Friday, October 17, 2008

The Top Ten Films of the Decade - the 1930s

After a break to cleanse the palette with some silly film and comic news, we're back to counting down the top films of each decade. Today, we continue with a decade that featured some great films.

The 1930s

10 - Wuthering Heights - Directed by William Wyler - Based on the classic novel, this adaptation stars Merle Oberon and was the film that made Laurence Olivier a star. Though it omits almost half the novel, the screenplay was a brilliant one, written by three of the best screenwriters of the day; Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston. Wyler directs it as an unabashedly romantic and tragic love story, doomed by class and twists of fate. If not for another film (which appears later on this very list) it might be the most purely romantic film ever made. Superbly acted by the entire cast, beautifully shot by Gregg Toland, and held together by Wyler's skill, it is sumptuous and sentimental in the extreme.

9 - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - Directed by Frank Capra - Capra was an idealist, but he saw idealism as a battle, not a rosy escapade. His heroes always faced enormous struggles against the forces of cynicsm, corruption and apathy. Never was his great championing of the common man better depicted than in this film. Jimmy Stewart became a super star with his legendary performance as Jefferson Smith, a naive but morally upright young man thrust into the midst of corruption and political machinations when he is sent to the US Senate. Ironically, the film was hugely controversial upon its release, and was denounced as anti-American. It remains, along with It's a Wonderful Life, the best depiction of Capra's belief that one man, with the right ideals, can overcome the challenges life throws at him and make a difference.

8 - M - Directed by Fritz Lang -Lang's first talkie, M is a masterpiece on all counts. It was the first major film to feature a leitmotif, and its use of sound was particularly revolutionary and innovative for its time. It is also a precursor to film noir, as it is one of the pinnacles of the German expressionistic films. Although it is not as surreal in its expressionist stylings as other German films of the day, its use of light and stylised sets is absolutely brilliant. The story concerns a child murderer, played by Peter Lorre in one of the great film performances. The man is hunted by police and the underworld alike, all while he attempts to hunt his own defenseless prey. Creepy, haunting and somehow tragic, M is one of the great treasures of film.

7 - Bringing Up Baby - Directed by Howard Hawks - Of all the screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby is the without a doubt the zaniest. Telling the story of a crazy socialite's pursuit of a straight-laced scientist, it features not only the brilliant pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but also the missing intercostal clavicle bone of a Brontosaurus, cross-dressing, two different leopards, a mischevious terrier and numerous hilarious sequences. A notorious box office disaster that nearly ended the careers of both Hepburn and Hawks, it has since been reevaluated as one of the most sublimely funny films ever made.

6 - Stagecoach - Directed by John Ford - There had been westerns that succeeded as both art and entertainment before Stagecoach, but none had been so seamless in their melding of art and western thrills. John Ford's first talkie was more expansive, more brilliantly structured and more entertaining than any seen before. John Wayne became a major star with his bold and confident portrayal of Johnny Ringo, one of the first outlaw anti-heroes of the genre. Stagecoach was the first western to stress character, commentary and moral complexity over the black and white themes of its predecessors. Also, the supporting cast is particularly amazing, with John Carradine and the always stellar Thomas Mitchell giving especially fine performances.

5 - City Lights - Directed by Charles Chaplin - It was one of Charlie Chaplin's greatest commerical and artistic successes, and it remained his personal favourite of all his films. Simply put, City Lights is one of the great screen comedies, and also a singularly moving film about human decency, love, acceptance, and the power of compassion. Having said that, it also contains some of the best comedy sequences ever, such as an hysterical boxing match. Chaplin resisted sound long after others embraced it, and thank god, because the power of his genius is now timeless and endlessly accesible across language, age and outlook. Simply put, everyone, from a toddler to a grandpda, can watch and enjoy City Lights. Its final scene may be the most moving shot ever put to film.

4 - Grand Illusion - Directed by Jean Renoir - Renoir's masterpiece is an incredible critique of the social and political divisions that consumed Europe before and during the first world war. It champions universal humanity over idealogical and political divisions, resulting in one of the great anti-war, pro-human films ever made. Along the way, it manages to comment on European class systems, race relations, and most especially war and the romatic idealization of duty. Like all truly great art, it points out the commonalities that unite human beings to one another, and the obligation that entails. However, the film never fails to be less than totally engrossing and entertaining.

3 - The Wizard of Oz - Directed by Victor Fleming - It is believed to by the most-watched film ever made, and the reason for that is the irresistable feeling that there seems to be magic imprinted onto every frame of the film. It is perhaps the first overt fantasy film to be widely accepted by mass audiences, and the elements of the fantastic are too whimsical and warm to be denied. Judy Garland gives a great performance, as does the supporting cast, and the songs and musical numbers are justly legendary. It may not be the deepest or most complex movie ever made, but one cannot deny it's one of the most enjoyable, and if the purpose of film is truly to whisk the viewer off to another world, it is one of the most successful.

2 - It Happened One Night - Directed by Frank Capra - Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert light up the screen in this seminal screwball. Colbert is a socialite on the run from a wedding, and Gable is the tough reporter sticking to her to get the story. Pretty much every convention of modern romatic comedy had its genesis in this film. It's not a deep picture, and it really doesn't have muchtosay, but it's undeniably enjoyable and it is such a template for later films that it can be counted as one of the most influential films of all time. It's one of only three films to win all five major Academy Awards (best actor, actress, director, screenplay and film).

1 - Gone With the Wind - Directed by Victor Fleming - I'll be honest, I don't particularly like Gone With the Wind all that much. But, from an objective point of view, you cannot deny its greatness. The sheer spectacle of the film, its broad sweep and huge emotions, cause the viewer to sit there and marvel at its massive scale. Like few other films, Gone With the Wind exemplifies a tale that could only have been told the way it was in the movies. Even if it had been a novel, that hardly matters. It is joyful over-the-top excess on a huge canvass, with emotions and characters so big that only a massive screen could contain them. Love it or hate it, it's one of the great cinematic achievments.

See you soon for our final installment: the 1920s!

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