In composing a Top Ten list to celebrate the tenth anniversary of an endeavour I've only been a part of for six (six of the most creatively fulsome and rewarding years of my life in this profession, I might add), I ran through a chum-load of possible topics. I thought long and hard about cannibal films--not just natives dancing around a pot in old jungle screamers, but actual on-screen depictions, the hook being that after so many words, I'm probably just cannibalizing myself nowadays. I considered using this as an excuse to write about ten movies I couldn't slot into any particular Top 10 list. At a low moment, I even toyed with doing ten flicks I was wrong about the first time around. But then it occurred to me that the best way to honour a collaboration as important to me as mine has been with Bill (for my writing, for clarifying--to whatever extent that it's clear--my thinking) would be to set down a list of ten films that were, at various points in my life, seminal to the way I think. Ten pictures that are for me like those railroad track junctures leading off into different destinations--not the ten that you necessarily need to see to experience a similar revelation, but the ten that I did. The change in direction hasn't always been easy, some were more like wrecks than like rivulets, but here are ten personal milestones as FFC crosses the threshold of its first decade on the Internet.-Walter Chaw
10. Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis)
Claire Denis' apocalyptic take on both the banality and reward of companionate love addresses the bestial roots of passion before taking on the terms of endearment we use to leash it. Vincent Gallo is extraordinary as the vacuum at the picture's dark core--and I don't know of a better illustration of what it means to love and fuck and grow old together in the tempest of the temporary. I saw this in a private screening at Boulder's International Film Series; later that week, the only public screening of the film in Colorado saw a few hysterics, including a young woman who locked herself in the bathroom and refused to be coaxed out for hours afterward. For me, the picture is the possibility of cinema as anthropology and as high art--a reminder, at a relatively late date, that there are still things that can get under the skin if the medium is wielded like a scalpel by a surgeon. Odd that a few knock-offs appeared not long after it. Not so odd is the cult that has gathered around it.
9. The Killer (1989, John Woo)
John Woo's ballet of bloodlust. The dubbed version with Brother Chow screaming "Dumbo!" as bloody tears stream down his cheeks was met with howls of drunken approval at my first screening of it in CU Boulder's Muenzinger Auditorium. I taught my pals that night how to say "shoot him again" in Mandarin (not knowing at that moment that Woo shot his pictures in Cantonese), and for probably the first time in my life felt a distinct pride in being Chinese in Colorado. Folks only familiar with Woo from his American output are missing the indescribable romantic machismo distilled by the director in his Hong Kong flicks--it doesn't translate. Yellow Power, man, and the wasting of Chow in this summer's Pirates of the Caribbean threequel is disappointing for sure. But that he's there at all is a result of this and other collaborations with Woo. I was ecstatic to hear that Chow is back in the fold with Woo's Chinese epic The Battle of Red Cliff.
8. Dragonslayer (1981, Matthew Robbins)
I hid under the seat for most of my first two viewings of Matthew Robbins' Dragonslayer--a picture I demanded to see because, unless I'm mistaken, I believed it to be some sort of sequel to Pete's Dragon. (A belief that, among other things, confirms that eight-year-olds are almost without exception stupid in the larger sense.) Little did I know that this "Disney" picture featured a flash of full-frontal nudity, a beautiful princess consumed by a litter of baby dragons, and the death of one--make that two--kindly father figures. A special-effects dry run for the groundbreaking stop-motion work of Return of the Jedi, its beastie Vermithrax Pejorative is pathetic in its majestic, pagan glory. It's helpless in the face of the encroaching Christianity, says one read, but for me at that moment, not-yet-weaned from a steady diet of Disney heroes slaying their shadows in a series of deeply-destructive problem-solving scenarios, it was a shot in the pants of that old-time atheism. I was terrified of the dragon, but I don't recall ever wishing it dead. The marvel of Dragonslayer and secret movie-brat Robbins' direction and script is that it proposes a happy ending that's not at all happy. The more I learn about myself through the movies, the better it gets.
