100 Films: A Family Project
(Photo: It's images like this that drive men to do strange things... from The Scarlet Empress)
One evening, a little less than a year ago, I was flicking through the channels and came across Josef Von Sternberg’s 1934 masterpiece, The Scarlet Empress starring Marlene Dietrich. I hadn’t seen it since university but I got the same rush, the same thrill at watching all those crazy, overblown images. Wow. Just wow.
The first thought that came to me was that I wanted to show this to my kids. The second thought was, when the hell am I ever going to do that? Sure, everyone comes running when I rip the latest Hollywood blockbuster out of the Netflix envelope, but if I shouted, “Hey guys, who wants to see a 1934 film about intrigues in the 18th century Russian court that Robin Wood said has ‘a hyperrealist atmosphere of nightmare with its gargoyles, its grotesque figures twisted into agonized contortions, its enormous doors that require a half-dozen women to close or open, its dark spaces and ominous shadows created by the flickerings of innumerable candles, its skeleton presiding over the royal wedding banquet table.’ Whaddya say, guys? Guys?”
I realized they were never going to see this movie. I felt a little sad about that. I wondered if I was just being silly – I mean, you can’t do everything. But then I started to think about all the other great movies they were going to miss. And there have been so many great movies…
Now this is one of those little moments of regret that come and go, and usually never rise to the level of speech, let alone action. But this moment would turn out to be different probably because that evening happened to be about a week after my oldest daughter, Juliana, had started high school. When your oldest child starts high school you can’t help thinking about the day she’ll finish high school and probably move away to go to university. Only four more years – that’s all I’ve got her for – and it’s not enough time to show her all the films I want to show her. Unless…
That’s when I came up with the idea: I would make a list of films that I deemed essential for my daughters to see before they left for college!
I started jotting down titles right away – it was very random. When the pace of titles popping into my mind slowed, I went searching through a bunch of “best of” lists, looking for films I’d missed. On the third pass, I looked for omissions of one kind or another – I wanted to have representatives of every major genre, the giant directors, styles of cinema, movements, regions... When they had seen these films, they would have a respectable idea of the breadth of the art of cinema.
Some choices were easier than others – White Heat, The Godfather 1 and 2 and Goodfellas felt like a pretty good representation of the gangster genre (some would say “over-representation” but to heck with them). But what about African cinema? And what about films by women directors – that was one of the toughest choices.
I had set out to make a list of 60 films. During the process
the list ballooned up to 230 films which I (in my infinite mercy) whittled
down to an even 100. The four-year time limit set the pace – one about
every second week.
This is not my list of the 100 greatest films ever made. As I said, I wanted the list to hint at cinema’s variety, but I also wanted it to be personal: I wouldn’t argue that The Sting is one of the 100 greatest films ever made and defend why it made the list while an indisputable masterpiece like Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera didn’t, but dammit, something about the story of those con men captured my teenage magician soul way back when and has never let go in all the years since. It had to go on. Finally, this is not my “greatest” list because I’ve already shown the kids some of the films I’d put on that list (like The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story).
Nearly a quarter of the films are restricted, so obviously they’ll be stacked toward the end. And I reserve the right to change my choices as we go – Apocalypse Now seemed like a solid choice for representative of the War Movie genre, but then after I’d done the list, I remembered the slaughtering of the ox at the end – my older daughter Juliana was a vegetarian at the time and my younger daughter Marya is a hyper-empath, who is so in tune with animals we’ll spend an hour at the first display we come to at the zoo. The ending of that film just might unleash a fury of angry indignation on my head that would make the horror onscreen seem like a Marx Brothers movie. I might have to reconsider, but for now, it stays.
I must say, I was happily surprised by how the family reacted to the idea of the list – they all lit up. It was partly, “Yeah – a project!” But they also knew how much the art of cinema means to me – they could see me getting choked up as I talked about the films before each screening (it became something of a game: “When is Dad going to cry?”) But as much as they made fun of me, they responded to it. If it meant that much to me, there was probably something to it.
