Friday Night Seitz
What if you could only watch the same 10 films and TV shows forever? Compare your list to these classics
“What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957)
Written by Michael Maltese. Directed by Chuck Jones
My pick for the short film I’d take with me to the island. This is not the funniest Warner Bros. cartoon, or even the funniest Chuck Jones cartoon, and yet in my mind it has come to stand for the sum total of the Termite Terrace gang’s accomplishments during the first half of the 20th century — a summation of everything the animators and their characters stood for. It packs a feature film’s worth of invention into seven-plus minutes. It’s one of the greatest Bugs and Daffy shorts, and certainly one of vocal master Mel Blanc’s greatest performances (he even sings — and check out Bugs’ breath control!). It’s masterfully designed, creating a dream space that’s at once abstract and eerily tactile. And it pulls off the amazing trick of simultaneously being a spoof of a certain artistic mode (in this case, Wagnerian opera) and a stirringly unironic example of it. At first, you laugh at Elmer Fudd’s quavering voice, Bugs Bunny’s carrot-chewing sarcasm and obligatory drag disguise, and the sheer grandiosity of the settings (the short seems to be taking place amid the mountains of Vulcan), but by the end, damned if Wagner and that lightning and rain haven’t seduced you; it climaxes in that high-angled shot of Bugs’ corpse haloed by a patch of burned earth, a single rose weeping over him. No matter how many times I watch this cartoon I keep noticing new things, and experiencing a rush of emotion at the end. And of course it’s got one of the best closing lines of any film not directed by Billy Wilder: “Well, what didja expect in an opera? A happy ending?”
“Deadwood: Season 1″ (2004)
Created by David Milch
This is my pick for the single season of TV that I’d take to the island. I’m still bummed over the 2006 cancellation of this David Milch HBO drama, which I’ve described elsewhere as “Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Our Town.’” The intervening years have not dimmed my enthusiasm one whit. It’s simply one of the most atmospheric TV dramas ever aired, creating a fictional space that feels as real as any that you personally know. As profane, dark and frequently brutal as it is, I never tire of thinking about it, because the sheer exuberance and precision of the writing, direction, photography and acting contain fathomless surprises and delights. Strange as it might sound, it’s ultimately an inspiring work, because it shows a community struggling to create itself, and complex and often very troubled characters all grappling, consciously or subconsciously, with their flaws and failures, and striving to be better people — or at least happy. The first season is still the best. There’s not a wasted line or moment, and the season finale is one of the most perfect things it’s ever been my pleasure to see.
“All That Jazz” (1979)
Written by Bob Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur. Directed by Bob Fosse
My favorite musical, and one of my favorite films, period, this semi-autobiographical musical fantasy by director/co-writer/choreographer Bob Fosse was so far ahead of its time that movies still haven’t quite caught up with it (though they’re happy to mimic its razzle-dazzle editing, as “Chicago” and “Nine” proved). It’s got just about everything one could want from a feature film: drama and melodrama, romantic comedy and corrosive satire, dream sequences and musical numbers galore, all building toward that still-audacious final act, which finds choreographer/director/womanizer/scoundrel Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) sloughing off his mortal coil in a “deathbed fantasy” that seems to be taking place in a strip club designed by Federico Fellini. Jessica Lange as the Angel of Death? Oblivion never looked so good.
Written by Martin Scorsese and Nick Pileggi. Directed by Martin Scorsese
As I wrote in a recent slide show about Martin Scorsese’s movies, “the combination of subject matter and choice of narrator makes the film’s style feel stunningly right. Mingling documentary affectation and expressionistic, at times wildly-over-the-top technique, the whole film is composed of virtuoso set pieces — everything from self-contained scenes (the Copacabana tracking shot, the murder of Billy Batts set to Donovan’s ‘Atlantis’ and the subsequent, hilarious visit to Tommy’s mother’s house) to densely structured chapters (the climactic ‘Sunday, May 11, 1980′ section — aka the cocaine sequence — is practically a film in itself). Even the narration is surprising; when Lorraine Bracco’s Karen enters the picture, she takes the voice-over away from Liotta’s Henry.” Not the greatest Scorsese film, or the greatest gangster film, but surely one of the most entertainingly propulsive movies ever made — endlessly quotable, brilliantly written and acted and edited, with one of the finest soundtracks of preexisting pop music ever assembled in one place.
