unhindered by the drug addiction that would come just a few years later; this film captures history’s greatest stand-up comedian at the epoch of his genius … at the height of his talent, powers and laser-focused creative rage.
- Easy Rider (1969)
Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
The film that changed Hollywood forever. Well, not really. The change lasted only until the double-whammy of Jaws and Star Wars — two films that ushered in the blockbuster era and really did change Hollywood forever.
But I digress.
Stop worrying about the long hair, the hippies, and the drug dealing (Phil Spector in a cameo)…
Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut is a love letter to the open road and unbridled American freedom; a movie anathema to today’s left, who right now personify the uptight Easy Rider villain — The Man demanding conformity and vehemently opposed to leaving people be to do their own thing.
Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
- The Lady Eve (1941)
Well, it’s just that I’ve been up the Amazon for a year and they don’t use perfume.
In just four short years (1940-1944) writer/director Preston Sturges would produce no fewer than a half-dozen classics, chief among them The Lady Eve, which is not only a comedy masterpiece but one of the sexiest movies ever made.
Only Sturges could pull off the second half of this gut-buster, where we are supposed to buy into the fact that Henry Fonda believes Barbara Stanwyck’s con artist is now someone else. But pull it off he does. Yet, the film’s most memorable sequence is the erotic and hilarious moment when a fumbling, bumbling, forever-smitten Fonda does nothing more than fiddle with Stanwyck’s shoe.
Is it just me, or is it a little warm in here?
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