The TONY Alt-Canon

Which 25 movies deserve promotion? We rank them.

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Despite the best efforts of scholars, critics, college professors, bloggers, blowhards and Paul Schrader, no one has ever established an official film canon. The key word, however, is official; there is a handful of titles that are considered the movie masterpieces you must see in order to be cine-literate. They show up in Film History 101 curricula, they fill up the Sight & Sound best-of polls every decade, they are the ones that all experts agree are the crme de la crme. If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane or The Rules of the Game, Ugetsu or Battleship Potemkin, The Seventh Seal or Steel Magnolias, then you haven’t seen what the art form is truly capable of accomplishing. (We’re kidding, of course; not everyone favors Potemkin.)

Keeping in mind that these films rank among our respective all-time favorites, we’ve often wondered: If one were to skip over to a parallel universe and construct an alternate film canon—in which the usual suspects didn’t necessarily have to be chosen—what would be in it?

After many painstaking arguments, gallons of shed tears and several old-school barroom brawls, TONY’s film critics have come up with more than two dozen contenders that we feel deserve to be considered among the best that cinema has to offer. Don’t think of them as replacements for the tried-and-true greats of the past century-plus; they’re more like worthy, well-earned additions to the pantheon.

(One disclaimer: Titles that were released over the past 30 or so years that are widely considered “modern classics”—think Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull, Fanny and Alexander—were purposefully left out; they’re closer to standard-canon fodder that just haven’t been incorporated into the usual first-tier roundups yet. Check back with us when we compile our “25 Modern Classics” list, coming soon to a computer browser near you. And feel free to let us know about your own personal alt-canon picks in the comments section.)

Without further ado...the Alt-Canon.

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Ghost Ship

25. THE GHOST SHIP (1943)


Long considered the runt of the Val Lewton--at-RKO litter, this seafaring entry doesn’t feature jungle-cat predators or zombies; there’s not even a ghost in it, title be damned. What director Mark Robson and the producer do deliver is something more impressive than Lewton’s highly touted minimalist spookfests: an exploration of abuses of power. After new recruit Russell Wade reports for duty, captain Richard Dix starts sputtering Nietzchean platitudes about playing God. Then sailor Lawrence Tierney gets a giant hook dropped on him after standing up to his superior, and Wade smells something fishy going on. Made while an Austrian megalomaniac was waging global warfare, this oddity uses Lewton’s less-is-more dread to fashion the single most oblique critique on warped authority ever to come out of Golden Age Hollywood. The horror doesn’t come from haunted spirits or even the blatantly creepy Skelton Knaggs—whose pockmarked mute offers up surprising melancholia—but from everyday men corrupted by their ability to control their fellow citizens’ fates. All this in a modest 69 minutes. Take that, bloated Oscar-bait epics.—DF

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24. PLATFORM (2000)


It’s been gratifying to see Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke ascend to the top of the world-cinema pack and become one of the foremost chroniclers of the 21st century’s global-econ fallout. So why, pray tell, is his third movie—a 360-degree drama that charts a student theater troupe’s decade of travels—rarely mentioned? Filtering his country’s transition from Cultural Revolution comrade-erie to the capitalist boom years through interlocking coming-of-age stories, the director follows his protagonists as they grow up and adapt to the changing climate of contemporary Asia. Some of them will jump on the get-rich bandwagon; others will form the Fengyang County’s first “All-Star Rock and Breakdancing Electronic Band.” East (Canto-pop tunes) meets West (blue jeans, high-end materialism), while the director’s penchant for long, static takes lends an almost anthro-doc feel to the proceedings. Social-history narratives are rarely this satisfying, and the fact that Jia’s sprawling portrait of a generation feels far too short at three hours is a credit to how compelling Platform is. It’s the Chinese equivalent of Nashville.—DF

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23. MOUCHETTE (1967)


As brilliant as the entire career of France’s Robert Bresson is, certain favorites have emerged, particularly Pickpocket and the stunning prison-break drama A Man Escaped. But Bresson reached an unusual concentration of formal precision, spiritual depth and emotional sympathy with Mouchette, the ultimate lost-girl film. Impressively carried by the teenage Nadine Nortier (who never made another movie), the tale unspools in a rural town, where the title character—nicknamed “little fly”—weathers the pain of an abusive parent and the disaffected looks of boys and men. The movie feels incredibly modern, mainly due to Bresson’s insistence on avoiding excessive emotional displays; the result is a heartbreaker. You can see this film’s looming influence over everything from the Dardenne brothers’ Cannes-winning Rosetta to Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever. No less a figure than Jean-Luc Godard cut the trailer, convinced of the work’s greatness. Fortunately for you, there’s a beautiful disc of it available from the Criterion Collection.—JR