“The Incredibles” (2004)
Written and directed by Brad Bird
I wanted to take at least one animated feature with me, and going into this list, I fully expected it to be a Disney or Hayao Miyazaki movie. This Brad Bird movie made the cut because it’s got that omnibus quality that so often tickles my fancy. It’s a spoof of superhero pictures and straightforward example of same, a satire on domestic life and a family drama about a troubled clan rebuilding itself, a meditation on aging, mortality, morality and responsibility, and one of the greatest action films ever made. Because my son and daughter can’t get enough of this cartoon epic, I’ve probably watched it straight through or in pieces at least 30 times; it never wears out its welcome because there are at least five things going on in every moment: a joke, a sly bit of vocal acting, a marvelous trick of perspective, a dazzling pop-art design touch.
“Koyaanisquatsi: Life out of Balance” (1982)
Directed by Godfrey Reggio
As I wrote in a slide show about the trippiest movies ever made, this abstract documentary by Godfrey Reggio “might be the most accessible and thrilling experimental film ever made, as well as one of the best demonstrations of the associative art of montage. Its power resides entirely in its strikingly composed images, in its bold speed-shifts (alternating slow, fast and regular motion) and in its genius in cutting from one shot to another in ways that make us compare the textures and motions of organic and inorganic subjects … There is beauty and terror in every shot, and poetry.” Plus, Philip Glass. Philip Glass. Philip Glass. Philip Glass. Philip Glass.
“The Long Day Closes” (1992)
Written and directed by Terence Davies
A perfect and heartbreakingly beautiful work, this memoir by Liverpool-based writer/director Terence Davies (still one of the most underrated and underseen great living filmmakers) is a memory piece about his postwar childhood, structured as a series of unabashedly nostalgic and emotionally piercing images, tableaux and sensations. Actual experiences seem to merge with movies and fantasies in the boy’s head; it’s a remembrance, and an imagining, of things past, and it captures the bittersweet act of time-tripping better than any other movie I can think of. I’m convinced that Terrence Malick had it in mind when he directed “The Tree of Life.”
“The New World” (2005)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
I’ve written about this swoony epic Transcendentalist drama about John Smith and Pocahontas so many times, and in so many different venues, that I’m running out of ways to praise it. Suffice to say that it’s my favorite Malick film and my favorite movie, period. For a video essay about the film, click here. For a slide show about Malick’s impact on cinema, click here. For an analysis of Malick’s use of sound, click here. I told you I was obsessed!
“On the Waterfront” (1954)
Written by Budd Schulberg. Directed by Elia Kazan
This movie will probably have a permanent, political asterisk next to its title because its director, Elia Kazan, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, but I think it’s strong enough as a drama, and significant enough as a bridge between studio-bound Old Hollywood and rough-and-tumble New Hollywood, to shake off any complaints one can throw at it. It took me many viewings to finally realize precisely what it was about the film that spoke to me so powerfully: Set aside the political allegory, the melodramatic and film noir and crime picture aspects, and the machinations of the labor struggle, and you’re looking at one of the simplest and most resonant stories imaginable, practically the reason storytelling was invented. Simply put, the hero, Terry Malloy, is pushed into considering the possibility that he is not the person he thought he was, and that in fact there is a much stronger, wiser, more decent person inside him struggling to get out — and then he tears himself open until that person is finally freed, confronting and correcting his delusions and giving up every comfort he believed he couldn’t live without. Many of my favorite films tell some version of this story; few tell it as well as “On the Waterfront.” Plus, Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb. And the pigeons. And the dropped glove. And the contender speech. And Boris Kaufman’s monochrome photography. And Leonard Bernstein’s score. And all those weathered, real-looking faces. One of the all-time great movies.