We are now closing in on our first year mark. We are a bit behind – at 21 films instead of 25. Juliana made it onto the high school basketball team and so we took a break during the season figuring we’d catch up over the summer. Then my wife and I decided to write a novel together. I’m also in the midst of writing a new screenplay that my managers want for the fall (!) and releasing a couple of magic tricks. Time just slipped away, as time will, but we’ll catch up.
I started off by showing a few fun films. The first was Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise – afterwards, Marya couldn’t stop talking about the opening scene where the two jewel thieves seem to be seducing each other but are actually robbing each other blind. Bless her larcenous soul.
Rocky was the second film. In my introduction I contrasted the realism of the film’s style with the frothy continental charm of the Lubitsch film. The gritty realism and big-event plot of Rocky led to the lyrical realism and small plot of the third film, Bicycle Thieves, and then the small scale of that film played off the next film, Gone with the Wind. Structuring the screenings around contrasting styles seemed to me the best way to make those styles more apparent.
But as I was trying to lead the discussion toward esthetics, my kids were much more concerned about how the stories ended. They were riveted by most of Bicycle Thieves, but the ending caught them off guard: Juliana shouted at the screen, “Worst. Ending. Ever!” and summarized the story as “a guy gets a job, has his bike stolen, searches everywhere but doesn’t find it. The end!”
While they loved most of Gone with the Wind, once again, things got ugly at the end: the ever-practical Juliana exclaimed, “That’s it? After four hours we don’t get to know what happens?” She stood up and threw her arms up as she walked out of the room: “I have now given up hope of getting a movie with a resolution at the end.” I called to her, “Wait til we get to Rashomon – you don’t even know what happens in the middle of that movie.”
Marya, on the other hand, was curled up into a ball with her head in my wife Bree’s lap – she cried for several minutes after the film ended. The deaths of the child and Melanie had been hard on her, and then to be all topped off with Rhett leaving Scarlett – well, it was too much. “But they were so right for each other!” she sobbed. Little romantic. Man, she was sucked into the movie – that scene when Scarlett and Ashley are caught together she watched with her hands covering most of her face, her eyes like saucers staring through her fingers.
Most of the films we watch on DVD (Blu-Ray when available) with the four of us crowded together on the couch. Sometimes Bree makes a meal to go with the movie (pasta for de Sica, tempura for Mizoguchi, that kind of thing.) In Los Angeles we’re lucky enough to get the chance to see a lot of the films up on the big screen: we saw It’s a Wonderful Life on December 23 at the Egyptian Theater and Sunset Boulevard last week in the open air at the Hollywood Forever cemetery.
The issue of unresolved endings seems to have worked itself out and by and large the films are very well received, sometimes better than I expected. I was worried the kids might be put off by the stylized artiness of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast but the film produced appreciative cheers and giggles (“It’s so sweet!” Marya kept saying). The Sting set us to touching our noses and giving each other knowing looks for weeks. Renoir’s French Cancan filled us with its infectious joy and had us all singing the theme song as we got ready for bed. The film also produced one of my favorite comments of the series when Marya, startled by French notions of morality, exclaimed “It’s gone past being a love triangle, past a square, there are so many people involved it’s a love circle!”
The big flop of the series surprised me – it was The Maltese Falcon, which I thought of as one of the fun ones (it was just too testosterone-fueled talk-talk and emotionally callous for the girls). Bree found Laughton’s Night of the Hunter almost unbearably creepy, though it turned out to be the most quoted of all the films: “Children… Children…” became a house refrain. There were complaints about the unintelligible Yorkshire accents in Ken Loach’s Kes, but the incredible power of the visual storytelling redeemed the film. The scene where the poor kid is humiliated by his coach and has to shower in cold water… No translation is necessary.
It’s been fun to see the kids picking up on cultural references they would have missed before. Strolling on Olivera Street not long after seeing Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, the kids were struck by all the Marilyn Monroe stuff for sale. Watching The Amazing Spiderman this summer, I could hear the girls whispering excitedly as they pointed out a movie poster on Peter Parker’s wall: “It’s Rear Window!” Then there are the special L.A. treats such as getting to see the actual tablets used in The Ten Commandments at Grauman’s Chinese Theater right after seeing the movie. Or the time I took Juliana to a basketball tournament at Beverly Hills High and we unexpectedly entered the gym with the retractable floor over a pool (the one everyone fell into in It’s a Wonderful Life). Awesome.
