Of the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die, 533 are from the US. That’s not an exact figure, of course – these days, with film production companies from different nations often doing deals to back a movie, it makes it difficult to say a movie is categorically from one nation or another. Even so, for over half of the list – which, admittedly, is clearly aimed at Anglophone film-goers – to be from a single country is a bit much. And, as I’ve discovered, a lot of the US movies just aren’t really that good.
For the record, France scores next highest, with 102 movies; then it’s the UK at 82; then Italy at 42; Germany at 33; Japan 26; USSR/Russia 19; Australia and Sweden 13 each; Hong Kong 12; and Spain and India with 10 apiece. The countries of the rest of the world have less than ten films each on the list.
Think about that: India, which Wikipedia describes as “the largest producer of films in the world”, provides only 1% of the list – and of those ten movies, four are by Satyajit Ray and two by Ritwik Ghatak (both of whom have been critically lauded in the West), one is a silent (and actually by German director Franz Osten), and only three are Bollywood. There is also a single film from Egypt – the largest film producer of the Arabic-speaking world (three-quarters of all Arabic-language films were made in Egypt). While I will admit the only Bollywood films I have seen are two of the three on the list – and I really liked Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge – but I have seen a number of Arabic films – I’m a big fan of Palestinian director Elia Sulieman – though not very many from Egypt.
But then the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list seems to be a weird mix of populist movies and popular auteur films. Some directors appear far too often, some not often enough. There are some films which are historically important, and some which display innovative cinematic techniques. But a good many of the movies on the list really don’t deserve to be on it, and there are far better, and more important, choices the list-makers could have chosen…
And as if in illustration, this post features four US movies from the list, none of which rightly belongs on it.
The Phantom Carriage*, Victor Sjöström (1921, Sweden). I can appreciate films that are clearly important in the development of cinema, and while they may prove difficult viewing to present-day audiences, it does not usually take too much of a leap of imagination to realise how the film might have played to a contemporary audience. And so to The Phantom Carriage. I suspect “Pepper’s ghost” was an illusion not unfamiliar to audiences in the 1920s, but to see the cinematic equivalent – double exposure – no doubt impressed because of the newness of the medium. And it’s certainly used to good effect in this film. The story itself is a typical piece of Gothic hokum, although it makes extensive use of flashbacks – which is certainly daring in a silent film. I suspect this is a movie which will need a couple of watches to fully appreciate. Worth seeing.
Testament of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau (1960, France). I really like Cocteau’s Orpheus, the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy, although I wonder how coherent a trilogy the three films make. Testament of Orpheus, for example, is actually Cocteau revisiting the themes and motifs of Orpheus, but without actually bothering with plot, characters or anything else so bourgeois. None of which is especially a bad thing. But Orpheus has the advantage of subtext – one that the film actually makes text at certain points – which is the German Occupation of France. And Testament of Orpheus often turns to the surrealist imagery of The Blood of a Poet, and fails to make good use of it in the context of its story. Cocteau has been travelling through time, but materialises in 1959 and persuades a scientist to kill him with a special gun so that he can remain permanently in that time. But it doesn’t go as planned, and Cocteau finds himself halfway between the real world and a fantasy world in which elements of Orpheus appear – including its characters. There’s plenty of dream-logic at work, which is heightened by the use of camera tricks such as filming in reverse. The use of a sound-stage and assorted ruins as sets only adds to the meta-fictional nature of the film. It’s a talky movie, more concerned with philosophy than drama, which makes for slow viewing. But it’s also a clever film, and makes some witty points about the medium of film and even poetry. I still prefer Orpheus, but this one comes a close second.
Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould*, François Girard (1993, Canada). I knew nothing about this film or its subject before watching it. I don’t listen to classical music, and wouldn’t know one eighteenth century composer’s works from another’s. But good documentaries make you care for their subject irrespective of any actual interest you might have had previously. And in that respect Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould succeeds admirably. It is helped by two factors: one, its subject is actually an interesting person, and two, it has chosen to document its topic in an unusual mannner. Glenn Gould was a renowned concert pianist from Canada, but also an insightful and prolific commentator on a number of topics. The film is structured, as its title suggests, as a series of short movies about Gould, ranging from fly-on-the-wall to talking heads to weird animation. And it totally works. Hunt down a copy and watch it.