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22. YEARNING (1964)


It’s difficult to choose the crowing achievement in the filmography of Japanese director Mikio Naruse, whose work remains criminally underseen stateside. My vote would be for this black-and-white widescreen character study. It features Naruse’s frequent muse, Hideko Takamine, as war widow Reiko, who whiles away the days in the grocery store formerly run by her deceased husband. She has to deal with meddling in-laws who want to sell the store, as well as a much younger delinquent brother-in-law, Koji (Yuzo Kayama). It’s a routine that she’s learned to live with, but then Koji confesses that he’s been in love with Reiko for years and her world comes tumbling down. What follows are some intensely emotional argument scenes that build to a moment of seeming calm and clarity. Reiko—ostensibly unburdened of her former life—leaves town by train. But Koji follows her, and the two eventually retreat to a fog-shrouded mountain town. It is in these final sequences that Yearning becomes one for the ages, capped by perhaps the most devastating close-up in cinema history.—KU

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21. SANS SOLEIL (1983)


Playful and cat-obsessed, the unclassifiable art-diarist Chris Marker has made a huge impact on modern cinema, especially as the creator of the 28-minute sci-fi short “La Jete” (1962), the basis for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Elsewhere, he’s assembled massive amounts of political footage, testimony to a serious revolutionary stripe. But Marker’s lovely 1983 Japan travelogue, Sans Soleil, may be his most lasting work: a mind-expanding and entertaining assemblage of first-person musings, evidence of technological modernization and late-night-TV static. As always, Marker’s chief subject is memory—how it plays out in a changing landscape—and his documentary is nothing short of a personal riff on the great Vertigo (which gets namechecked here). Young people who pick up a camera instinctively gravitate toward this kind of filmmaking, banally expressed by American Beauty’s floating-plastic-bag video. If only they watched Marker first; they’d know how high they have to reach.—JR

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20. MEN IN WAR (1957)


Say “Anthony Mann” and people think of the director’s “adult” Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart, the no-nonsense noirs he made with cinematographer John Alton or possibly the lumbering epic that is El Cid. Few mention this ragged combat flick, which is a cryin’ shame: It’s the perfect example of the filmmaker at his termite-art best. Robert Ryan leads his platoon through Korea’s killing fields and stumbles across Aldo Ray escorting a catatonic colonel to safety. The presence of these two slabs of red-meat masculinity at their stubbliest is enough to make this a Father’s Day staple. But the film’s existentialism owes more to Beckett than Back to Bataan, with a seriously nihilistic starkness countering both the genre’s usual gung ho notions and its broader (Sam) Fuller brushstrokes. “Tell me the story of the foot soldier,” cries the opening disclaimer, “and I will tell you the story of all wars.” Mann hard-boils that statement further: All wars are hell; only the dogfaces change.—DF

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19. THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976)


John Cassavetes’s follow-up to A Woman Under the Influence traces the tragic life and slow death of strip-club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara). He’s a compulsive gambler who’s cleared himself of debt at film’s start, only to return to it during a back-alley casino bender. The trade-off, as the title pulpily hints: kill a Chinese bookie who’s an enemy of Cosmo’s mobster creditors. It’s a simple setup that Cassavetes does everything in his power to make strange. The film moves to its own slow, mesmerizing offbeat; there’s no cheap milking of suspense, and any genre theatrics are consistently upended. The clearest example is during the warehouse shoot-out sequence, in which Cosmo—pursued by a gun-toting thug—just walks out of the scene before the conflict is resolved. The borders of Cosmo’s world are malleable. By the end, in pure existential fashion, he even seems aware of himself as a character, monologuing incoherently to an offscreen audience as he comes to terms with his inevitable demise.—KU

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18. THE DELTA (1996)


