A Roster of Bests

The National Society of Film Critics weighs in with its two cents on movie classics.

According to the press kit that accompanies this new book, another list of must-see movies, it represents a roster of cinematic works that "every filmgoer should know if they want to consider themselves film literate."

Indeed. A little caution is in order. After all, libraries are full of dusty copies of books that made similar attempts in previous years. Tastes and attitudes fluctuate, though, and a movie's stock rises and falls accordingly.

Like-minded endeavors from the 1960s, for instance, tended to hail headachey European directors back when American critics seemed to share a collective shame about the quality and content of Hollywood's output. Only a few years earlier French writers sang the praises of blue-collar Hollywood-types such as Anthony Mann or Sam Fuller, while stateside-scribes could find nothing better to boast about than the over-important melodrama churned out by "artists" like Stanley Kramer.

And so it goes. L'Avventura, The Grande Illusion, 8, Personna, Last Year at Marienbad, The Conformist and countless other somber European yardsticks all enjoyed lofty spots in the eyes of movie lizards for years. They formed a cultural-curtain American cineaphiles could only aspire to. But that was then. In this new book, none of those once-revered titles even make the cut.

Likewise, in past years, critics couldn't get enough of Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman or Jean Renoir. These heavy hitters routinely logged two, three, even four flicks on the typical "best" list. In The A List, a single entry represents each of these noted directors. (In the case of Ford and Chaplin, this may be because their brand sticky sentimentality has not aged well.) Supposedly, the "rules" of this intellectual exercise dictate only one film per director; however, the double hurrahs that Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg and others get negate that premise.

Meanwhile the yardarm of tastes blows both ways.

In years past Hollywood yeomen like William Wellman and Raoul Walsh never got the respect they deserve, so it's nice to see their work included in The A List. Likewise, in spite of his impressive resume, John Huston has always been snubbed by eggheads after the French dismissed him as a Hollywood hack, rather than a true "auteur." The A-List corrects that slight by giving The Maltese Falcon its due. (Huston's skin-crawling performance in Chinatown is also rightly praised.)

Of course this cinematic game of musical chairs is to be expected. There must be some unwritten rule of silver screen Darwinism that holds movies are supposed to get better and as they improve, they will naturally knock past champions off the throne. But movies aren't getting better, if The A List is an indication. Most of the films in this collection are pre-1970. It appears that many neglected oldies --like the genuinely tough Public Enemy--are looking better than their modern day high-ticket, corporate-produced counterparts.

Some of the "newer" titles that do receive an "essential" nod are questionable. The inclusion of L.A.Confidential seems like a joke. Smart-ass pop noirs such as the Coen Brother's Fargo and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction are obvious and over-rated choices, reflecting the bandwagon mentality among aging but desperate-to-be-cool movie pundits. (Undoubtedly in years to come the work of Hollywood grown-ups such as Michael Mann and Philip Kaufman will carry far more weight than their adolescent peers now do.)

On the other hand, it's hard to argue with the well-written tributes that Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Zhang Yimou's Ju Do, and Stephen Spielberg's Schindler's List receive.

In fact, the writing is exceptional throughout, even if the choices are not. Roger Ebert makes 1925's Battleship Potemkin sound fresh. John Anderson finds new things to love about Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. And Michael Wilmington may just have a point in his celebration of The Wild Bunch.

Even better are the less-obvious selections. The inclusion of Winchester 73, Jailhouse Rock, The Bank Dick, Enter the Dragon and Diner reassure the reader that these big name scribblers didn't just phone in their selections or aim only for highbrow tastes. Instead they went to bat for some offbeat flicks.

A few years ago, Brit writer David Thomson noted that Citizen Kane was not only the best movie ever made, but also the best movie that will ever be made. It's the kind of chip-on-the-shoulder remark that sparks and kills an argument all at once. Thomson, sadly, is not included in this book, but plenty of his colleagues are and they obviously have a lot of fun provoking similar high-minded shoving matches.