Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Top Ten Films of the Decade - The 1950s

Hey, everyone. We're continuing with my countdown of the Top Ten Films for each decade. Today, it's:

The 1950s

10 - All About Eve - Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz's script is one of the most celebrated examples of wit and quality in the history of film, and the film made from it positively drips with venom even as it sparkles. The film is the story of Margot Channing (Bette Davis in her greatest performance), a legendary Broadway diva whose behaviour is becoming more and more outrageous as she deals with upcoming middle-age. Matters are not helped when she come into contact with "her biggest fan", a duplicitous, unscrupulous young actress who insinuates herself into Margot's inner circle and schemes to get to the top by stealing everything Margot has. It's the quintessential depiction of boundless ambition and its costs.

9 - Singin' in the Rain - Directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly - No other musical is so completely joyful and exuberant as Donen & Kelly's comedic tribute to Hollywood as it emerged from the silent era. Filled with great numbers like "Make 'Em Laugh", "Fit as a Fiddle", "All I Do is Dream of You", "Good Morning", and of course, the title number, this is the best of the big budget musicals made by MGM and perhaps the best musical ever made, period.

8 - The Searchers - Directed by John Ford - Both John Ford and John Wayne would probably vehemently deny any high art aspirations in their work; that's just the type of men they were. However, no one can argue that The Searchers is their best collaboration, and perhaps the finest film either master craftsman made. Wayne plays the deeply embittered and perhaps mentally unstable Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet that hates pretty much everything and everyone except his family. He reserves special racial hatred for Native Indians, a bigotry brought to the surface when a Comanche tribe raids the Edwards homestead, killing everyone except the two youngest girls, whom they abduct. What follows is a five year search to find the girls, although it soon becomes clear that the racist Ethan wants to kill the girls rather than allow them to live after being "tainted". It's a searing examination of the prejudices and fears that led to the near eradication of an entire race of peoples, and also a stunning portrait of obesssion, vengeance and, ultimately, bittersweet redemption. Wayne is astounding.

7 - Rear Window - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock - This decade was perhaps Hitchock's most creatively and financially successful period, producing innumerable classic films, two of which appear on this list. Rear Window may be the best example of his more populist thrillers. While it lacks the innovation and thematic challenges of his darker and more risky films, it still is basically a film that turns the audience into peeping toms along with the main character. In effect, we overtly become what all audiences truly are; voyeurs. The story itself is thrilling and compelling, and never lags, which is amazing considering that the main character is completely immobilized for the entirety of the film. Jimmy Stewart gives one of his classic performances, and there might never have been a more beautiful actress than Grace Kelly. Thelma Ritter is also superb as Stewart's wise-cracking nurse.

6 - La Strada - Directed by Federico Fellini - Some argue that this is the last of Fellini's neorealist films, while others argue it is the first of his more fanciful surrealistic works. Either way, La Strada is one of the most touching and strangely beautiful films ever made, with some singularly human characters at its center. It expresses the need for gentility and kindness in all human relationships in a stunningly magical and simple way.

5 - The 400 Blows - Directed by Francois Truffaut - The first of a series of four films featuring Truffaut's semi-autobiographical character Antione Doinel, The 400 Blows is a seminal film of the New Wave, and one of the best films ever made about childhood. Antione is a boy on the cusp of entering his teen years, and his home life is both psychologically traumatic and on the verge of abject poverty. The film explores his trials and tribulations while also delving into an expose of France's treatment of juvenile deliquency at the time. Its final shot is deservedly lauded as one of the most affecting in cinema.

4 - On the Waterfront - Directed by Elia Kazan - There are many people out there who want to villify Kazan as he named names during the HUAC hearings, although I usually find that those people are ignorant of the actual events surrounding his testimony, and his great torment before, during and after his decision to cooperate. No matter what you may personally think of him, On the Waterfront is a stunningly personal and deeply relevatory film about guilt and moral responsibility. Anchored by Brando's greatest and least mannered performance, the film draws you into his character's agony at the choices he's faced with. It shows you the cost of making a moral choice, right or wrong, and holds you riveted until the final, triumphant moment.

3 - The Seventh Seal - Directed by Ingmar Bergman - A monumentally influential film that confirmed the genius of Bergman, The Seventh Seal is a triumph of filmmaking. A medieval knight is returning home from the Crusades in a state of agnostic turmoil. All he wants is to reach home and reunite with his wife, but along the way he discovers that his homeland has been decimated by the plague, and now Death has come for him. The Knight makes a deal with Death, challenging him to a chess match for his life. That is only the beginning of one of the most hypnotic and mesmerizing films dealing with existential dilemmas, the hypocrisy of organized religion and the importance of love vs. the dangers of repression. Its impact may have been dulled by countless parodies, but it still retains its cold and majestic beauty.

2 - Vertigo - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock - Hitchcock had always been a master of film. He could create and assemble film sequences more successfully than anyone before or since (with the possible exceptions of Eisenstein or Spielberg). However, Vertigo marks the moment where he grew beyond showmanship and entertainer to autuer in the classic sense. Even today, it's a remarkably adult film, with its themes of obsession and even necrophilia. Jimmy Stewart, already a master at subtly subverting his own nice guy image, goes as close to unlikable as he ever got, playing the guilt-ridden, obsessed, mentally shaky Scottie Ferguson. From the masterful opening titles through countless perfect sequences to the dark, fatalistic, downbeat ending, Vertigo remains one of the finest achievements from one of the finest directors in the history of film.

1 - Seven Samurai - Directed by Akira Kurosawa - Endlessly influential, continually surprising and incredibly enjoyable, Seven Samurai is the absolute pinnacle of Kurosawa's career. The story of seven itinerant samurai who stoop to help a poor farming town defend itself from bandits, the film is an epic commentary on duty, social roles and the obligation of one human being to another. Filled with astounding characters and directed with such absolute confidence as to defy description, its influence on world cinema is too vast to describe.

See you soon for 1940s!

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