Writer-director Ira Sachs’s debut feature begins as a character study of Lincoln (Shayne Gray), an affluent and ostensibly “normal” white Southern teen who sneaks off to cruise local parks and other queer establishments. It’s difficult to tell whether his homosexuality is a true reflection of his character or a way to rebel against his moneyed malaise—probably a bit of both. On one of his excursions, he meets a half-black, half-Vietnamese immigrant named Minh (Thang Chan), with whom he forms an intense, short-term bond. During the languorous middle section, the duo steals a boat and sails along the Mississippi River like a modern-day Huck Finn and Jim. Yet Sachs negates any facile slave-master parallels via a last act narrative coup, as Lincoln disappears from the film entirely and Minh assumes the prominent role. The Delta doesn’t begin again at this point so much as respond to the first section’s privileged, class-specific focus in disturbing and audacious ways.—KU

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17. SECRET DFENSE (1998)


It’s no accident that the heroine of Jacques Rivette’s Secret Dfense is a scientist. Much as Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire) intently scrutinizes the numerous components of human life, Rivette places movies and their many facets under his own high-powered microscope. He’s examined musicals (Up, Down, Fragile), period pieces (Joan the Maid), fantasies (Duelle) and literary adaptations (Wuthering Heights); this is his thriller, though don’t expect a pulse-pounding sit. Rivette stretches each and every moment beyond any normal sense of film time. When Sylvie journeys from the city to the country to kill the man (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) who may have murdered her father, Rivette gives us what seems like the entire train journey, focusing throughout on Bonnaire’s minute changes of expression. He never lets Sylvie’s retributive impulses sustain themselves—they ebb and flow, as do all human emotions. Eventually, plot and motivation are lost amid verbose conversations and labyrinthine conspiracy theories (a Rivette staple: narrative collapses, life emerges). And the final image is a delirious tableau vivant that closes this cinematic puzzle with a theatrical flourish.—KU

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16. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)


We genuflect at the altar of Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac The Wild Bunch (1969). But the director only got angrier, more ornery and, it can be argued, better. (Brace yourself for our No. 10.) Five years after The Wild Bunch, he was smack-dab in the middle of the sweltering Mexican underbrush with his scrappiest leading man, Warren Oates, making a modern tale of a loser’s redemption. Oates plays Bennie, an awful cockroach-bar piano player who takes a shady job collecting a wanted man’s head for a father whose daughter has been compromised. The movie is filled with delirious rants by Bennie (to the dismembered head) as his car fills up with flies and his psyche breaks down. Beyond bizarre, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is 1970s filmmaking at its most indulged; you can see its influence recently in the Tilda Swinton drama Julia. It was the only movie on which Peckinpah had final cut; he told interviewers that he did exactly what he wanted.—JR

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15. THE LONG GOODBYE (1973)


Fans of the stonerrific The Big Lebowski ought to know that their Southern Californian hero has a very specific ancestor in Elliott Gould’s lackadaisical Malibu gumshoe at the heart of The Long Goodbye. Massively irreverent for its day, this detective tale sets Philip Marlowe on his head, force-feeding him pot brownies in the process. Gould was an unusual leading man, loose-limbed and sardonic. Yet in the context of the film’s frighteningly glib 1970s Los Angeles—a fearscape of alcoholic writers, wealthy cheating wives and post-Manson paranoia—he becomes an anchor of realness and sympathy. The director is Robert Altman, who will forever be associated with Nashville and his dazzling career rebound, The Player. But could this be his masterpiece? In it are all his signature moves: the shifting, sliding camera; the rich ensemble acting; the politically conscious critique of American greed. When today’s filmmakers return to Altman’s work, it’s often here.—JR

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14. THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)


Steven Spielberg seems an unlikely choice to adapt Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel, but his populist instincts actually lend the proceedings a potently subversive charge. Walker’s narrative touches on incest, lesbianism, cultural identity, race relations and masculine oppression. How could the man who gave us E.T. possibly relate? The simple answer is that he finds a correlating visual language to the author’s concepts. When brash juke-joint singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) romances the film’s introverted heroine, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), Spielberg blocks their prekiss interaction as if it’s a sensual pas de deux. Shug’s goal: to move Celie’s hands away from her face and uncover her smile (the outcome, when achieved, feels orgasmic). Shug unlocks Celie’s emotions; her missionary sister Nettie (Akosua Busia) provides enlightenment via a hidden stash of letters that speak of a world much larger than Celie has ever known. Spielberg charts an expected course through resolution and redemption, but he leaves these inherited characters in a collapsed-perspective final shot, which reminds us of the hardships they’ve suffered to attain this fleeting moment of clarity.—KU

