Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Top Ten

Okay, you know it's a slow week when I post a blog about my top 10 movies that people should watch. I'm also working on a rewrite for that person I mentioned in an earlier blog and am doing quite well on it.

Shirley's gone to Lone Pine and Death Valley for a few days and I'm also working on a budget for Chaser as well as a potential investor for Travel Day. Just when you think it's gone, it comes back in the form of some oil people who might, just might decide to finance a movie.

Notice I didn't say "best movies of all time". No, these are the movies that influenced me and I'll tell you how and why. And as expected, they're pretty much old movies as very few influence me anymore. 

These movies were the ones I would  have wanted to write or make. They influenced me in terms of dialog, character, story and so many other things. They made me want to be in this business.

Here goes. 

The Searchers (1956) probably made the biggest impact on me and has continued to be a major influence on my wanting to make movies. It's a western made in 1956 by John Ford, a director who won 6 Academy awards. Still a record.

It's an epic story set against the magnificent landscape of Monument Valley with John Wayne playing his best role, that of a bigoted, war-torn veteran of the Civil War who goes on a classic 5-year journey to find his niece, taken by Commanche Indians.

Ford had a way with story; he would add character to even the smallest role by using metaphors and leaving some aspects unrevealed, which made the characters only stronger. My brother Dave and I often quote dialog from the movie in emails.

Ironically, in the 1970's, I learned that a lot of other filmmakers chose The Searchers as one of their major influences. These included Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorceses, Peter Bogdonovich, Francis Coppola and George Lucas (who actually shot a scene in his last Star Wars movie that was a copy of a scene in The Searchers). 
Best line: "That''ll be the day". (rumored to have inspired Buddy Holly's song)

Two For The Road (1967) is arguably the best film on marriage ever made. It stars Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as a married couple on the verge of breakup. The story happens in 3 different times, the present when they are bitter and unhappy, in the recent past when they are beginning to get bitter, the past when they were married and the long gone past when they met.

The transitions are seamless as the story uses road trips to show their falling in and out of love. The scenery, shot in Europe is an added bonus. The screenplay by Frederic Raphael is minimalist at best, some scenes have only one or two lines of dialog.  Best line: Marc: What kind of people just sit in a restaurant and don't say one word to each other? Joanna: Married people."

The Deerhunter (1978) brings a world I know into focus. The Vietnam era film follows 3 Eastern European young men as they leave their factory town to go to Vietnam. With Robert DeNiro and first-timer Meryl Streep and a great cast, this movie reflects very much the people I knew in Detroit, my cousin and his friends and my own Eastern European background. 
Best line: Stanley, see this, this is this".

The Parallax View(1974) is probably the most paranoid movie I've ever seen. Starring Warren Beatty at his prime, it offers a well-constructed conspiracy theory to the assassination of a political figure. Beatty, a reporter begins to notice people he knows are dying in strange but seemingly believable accidents. What connects them is the fact they were all at the scene of the JFK-like assassination.

The movie never really explains much, which makes it that much more frightening. Dialog is minimal and the feeling that someone is watching you even followed me after I left the theater. A great political thriller, similar to All The President's Men but goes further. 
Best line: "I'm dead, Bill, I just want to stay that way for awhile."

My Darling Clementine (1946) is another western from John Ford and almost equals the epic theme that The Searchers did. It's based on the real life Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone. While it takes liberty with the true story, it creates a mythology that goes way beyond a simple cowboy movie.

With Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan and Ward Bond, it's a story of revenge and the contradiction of those who fight for the law and those who fight against it. Again shot in Monument Valley and in fantastic black & white film, it transcends it's genre.Best line: "Wide awake, wide open town, Tombstone, you can get anything you want there."

Bullit (1968) is another great example of a film transcending it's genre. While on the surface a regular cop movie, it had Steve McQueen who brought a quiet yet intense quality to the role. And of course the famous chase scene in which McQueen did at a major part of the driving.

This was the first really amazing car chase scene and, filmed on the winding and hilly streets of San Francisco, with no CGI effects. What you see is real. You lose yourself in the story, it's as confusing as Chinatown, but it doesn't matter because McQueen, nicknamed "the King of Cool" is leading you.

So inspired by the movie, I bought a green 1968 Mustang fastback of my own. Best line: Frank, we must all compromise".

The Candidate(1972) is another, almost forgotten film of the late 1960's dealing with the trade-off of political candidates. With handsome Robert Redford at his height, it tells the story of a JFK-ish son of a politician who is cajoled into running for the US Senate against a conservative candidate.

Interestingly the movie is timeless in it's portrayal of politicians, nothing has changed today,except for cell phones. And the ending is frighteningly accurate now as it was then. Best line: "Ed: You're the democratic nominee? Bill: "you make it sound like a death sentence."

The Wind and the Lion (1975)is another period piece, set in early 1900's and deals with an American woman held hostage by a Moroccan tribal leader. While based on a true story it was wildly enhanced by its writer/director John Milius who also wrote at least a few versions of the screenplay for Apocolypse Now.

With Sean Connery as the tribal leader and the beautiful Candice Bergen as the hostage, the movie is a sweeping epic (as they say) set in the North African desert and Washington DC where Brian Keith does the best Teddy Roosevelt ever on film. Best line: (to Theodore Roosevelt... "you are like the wind and I like the lion."

Mean Streets (1973) which is one of Martin Scorceses earlier features, his most accomplished up to that date. It's a great study of what would evolve to his other films later on. With a very young Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel, it tells the story of 20's wannabe gangsters who live in New York's Italian section. Shot for very little, the characters take the lead in their motivation and dialog and it often rambles but still has an energy that Scorceses never lost. best line: Johnny: We don't pay mooks". Pool player: What's a mook?"

Husbands (1970) is, to my mind, John Cassavetes's best film. It's a study of 3 friends who lose a 4th friend and decide to go on a week-long binge of drinking, fighting and trying to figure out what is left in their own lives. Shot in a documentary style and supposedly improvised (although there was a screenplay), it's a totally revealing study of people as only Cassavettes could do.

Cassavetes directed and also played one roll and Ben Gazarra and Peter Falk played the other two. There are scenes that feel like they are real, that we're watching real people and not actors. At times it's you almost feel voyeuristic in watching these men strip away the safety nets of their lives as they look for answers to their own lives. Some scenes go on forever, but the intensity never leaves the screen. Best line: "Don't believe truth, Archie, just don't believe truth."

There you go.

Next week: More about making our movie.


  1. I never have a top ten of anything Jim and maybe no favourites in any other walk of life - not even a favourite child - but looking at your list I notice that one of them there I really like and it is The Searchers; I have played it so many times that my son actually knows the entire script - another great one is The Quiet Man which, I suppose, would be on an instant list if someone would ask me out of the blue.
    But I am surprised that there is no 'High Noon' or even one of The Godfather movies in your list or Annie Hall.
    Just goes to show that we're not all the same.
    The big surprise is that I am the first comment; I expected there to be a plethora of comments on this subject.

  2. Annie Hall is a great movie, but I couldn't write it, and my choices are based on what I would have loved to have written, or to be able to write like. Same as Godfather, I wouldn't know how to begin to write that movie.

    I could probably add another ten or so as well, but they would be more suited to my abilities as a writer.