7. Marnie (1964, Alfred Hitchcock)
I didn't really understand Hitchcock until I saw The Birds and then, soon after it, Marnie. You get a sense of the formalist (the auto-formalist, maybe) from stuff like North by Northwest and Notorious, but you don't get a full sense of Hitch's sly, unrepentant wickedness until you view his work through the prism of his Tippi Hedren pictures. I'd go so far as to say that Marnie is the Rosetta Stone for all of his pictures: you turn to North by Northwest for a sense of how Hitchcock's clockwork is wound; but you look at Marnie for a little sulphur whiff of the infernal electricity that makes the clockwork turn over. Tippi in this one is raped, and the whole sea reflects her change outside a porthole while Sean Connery--the dim, dashing rake cast perfectly at last--saves an empty glass cage in his room for her, his next and greatest trophy. Just as The Birds is Hitch's domestication fantasy for wild Tippi, all of a feminized nature arrayed against her wild individuation, Marnie is menstrual fear, sexual paranoia, and the price of carnality against the life of the mind. Though it's as much about artifice and illusion as any of the Master's treatises on the theme, it was my long-in-coming epiphany that the gateway to the secrets of the flesh is through the eyes of the artist.
6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata)
Isao Takahata's devastating war idyll Grave of the Fireflies was the singular event in my turning the corner on a fairly unquestioned bigotry against the Japanese. Raised in a household where a good portion of my mother's side of the family was fed to the Nipponese grinder in Nanking, I was, through glances and smirks and possibly even direct comments, bred to hate the Japanese. Watching this film for the first time my senior year in college, I came to terms at last with a lot of things I just took as plain truth and found myself confronted with the ugliness of my assumptions. The picture is so good on its own that it doesn't need much further endorsement from me: it's not just the best animated film ever made, it's one of the best films ever made in any medium. But for me, the switch that turned over in my heart has rippled into the way I look at everything in my adult life; things are never black-and-white, and the tactics of dehumanization make all manner of atrocity possible. Take the punditry of the modern day and consider something wonderfully acidic Melvin Van Peebles said to me in regards to bigotry in mainstream culture: how it's always possible to isolate our next enemy by identifying the "nigger" in our pictures.
5. Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)
A houseguest asked once, while searching my library for a film to watch, if Jean-Luc Godard's neo-noir Alphaville was a good choice. My wife warned: "It's not conventionally entertaining." Fair enough. Indeed, more than fair--a quick look at most of my collection shows that the DVDs I keep are likewise not conventionally entertaining and, in the case of this selection, almost aggressive in their desire to not be conventionally liked. I saw Alphaville for the first time in college and it opened a door for me. It inspired, of all things, research, not into whether such and such a character was really real or this event happened or what have you, but into precepts of critical theory that I'd been using as reference points in the study of British Romanticist and Modernist poetry. The picture connected the dots, so to speak, allowing a dim student to finally understand that all the strategies that have been used for centuries to decode the sublimity of great works could be applied to bear fruit from film. A great picture by one of the great film theorists (talking about Alphaville or Week End or Breathless in terms of signs and signifiers is easy enough: they're textbooks already)--and if the case could be made that movies carry within them the same seeds as music or letters or brush strokes, then movies must also carry within them the possibility to understand the meaning of an individual's life. Of the critical life.
