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[whitespace] 'Citizen Kane' A Giant Among Films: 'Citizen Kane,' Orson Welles' 1941 classic, dwarfs the competition for Top 10 Films of the Century (and even of the millennium).


A Cinematic Centenary

What one film critic would say if someone held a gun to his head and demanded to know the top 10 films of the century

By Richard von Busack

The best 10 movies of the century? How can you judge that, when the last three months of 1999 may well produce the 10 best films ever made? It could happen. 'Scream III,' for instance--the film they least suspected ...

And who can judge without seeing each and every one? Of the films of the last 20 years, I've put only one film on this 10 best list. I'm going to wait and see how Blue Velvet and The Sweet Hereafter hold up to the test of time. If the films here seem skewed toward pre-1960, it's mostly because these films have stood up so well to that test. Anton Walbrook's line in La Ronde (1950) sums up my sentiments about cinema history: "I adore the past. It's much more restful than the present. And much more reliable than the future."

Nobody ever really has to make a top 10 movie list, though. It's always top nine. Let's take Citizen Kane (1941) out of the competition. Commentators always make Citizen Kane's greatness sound as intimidating as any other type of monumental art. In Citizen Kane the exuberance of American cinema meets a controlling intelligence as powerful as its own forcefulness. As a match of forces, then, watching Citizen Kane is like seeing Hoover Dam--something else that sounds boring but is actually really exciting.

Simply put, the film is the story of a media king's rise and decline, but it's so subtle that the media king who owns Citizen Kane today doesn't understand it. On the American Film Institute Top 100 broadcast, I saw Ted Turner surmise that the message of the film was "be nice to people or you'll die alone." Unless we're lucky enough to be killed in a massacre, we all die alone. The movie is not nearly as simple and dumb as a lesson in manners. It's most interesting when it talks about the considerable problem of populism in America: the chimping-down of political ideas so that the little guy can understand them, and the problem of what gets lost and corrupted in that overly simple translation. What Turner should be paying special attention to are Joseph Cotton's lines about how freedom isn't something that can be donated, like a present from the heights to us dwellers in the depths.

After Citizen Kane the top 10 are:

The Big Sleep (1946). Get the feeling that the majority of today's filmmakers are scared of women? Blame the life cycle of the mainstream filmmaker: from socially retarded film-school nerd to producer, unmanned by a multimillion-dollar divorce. So. Observe the level gaze between Bogart's Phillip Marlowe and Bacall's Vivian Sternwood. The film is the epitome of cool. And director Howard Hawks lets the audience know it's cool just for being there. I'm not saying that I have some sort of adolescent longing for the emotionless pose of Bogart. I'd just like to see that level gaze between men and women again, somewhere in the movies today.

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu) (1954). The best film ever made about slavery. A captured lord's son and his sister are enslaved, and his mother becomes a whore for fishermen. A fairy-tale-like turn of events enables the son to exact revenge. Having only a limited interest in samurai, I'm giving Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece the place usually ceded to Akira Kurosawa--despite the tremendous qualities of The Seven Samurai. This film is not about bushido (the way of the blade) or honor, but mercy: "Without mercy, a man is not a human being."

The Earrings of Madame de ... (1953). I'm giving this the Rules of the Game spot. I'd echo critic Otis Ferguson's complaint that Rules director Jean Renoir isn't good when it comes to indicating the passage of time in his films. I know it's a minor complaint about such a major filmmaker, but director Max Ophuls is lovable not just in spirit and text, but in form, in camera virtuosity. The Earrings of Madame de ... is material similar to Rules of the Game's study of the pose that refreezes: Danielle Darrieux as an improvident countess with a pair of bad-luck earrings which are instrumental in destroying her marriage of convenience with a military officer (Charles Boyer). A variation of the story of Anna Karenina, this is the highlight of a week's worth of Ophuls brought back for a retrospective in the first week of October at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.

To Be or Not to Be (1942). This Ernst Lubitsch film--imitated and muddied by Mel Brooks--has a laugh at World War II. It features the terrific, understated talents of Jack Benny, grave and hilarious as Joseph Tura, a Polish ham who plays Hamlet. Benny embodies that saying of Marlon Brando's that "an actor is someone who, if you ain't talking about him, he ain't listening." To Be or Not to Be is also here because it's one of the few affectionate screen treatments of an adulterous woman (Carole Lombard, at her best) during the reign of the censors. All this, plus the best of all German comedians, Sig Ruman, as the man they call "Concentration Camp" Erhart.