The Ballad of Narayama*, Shohei Imamura (1983, Japan). There are some films that are clearly well-made, admirable even, but something about the story prevents you from liking them. Such is the case with The Ballad of Narayama. It is a nasty, horrible film. Albeit a well-made one. It’s set in a small village in nineteenth century Japan. It is the practice in the village for old people when they reach the age of seventy to walk to a nearby mountain and remain there until they starve to death. And if they won’t go voluntarily… One old woman is approaching her seventieth birthday, and much of the film is about her family as they scrabble to survive in poverty. She has decided she will go with dignity, and so spends her last year arranging her affairs. The various characters are mostly mean and despicable. One smells so bad, no one will have anything to do with him. A young woman with a burn scar on her face will happily sleep with any man, and is treated badly them by all as a result. One man has already tried starving his old father, in an effort to encourage him to head for the mountain. I really didn’t like this film, and I have no desire to ever watch it again.
Short Cuts*, Robert Altman (1993, USA). Altman appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list six times – as well as Short Cuts, there’s The Player, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe And Mrs Miller and M*A*S*H. There’s perhaps one that actually belongs there – I’d vote for McCabe And Mrs Miller. Short Cuts, however, is one of those films were a number of intersecting stories sort of, er, intersect and er, prove, well, nothing really. The cast list is impressive, as is indeed the case for most Altman films. The plot, such as it is, involves a series of small stories which cross and intersect , which seems to be an Altman thing, but I can’t barely remember the details – and I suspect some of them I’ve confused with The Player. The problem is that all the stories seem little more than scenes in a larger story, when in fact there is no larger story. So you’ve no real idea what the point of the film is, or what happened to beginning, middle and end. I am all for non-traditional narrative structures, but a braided narrative is hardly non-traditional and for it to be effective it really needs to be put to good use. Meh.
How Green Was My Valley*, John Ford (1941, USA). Because of a little thing called World War II, this movie about a small mining village in Wales was actually filmed in California. And in black and white – so the difference wouldn’t be too obvious. Hollywood apparently also had a problem casting actors who could manage a Welsh accent, as most of the cast sound more Irish than Welsh. Except for male lead Walter Pidgeon. He didn’t even try, he just sounds American. Unbelievably, How Green Was My Valley swept the Oscars in its year of release, beating out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion to Best Picture, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Best Director, and also taking home Best Supporting Actor, Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Black-and-White Art Direction. And yet it’s sentimental tosh. It reminded me in many ways of The Quiet Man – another John Ford film starring Maureen O’Hara – whose high regard I find mystifying. I’ve no idea what How Green Was My Valley‘s source novel is like – I imagine it has plenty of social commentary, which Hollywood has buried beneath layers of schmaltz. And yes, there’s lots of singing…
Artists and Models*, Frank Tashlin (1955, USA). I don’t believe this is actually available on DVD – I ended up buying a ripped version of it on eBay for a couple of quid (the seller sent me You’re Never Too Young, another Martin & Lewis film, by mistake, then told me to keep it and sent the right movie). There are many films – and this is becoming an all too common refrain – whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. It’s possible to make a case for Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man – it’s an awful comedy, but the way the camera pulls back and reveals the set as a giant doll’s house is innovative. But I can see nothing in Artists and Models which makes the film in any way interesting or important. Martin plays an out-of-work artist, and Lewis is his comicbook-fan friend. It turns out the artist responsible for Lewis’s favourite character, Bat Lady, lives in their apartment building (her friend, Shirley MacLaine, is the model for Bat Lady). When the artist resigns, Martin applies for the job, using a character invented by Lewis – who dreams the stories, and describes them aloud while sleeping. I find Lewis’s OTT gurning hard to take at the best of times, and he’s in full flow in this movie. Martin is much more watchable – but stick to the Matt Helm films if you want to see him in action. Not a good film.
Cabaret*, Bob Fosse (1972, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz had taken me by surprise – I had not expected to like it as much as I did. Cabaret, I thought I knew more about. I am fairly sure, for one thing, that I have seen the film before, although most likely only in snippets over the past few decades. Sadly, despite my familiarity with bits of it I didn’t take to Cabaret very much. Possibly because Liza Minelli’s character I found annoying, and because it’s impossible to take Michael York seriously as an actor. The musical scenes at the Kit Kat Club were well-staged, although Joel Grey’s emcee was creepily over-the-top. One of All That Jazz‘s strengths was its meta-fictionality, the fact it was a film about making a film, based quite heavily on Fosse’s own experiences – and the final extended dance sequence was the perfect capstone to the high-intensity story which had preceded it. Cabaret, on the other hand, is a straightforward drama enlivened by musical numbers, and not even Minelli, the movie’s setting or its score lifted it for me above other films of its ilk. All That Jazz rightly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’m less convinced Cabaret does.
1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 681