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13. STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)


Does any film by Dutch deviant Paul Verhoeven belong on this list? Surely. A strong case could be made for his grungy action landmark, RoboCop, and perverse fans could even argue on behalf of the campy greatness of Showgirls (she’s a dancer, people). But when the dust settles on this unusually bold Hollywood career, we think Verhoeven’s gooey, gory sci-fi epic will be seen as his most subversive achievement. Funded as lavishly as any Michael Bay blockbuster, Starship Troopers pushes deeply into hard-R territory with its insectoid bug war and frontline fresh ripping. (More than a decade later, it’s still pretty gross.) But by subtly undermining novelist Robert Heinlein’s optimistic heroism with a cast of gorgeous, trigger-happy morons—chiefly Denise Richards and Casper Van Dien—Verhoeven struck a devastating blow, articulating the idea of world-raping Ugly Americanism. The satire flew over the heads of most gung ho viewers, but a critical comment was fully intended. Thank this film for District 9 and Team America: World Police alike.—JR

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12. I COULD GO ON SINGING (1963)


Judy Garland’s final film is a cutting depiction of overemphatic mother love—Kill Bill as a backstage musical instead of a martial arts free-for-all. The acidic head-to-heads between Garland’s Jenny Bowman, a boozy prima donna, and David Donne (Dirk Bogarde), the father of her illegitimate son (Gregory Phillips), are the meat of the movie. These scenes are often filmed in long takes and performed with such caustic conviction that they approach John Cassavetes--level psychodrama (strangely, Garland starred this same year in that director’s troubled Hollywood feature A Child Is Waiting). The soul of the film, though, are the musical numbers, which Garland throws herself into as if they were her last will and testament. A haunting interpretation of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “It Never Was You” is the standout, not only for the singer’s performance, but for how it is photographed. Starting at a wide angle and a long remove, the camera slowly cranes in toward Garland until she is isolated in side-profile close-up. The song ends and the stage goes dark. But there is no applause.—KU

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11. LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003)


Joe Dante fully recaptures the spirit of the Termite Terrace gang with this anarchic take on the globehopping Hollywood blockbuster. Chaos reigns from frame one as Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny reenact their most famous routine (“Duck Season! Wabbit Season!”), then effortlessly join a real world populated by stuntman—and acknowledged Brendan Fraser look-alike—D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser). From there, our motley crew traverses from a Man and a Woman--scored Paris to the infinite reaches of outer space. High- and low-culture touchstones abound—what other film features cameos from both Pointillist painter Georges Seurat and Doctor Who villains of choice the Daleks? Dante continually bites the corporate hand that feeds, most notably through the casting of wild-and-crazy-guy Steve Martin as an overgrown-child-cum-capitalist-figurehead. The film’s greatest triumph is that it reclaims these beloved characters from a years-long corporate devaluation that culminated in the atrocious Space Jam (brilliantly taken down a peg here in a throwaway gag). That alone warrants its inclusion in our alterna-pantheon; moments like Bugs’s hilarious dig at Disney Corp. (“Well whaddaya know, I found Nemo!”) are added bonuses.—KU

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10. PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID (1973)


Other than Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, no Western figure has been mythologized more than Billy the Kid. Sam Peckinpah’s oater about the outlaw, however, splits its focus in half; the Wild Bunch director is just as interested in how Billy’s old compadre and killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett—played by James Coburn in prime stoic-gruff form—sold out his maverick ideology. Most ’70s revisionist Westerns hijacked the genre for sociopolitical critiques (Vietnam, racial discrimination), but this retelling of Billy’s death goes after even bigger game: the corporate takeover of the frontier and, by extension, contemporary America. Cash rules everything around the duo; lest we miss the point, the Kid even shoots a deputy with buckshot made of nickels. Peckinpah famously fought with the studio over the film and lost, and it wasn’t until a “restored” version popped up in 1988 that people recognized the film as one of the auteur’s stronger works. That’s still giving it short shrift: As a Nixon-era damnation of how the West was lost, this cynical cri de couer is peerless.—DF

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9. SOMETHING WILD (1986)