M (1931). In Berlin, a murderer has killed nine children. The hunt for the killer has disrupted the criminal world to the point where even the criminals are organizing a posse. Fritz Lang was the master of German expressionism, not just because of his composition, but because of his cinematic economy and speed. And, strangely, Lang represents all that most audiences know of silent film, since his Metropolis has to be counted as the most revived and most popular of all silent films today. M is better, though, thanks to Peter Lorre's heart-breaking emoting as the compulsive killer. When Lorre's M is unearthed at last, he's an abject little man, considerably smaller than life. Our movies revel in the idea of superhuman serial killers, and yet nothing in the past 70 years has improved upon Lang and Lorre's understanding of the helplessness of a psycho.

Night of the Hunter (1955). A symbolist nightmare story of bad religion, featuring Robert Mitchum's Preacher, the worst of all monsters to appear on screen. Preacher, who kills to get his hands on a dead man's cache of money, has the words "Good" and "Evil" tattooed on his knuckles. He gets a rise out of his flock by finger-wrestling, to show his listeners the conflict. The wisest woman in the film (Lillian Gish) understands the real message of this "battle" between good and evil--that the two forces are but the hands of one unseen power. And director Charles Laughton explains this duality in one unforgettable scene of Gish and Mitchum harmonizing on "Bringing in the Sheaves" together as Preacher stands in her front yard, waiting for her to fall asleep.

High Hopes (1988). Mike Leigh's comedy about the dashing of hopes and the slight, unexpected stirrings of new ones. A motorbike messenger (Philip Davis) and his wife (Ruth Sheen) are trying to make a living in today's London. They're pushed by gentrifiers and pulled by the pressure to have a child in a world that might be too selfish for children. As the messenger's near-senile mom, Edna Dore gives one of the most uncompromised pictures I've ever seen of what it's like to face old age. A bitter comedy, and, like all great movies, it's partially funny; yet the intimacy of two small-time lives is observed with compassion and sadness.

Taxi Driver (1976). I'm putting this on the list even though it's one of the most misunderstood of modern movies. Audiences are always getting precisely the wrong message out of this, seeing DeNiro's Travis Bickle as a fierce warrior hero who finally cleans the scum out of Times Square, making it safe for the crowds to see The Lion King. Scorsese's much-imitated story of the boxed-in Bickle is actually more like the diary of a madman. Everything he sees is a form of untrustworthy narration. Taxi Driver is the best of the Sourpuss Seventies in movies, summing up the decade's ambiance of corruption, decay and mania.

Sherlock, Jr./The General (1924/1927). A tie. The first is Buster Keaton's story of a movie projectionist's dreams of being a detective; a story that's the framework for the smartest analysis of how movies work and how they beguile us. It was one of Keaton's least popular films in its time, because the comedy is rarefied; yet the ending is one of the most beautiful in the movies: a note about how, no matter how much you depend on movies for guidance, it comes time to go it alone. The General is more technically difficult but simpler; a towering, evil-comic war story. In all of the good anti-war movies that have been made, who ever matched Keaton's ability to sketch out not just the nobility that war occasions, but also the sick slapstick pranks it pulls on a soldier?

North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock deserves a top 10 of his own: this, plus Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes, The Birds, The 39 Steps, Notorious ... but this one is my favorite, even over Vertigo. I was a San Franciscan for almost a decade, but I've been an American all my life. This movie summed up Hitchcock's American films, according to the director. There's some meat in the Taming of the Squire sequences in which the suave rotter Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) gets treated like a trick who won't leave. But mostly, North by Northwest is a surreal version of the pioneer's journey, the frontier tall-tale elements of Grant's mad dash: from the temperance fantasy of the city villains who force you to drink to the perilous train-trip to the prairies, where a single biplane symbolizes thousands of locusts. The film's here also because it has Grant in it, and that's reason enough. He's still the best movie star ever, for comedy and charm and agelessness.

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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