Right about now, plenty of folks with Raisinettes on their breath will be telling you which Sean Penn movie was best last year. Well, I'm getting out my Top 10 list right now, open to any movie I've seen at least twice, any year, in no particular order; in fact, if you ask me for my Top 10 tomorrow, it might be different.
Lots on my list are fairly old. I don't think all old movies are good; many -- Song of Norway, West of the Pecos, Scalawag -- clearly were not. And there are no masterpieces here. No Sunset Boulevard, no La Dolce Vita, no Citizen Kane or Nosferatu. Just good old flicks I didn't mind seeing again.
Start with Angels With Dirty Faces. It may have been the film favorite of all the Cagney imitators because it had all the Cagney mannerisms: arms held tight against his sides, shoulders twitching, the double finger snap. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film features Pat O'Brien as his chum-turned-priest, Bogart as a sleazy lawyer, Ann Sheridan as a tastily hard-boiled dame and the Dead-End Kids. When Cagney the convict walks The Last Mile, Padre O'Brien begs him to act chicken, so the hero-worshipping kids will be turned off. He does, though his actual cowardice is seen only piecemeal (his hand clutching at a radiator) or in shadow. What makes it great is that Cagney leaves doubt about whether he does chicken out.
Then there's Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Kirk Douglas appears as Col. Dax, Adolphe Menjou as the amoral Gen. Broulard and George Macready as Gen. Mireau, who orders his artillery commander to fire on his own men when an attack fails. Each of the failed companies must furnish a prejudged defendant to the courts-martial, where they'll be gustily defended by Col. Dax. Their execution is memorably filmed, from the porky sergeant-in-charge Bert Freed and go-along lieutenant Wayne Morris to victims Tim Carey and Ralph Meeker. But maybe the biggest lump in the throat comes courtesy of a wonderful bit by an actress portraying a captive German girl working in a tavern. She is jeered by a room full of French troopers but stops the jeering cold when she delivers a poignant song in the enemy language that no one knows but everyone understands.
Let's give equal time to German militarism. I confess to a fascination with those old destroyer-vs.-sub movies; maybe it's that deadly threat you can't see. I always gave dibs to The Enemy Below, but that was before Das Boot. The camerawork is outstanding -- so claustrophobic you'll forget your popcorn for long stretches. You may imagine what it's like to be trapped 500 feet under the waves with a bunch of guys who don't speak your language. It's why we go to the movies.
Manhattan has all the whiny repetition of most Woody Allen movies and that unlikely assemblage of chicks (Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway) who fall into the nebbish's bed. But most of its neuroticism is funny, and it's about the life-negating tendency of us all to reject what nature sends our way, as Woody does with Hemingway. A bonus is the continuing love affair of director and town.
In that same town was Raging Bull. Not a great boxing movie, more a study of jealousy. Watch the slow motion shot of De Niro's eyes as he watches Cathy Moriarty move. Martin Scorsese broke all the rules by placing the camera inside the ring and altering our perception of it -- small as a bathroom, long as a bowling alley. The movie is gloriously black and white because of Scorsese's hesitation to show all that boxing blood in color.
Maybe I'm partial to black and white because what happens in movies is a special kind of reality, lighter and darker than what we see around us. Take Zorba the Greek. As the cinema's most exuberant and loveable hedonist, Anthony Quinn was justly honored, but he isn't the only thing worth seeing. There's Lila Kedrova to remind you how silly humanity is and Irene Papas to remind you how cruel. "Life is trouble," Zorba says. "Only death is not."
Different colors for the next pair, set around Boston, one high-end, one not.
Low-end is The Friends of Eddie Coyle with Robert Mitchum as a petty hood/informer, caught between law and lawbreakers. Each is sure he is using and betraying them, even as they are doing the same. Dark and gritty.
On the high side is The Thomas Crown Affair, with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Early on, there's lots of split screen with a too-jazzy score. From then on, we're supposed to feel the noose tightening around a neck that is oh-so-stylish.
A Night at the Opera starts with hapless Margaret Dumont catching Groucho with a younger gal. What follows is the incredible stateroom-stocking scene, a send-up of lawyers ("There is no Sanity Clause"), and the Harpo/Chico trashing of Il Trovatore.
From Here to Eternity showcases Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift as two 1941 soldiers caught up in a corrupt system. Sinatra and Donna Reed won Oscars, but were overrated. Underrated was Burt, who was once told by Shirley Booth: "Most of the time I can see the wheels turning and your brain working." This time, it was the right thing to see.