The first half of director Jonathan Demme and writer E. Max Frye’s contribution to the “unleash the rebel within” genre is sheer bliss. White-collar yuppie Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) gets taken for a ride by the Louise Brooks--bewigged Audrey “Lulu” Hankel (Melanie Griffith). He’s initially reluctant, until open highways, impromptu sex and a Feelies concert break down his resistance. There’s hardly anything more elating than watching Charlie bust a white-boy move on the dance floor, and it’s at this point that the psychopathic Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) is introduced. He’s Audrey’s ex-husband, and also the devil come to collect on Charlie’s newfound hedonism. The joys of the first half aren’t negated by the horrors of the second—it’s an organic growth that Charlie goes through, from uptight straight arrow to bruised and bloodied defender. But it’s the knife-wielding climax that launches the movie into the stratosphere. Charlie delivers a killing stroke with more awkwardness than grace, and Demme makes first use of his now-trademark subjective POV shot that somehow gazes, long and hard, into each character’s soul.—KU

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8. THE MIRROR (1975)


Stream-of-consciousness narratives work better in novels than in movies; cinematic attempts to ape the wandering mind inevitably come up short compared with the writings of Joyce, Proust or Faulkner. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 remembrance of things past, however, is the one film that deserves to be mentioned in that literary company. This semiautobiographical stroll down memory lane digs deep into its bag of tricks: Film stock changes at a moment’s notice, and actors have a tendency to play several parts. The only constants are the Russian countryside and a narrator prone to reading poems (written by Tarkovsky’s father). Yet even more than the transcendental biopic Andrei Rublev (1966) and his slippery sci-fi trip, Solaris (1972), this may be the Soviet filmmaker’s crowning achievement; unhindered by linear storytelling, the filmmaker’s famously slow-and-low aesthetic takes on even greater symbolic weight. No one has been able to replicate the flow of memory on the screen with such fidelity. It remains both a reflective glimpse backward and, in terms of formal possibilities, a huge step forward.—DF

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7. THE BIG HEAT (1953)


Imagine the anxiety of it: You are director Fritz Lang, the monocled genius behind German superproductions Metropolis and M. But there you sit in Hollywood, years after fleeing the Nazis, unable to get a decent job, the rumors of your total assholishness finally caught up to you. What do you do? Double down, of course, with this savagely nihilistic cop thriller, a low-budget noir whose influence is still being felt in movies like David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac. Meat-and-potatoes detective Glenn Ford plunges nose-deep into a hornet’s nest of city corruption that turns intensely personal. As shocking as The Big Heat’s plot turns are, you most remember the characters on the periphery: Lee Marvin’s coffee-flinging thug and Gloria Grahame’s slinky femme fatale. Lang captures the cynicism with rigorous visual precision, orchestrating the production with a confidence many had thought he’d lost. The movie is studio filmmaking at its darkest, and as good as anything its director would ever do.—JR

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6. PAULINE AT THE BEACH (1983)


Eric Rohmer’s deceptively lighthearted comedy focuses on the romantic travails of the eponymous heroine (Amanda Langlet) and her elder cousin, Marion (Arielle Dombasle). Three men are juggled between them: self-proclaimed “wolf” Henri (Fodor Atkine), hunky yet needy Pierre (Pascal Greggory) and young, impressionable Sylvain (Simon de La Brosse). Typical for Rohmer, the characters talk about potentialities more than they engage in direct actions, which doesn’t stop rumors from spreading. The film tellingly opens with a proverb from the French poet Chrtien de Troyes—“A wagging tongue bites itself”—and chillingly concludes with Pauline and Marion agreeing to never again speak of their summertime trysts. It’s practically apocalyptic for any Rohmer character, let alone two of them, to refuse conversation; for this very Catholic filmmaker, it’s like a pact made with the devil. And as implied by the bookending shots of a closed wooden gate, what happens at the beach stays at the beach. More so than any other of the writer-director’s films, the mysteries and tragedies of the world seem to be contained in every gorgeously sun-dappled image.—KU

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5. CLOSE-UP (1990)