“Raising Arizona” (1987)
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen. Directed by Joel Coen
Still my favorite Coen brothers movie, and my pick for the funniest and most imaginatively directed comedy. On top of those virtues, it’s a parable of self-improvement and self-sacrifice that cuts more deeply into those themes than more allegedly “serious” films. I also love how the movie finds a new way into western clichés, and makes them mean something to contemporary urban and suburban viewers. As Hi (Nicolas Cage) struggles to put aside his outlaw ways and become a stable partner to his loving wife, Ed (Holly Hunter), we see the John Fordian conflict between civilization and the frontier enacted within a single character — more than one, actually, as Ed, Gale (John Goodman), Evelle (William Forsythe) and even the Biker of the Apocalypse (Randall “Tex” Cobb) all embody aspects of savagery and civilization, and break the law out of a sense of aggrieved injustice that can’t be quenched, only subdued. “Was I just fleeing reality like I know I’m liable to do?” Hi asks in the final dream sequence, one of the brothers’ finest bits of writing and direction. “But me and Ed, we can be good too. And it seemed real. It seemed like us and it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away. Where all parents are strong and wise and capable and all children are happy and beloved. I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.”
Directed by Albert and David Maysles
This might seem an awfully depressing film to take to a desert island, but honesty and truth can be beautiful no matter how dire the subject. Albert and David Maysles’ “Salesman,” about a group of door-to-door Bible salesmen trying to make their quotas in an anonymous Florida suburb, is a sly condemnation of a capitalist rat race that a castaway might not miss. But it’s also a loving, empathetic character portrait of people trying to survive within a system that seems rigged for failure and humiliation, taking comfort in camaraderie and doing the best they can with what little they’ve got. As I wrote in a 2007 review, “Throughout the film, the Bible sellers find themselves face-to-face with other ‘failures’ — decent Americans who toil with a stiff upper lip and then, in the company of salesmen they’ll never see again, casually let slip a statement implying just how deadening their work must be. ‘In my job, you have to have a sense of humor,’ a sanitation worker says. ‘If you don’t, you go nuts.’ A leather-faced, chain-smoking mom says of her bespectacled teenaged daughter, who seems like one of the film’s most upbeat, inquisitive characters, ‘She don’t believe in what she’s doing. She hates her supervisor.’ The most authentic and surprising personalities can’t survive in bottom-line-driven jobs unless they alter or disguise their natures. Or as Albert Maysles told interviewer Chris Buck, ‘The guy that succeeds as a human being makes for a lousy salesman.’”
“Wings of Desire” (1987)
Written by Wim Wenders and Peter Handke. Directed by Wim Wenders
It’s impossible to understate how much this epic drama by German filmmaker Wim Wenders meant to me. I saw it on a big screen in high school at a time when my sensibility as a filmgoer was still being formed. It had a seismic impact. The concept is so original that even if the film weren’t a masterpiece, it might still have earned a footnote in movie history: Set in divided Berlin during the waning days of the Cold War, and told mainly from the point of view of angels who can eavesdrop on mortal thoughts, it’s an intensely personal parable about how history and politics shape individual lives. But its yearning, free-associative screenplay (by Wenders and poet Peter Handke, strongly inspired by the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke) transcends the specifics of time and place. The Berlin Wall is a physical object, a landmark, but also a metaphorical division, symbolizing the schism between the material and spiritual worlds — planes of existence that can never be reconciled, even in death. When one angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), falls in love with a beautiful circus acrobat (Solveig Dommartin, who performed all her routines without a stunt double!) and gives up his immortal status, a once ethereal and unmoored tale becomes earthbound. The angel bleeds, tastes food and drink, experiences love and friendship, and sees color for the first time. He also learns what it means to be fragile, to feel the weight of impending finality even in happy moments.
Strangely and yet fittingly, the only mortal in the film who seems able to communicate with angels is an actor (Peter Falk, playing “himself”). He is in Berlin to make a film about Germany’s Nazi past. “I can’t see you, but I know you’re here,” Falk says. The film’s greatest of many great monologues belongs to him — a musing on life’s small pleasures that includes an ode to coffee and cigarettes. (“And if you have them both together … it’s fantastic.”) Throughout, there is a powerful longing to return to a state of innocence that is illusory for humans and purely theoretical for angels. “When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging,” Damiel says in voice-over. “It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one.”
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.