4. Revenge of the Nerds (1984, Jeff Kanew)
The first time I saw female full-frontal nudity once I was capable of assimilating what it was; my VHS tape became one of the most prized onanistic totems of my adolescence. Revenge of the Nerds has gathered around it a wealth of scholarship since its release because, more so than the oeuvres of Sylvia Krystal or Deborah Foreman, there's something genuinely sticky about the thing. The way that it equalizes gay people, and blacks, and women; the way that Darth Vader is turned into a literal rapist for a generation of boys like me secretly titillated by the fetishistic promise of his cyborg, insect carapace; the way that, the way that... Look, it's a hell of a film, and it holds up now as not a masturbation aid, but a scalpel for the dissection of the way that film is voyeurism incarnate: justification for voyeurism; idealization of voyeurism; and perfection of voyeurism. Too, it's a nutshell of why pornography's genres are such useful tabs for our real peccadilloes. A peek at what we hide between our mattresses reveals the taboos tattooed on our bestial pelts: miscegenation, pedophilia, sodomy, humiliation, promiscuity, water sports--you find these things in Revenge of the Nerds, encapsulated in the moment where a weak, physically ineffectual young man takes on the mantel of the Dark Lord of the Sith to rape a grateful Betty.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
A lot of movies made me feel scared; Apocalypse Now was the first movie to make me feel awful. Was it Coppola himself who said it's not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam? Call this film the gateway drug for all the films of the 1970s in the United States, our very own Aguirre: The Wrath of God about the limits (should we call it "limitlessness"?) of man's ambitions in art and life. It's the siren's call to a period in our cinema (say, 1967-1981) that should be considered, with seriousness, the best of any in any place at any time. Before it, I had equated the decade with bad fashion and Blaxploitation, with Clint Eastwood in monkey movies, with the Burt Reynolds of Smokey and the Bandit and not of Deliverance; and a uniform grain to the film stock just couldn't hold a candle to the slick comfort of the 1980s blockbusters that were my celluloid teat. I looked at the period with ignorance and disdain--and then I saw this movie, which feels depraved in a way that few films, especially ones that try to be depraved, do. More than that, the picture sparked in a younger me an interest in T.S. Eliot that eventually led to more general avenues of study while strengthening the bond that film has with an idea of the Sublime in art. If you don't get chills listening to Brando recite lines from "The Hollow Man", you might have a nerve missing.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
I stood in line for two hours to see this film and was rewarded with one of the most miserable moviegoing experiences of my life. What the fuck is this? Luke, behanded; Han in carbonite; Lando not in carbonite; Vader is Luke's mf'ing dad; the Republic in tatters; and then it's over?! Since the wait for relief was interminable, my buddies and I declared The Empire Strikes Back the worst movie ever, resolutely replaying the action of the picture with our now-priceless action figures, be-handing Darth instead and throwing Boba Fett into dry ice punch bowls, thus proving the maxim that you should never give the public what it thinks it wants. If only Lucas had remembered that before forging ahead--and backwards in his special editions. (Though to be fair, he started destroying his legacy with Return of the Jedi.) What The Empire Strikes Back did was make me a blockbuster junkie. With Star Wars the first movie I ever saw in a theatre, the anticipation I felt for "the next one" was my first taste of delirious anticipation. (Those long summers of youth, you know, they go too fast, but time is elastic in a way that it doesn't seem to be anymore.) When I think about The Dark Knight, I get that same tingle--I get it for the new Coen Brothers flick, too, especially because it's an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. In every way, this first sequel is The First Sequel: the reason I love movies--and, hindsight and age being what they are, it remains the only artistically viable film in the Star Wars saga.
1. The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
I've constructed a sort of personal mythology around this picture--I'm asked about it often in my public-speaking ("What's your favourite movie?") and I think it surprises people that I actually have a favourite movie. The preface is always that The Conversation might not be the best film, but it's the single most important film in my decision to try out this movie-critic thing professionally. A product of Walter Murch taking over final cut after Paramount backed a dump-truck full of money up to Coppola's door to make The Godfather Part II, it's not finished in the most perfect way imaginable. Still, it cemented in me this lingering belief in authorship in film, and it was the first time, truly, that I began to feel I had ideas about movies that were exciting enough to share. Harry Caul (the name actually an accident--the picture also suggests divinity between the sprockets) is Gene Hackman's quintessential creation: the listener, he is the purity of the actor's craft. The course of the film is a test of fidelity philosophical and technological, while a remarkable cameo by Teri Garr is full of the weight of loneliness that a lot of '70s cinema only hints at. The story is simplicity itself (a dame, a murder, a hero in a trenchcoat), but the execution is as circular and damning as David Shire's piano score. It's the breakthrough in therapy and, six years later, I'm still clicking.
Also: Near Dark, Miracle Mile, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Gandhi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Last Year at Marienbad, Grand Illusion, Peeping Tom, The Life of Colonel Blimp, Hana-Bi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Once Upon a Time in the West, Die Hard, Predator, Killer of Sheep, The Thin Blue Line, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Rescuers