A highlight of the series for me was sitting down to watch Ozu’s Tokyo Story a few weeks ago. Now it’s a great film and I love it, but I was worried as hell going in – I mean it’s so refined, so understated, so slow... And what could this story of elderly parents visiting their grown kids in the city have to say to a couple of teen Valley girls. Well, lots as it turned out. The girls were into that movie from first image to last (okay, they drifted a bit when the old guys went out to get drunk). There were many quiet tears shed at the end. I should add that the film had no more resolution than many of the other films (or life itself for that matter) and yet Juliana didn’t complain one bit. She told me afterwards she really liked the film.
I’m looking forward to the next three years.
Here, for the record, is the list (films ordered by country of production not the nationality of director.)
Hitchcock – Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho
Coppola – The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, Apocalypse Now
Welles – Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons
Wilder – Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot
Allen – Annie Hall, Manhattan
Hill – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting
Chaplin – City Lights
Keaton – The General
Hawks – The Big Sleep
Scorcese – Goodfellas
Ford – The Searchers
Huston – The Maltese Falcon
De Mille – The Ten Commandments
Curtiz – Casablanca
Sternberg – The Scarlet Empress
Altman – Nashville
Murnau – Sunrise
Flaherty – Nanook of the North
Lang – The Big Heat
Spielberg – Jaws
Lubitsch – Trouble in Paradise
Stroheim – Greed
Lean – Lawrence of Arabia
Capra – It’s a Wonderful Life
Polanski – Chinatown
Sturges – Sullivan’s Travels
Avildsen – Rocky
Peckinpah – The Wild Bunch
Friedkin – The French Connection
Lee – Do The Right Thing
Wenders – Paris, Texas
Cassavetes – A Woman Under the Influence
McTiernan – Die Hard
Scott – Blade Runner
Mackendrick – The Sweet Smell of Success
Sirk – Written on the Wind
Walsh – White Heat
Cukor – Philadelphia Story
Fleming – Gone With The Wind
Nolan – Memento
Mankiewicz – All About Eve
De Palma – The Untouchables
Laughton – Night of the Hunter
Deren – short experimental films
Edwards – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Brooks – Blazing Saddles
Renoir – French Cancan, Rules of the Game
Truffaut – Jules and Jim, 400 Blows
Jacques Demi – Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,
Godard – Breathless, Weekend
Bresson – Pickpocket
Ophuls – The Earrings of Madame de
Vigo – L’Atalante
Rohmer – A Summer’s Tale
Cocteau – Beauty and the Beast
Carne – Children of Paradise
Fellini – La Strada, 8 ½
De Sica – Bicycle Thieves
Pasolini – The Gospel According to Saint Matthew
Leone – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Visconti – White Nights
Rossellini – Rome Open City
Kurosawa – The Seven Samurai, Rashomon
Mizoguchi – Ugetsu Monogatari, Life of Oharu
Ozu – Tokyo Story
Powell and Pressburger – The Red Shoes
Kubrick – 2001: A Space Odyssey
Jones – Life of Brian
Loach – Kes
Lee – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Hu – Come Drink with Me
Yang – Confucian Confusion
Wai – Chungking Express
Lang – M
Fassbinder – Berlin Alexanderplatz
Eisenstein – Battleship Potemkin
Tarkovski – Andrei Rublev
Bunuel – Los Olvidados (w Un Chien Andalou)
Del Toro – Pan’s Labyrinth
Ray – Panthar Panchali
Bergman – The Seventh Seal
Arcand – Jesus of Montreal
Almadovar – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Axel – Babette’s Feast
Kiarostami – Where is the Friend’s House?
Ouedraogo – Yaaba
©Chris Philpott 2012. All rights reserved. Original designs and content by Kathleen Breedyk and Chris Philpott.
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