Part nonfiction essay, part neorealist drama and totally revolutionary, Abbas Kiarostami’s live-or-Memorex portrait doesn’t break vrit rules so much as make them irrelevant. Kiarostami’s dramatic method of incorporating blatant re-creations and lyrical tangents into a documentary wasn’t unprecedented (see Morris, Errol). But the way he uses these tactics, as well as the story of the movie’s subject—Hossain Sabzian, a film fanatic who impersonated director Mohsen Makhmalbaf—to examine cinema’s power and question its limits is spellbinding. Ironies begin to pile up: The man is a fraud, but an honest one; the movie acts like its objective but isn’t. Sabzian pretends to be someone who makes films, and thanks to Kiarostami, he ends up starring in one—as himself. Then the actual Makhmalbaf shows up, and the impostor’s cry (before the sound conspicuously goes out all together) becomes the most genuine thing you’ve ever heard. Close-Up’s influence on Iranian cinema has already been established; its status as the postmodern masterpiece of the 1990s, however, has long been overdue.—DF

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4. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)


The missing link between the Marx Brothers and Mad magazine, this adaptation of “Ole” Olsen and “Chic” Johnson’s Broadway revue takes the anything-goes ideology of the era’s screen comedy and turns the whole shebang into a meta--hall of mirrors. It opens with a chorus line sliding into Hades (!), then segues into the two stars arguing with the film’s creators and a theater projectionist played by Stooge Shemp Howard about the movie they’re in—coincidentally named Hellzapoppin’. (You can imagine Tex Avery taking copious notes.) Even when the film makes concessions to its vaudeville roots, the emphasis is less on showcasing performers than whipping up delirium—hence, a trout-mouthed Martha Raye crooning while extras acrobatically belly flop into a pool, and a 200mph Lindy Hop number that stops the show. Film comedy’s self-awareness begins with Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., but this is where the notion of breaking the fourth wall becomes refined and fuel-injected. In a perfect world, this rarely revived classic of id--ber alles cinema would play at MoMA in an endless loop.——DF

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3. VIDEODROME (1983)


David Cronenberg, the cerebral specialist of Fangoria-friendly body horror, worked his way through Hollywood and beyond with classy movies like Dead Ringers and the Cannes-celebrated Crash. But his revolution starts here. As vital a movie as the 1980s produced, Videodrome is a prescient indictment of TV’s omnipotence and the dark appetites it would one day feed. Weaselly James Woods makes an unlikely but appealing hero as a feisty cable-station owner increasingly turned on by pirate broadcasts of what appear to be real-life torture sessions. Soon enough, the transmissions start having a serious impact on his mind, his love life and, er, his abdomen. (Who knew a VHS cassette could fit in there?) Cronenberg’s menace is routed in a deep anticorporate mistrust; this was no mere B-flick, but a broadside against forces of enslavement that only media theorists knew we faced. Provocatively, the director suggests that the “new flesh” might not be so bad. We’d call the movie as essential as Network—if we didn’t actually think it to be superior.—JR

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2. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)


He’d already rewritten the rules with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but when David Lynch ponied up for his first film of the new millennium, he caught the world completely off guard. Originally intended for television yet aborted by shortsighted execs, Lynch’s Hollywood fable was reclaimed by its director and expanded into a legendary Buuelian mind-fuck, the savvy filmmaker turning his trademark lulls into a nightmare of self-delusion with the turn of a key in a mysterious blue box. Mulholland Drive launched the career of the spectacular Naomi Watts, here articulating two fully formed characters: one, a chirpy up-and-coming ingenue, the other, a bitter thrown-off lover. Who really was Betty (or Diane)? How could her entire universe be so radically altered in the space of a moment? What did she do wrong? Was it all just a dream? At the time of the movie’s release—October 2001—these were questions on everyone’s mind. It’s a movie unerringly of its moment, and also timeless.—JR

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1. BARRY LYNDON (1975)


Our consensus choice by a wide margin, Stanley Kubrick’s elegant Napoleonic-era epic is the movie most deserving of a reevaluative boost to the top ranks. Its director does not lack for critical attention, typically lavished on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. But did Kubrick also make the definitive fancy-costume period piece, as keenly critical of social codes as cinema can muster? Barry Lyndon is, simply put, the story of a gambler. Penned by William Makepeace Thackeray, the novel became a proving ground for the ferociously ambitious director who, eschewing an adapting screenwriter, invested it with his obsessions for military folly and human mendacity. To watch Ryan O’Neal (never again this impressive) transform himself from a callow Irish youth to a resigned fly caught in the web of snobby peerage is to understand how emotional—yes, emotional—Kubrick could be. Framing the entire picture is the director’s frighteningly perfect technique, made especially apt in service to a tale of fatalistic entrapment. If you need an example of everything film can and should do, a new Citizen Kane, here it is.—JR

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