When I first started the Project, watching roughly a movie a day for the first two months, I would flip through the book on which it’s based, 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and, like a kid, imagine what it would be like when I got to #180, or #213, or would I make it at all? What would my essays look like at #213? Would anybody be reading them?
I’ve just finished watching The Best Years of Our Lives and I’m moving on to #182, Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, but I’m pausing to write this because, although the site has more than one hundred posts at this point (including one, two, three, four guest posts, as well as essays on Bret Easton Ellis and Red Letter Media), I’ve just posted the response for movie #100, Camille, which is in the direct vein of my original goal, to watch and write about these 1,001 movies from the List. It means I’m totally done with 10% of this ridiculously huge Project. Seems like something worth savoring.
My process in watching the movies and writing the essays is simpler now than it was in the beginning. Mostly because I’m not as fraught with questions of how each one will turn out, I’m more immersed in the process of just trying to learn this stuff, and in chronicling that effort as best I can, than I am with being seen by the reader as witty or charming or verbose (which was a big concern at the beginning, frankly). I’ve got a clearer idea not of what I want these essays to sound like, but what they do sound like. And that’s my voice. So now when I sit down to write them it feels less like creating and more like just…unspooling.
The hundredth essay feels significant for marking a kind of resignation to the reality of how I respond to things, and my strengths or limitations as a writer, because there’s no way I’d have made it this far if each essay had gone through such rigorous accounting for what sounds funny, or clever, or how I ought to craft it so’s to cull the most interest or favor with the reader. I don’t suppose I could have gotten too far if I was studying each step like that.
Somebody in Germany (Hallo!) wrote in through the Talk to Me page to say that they dig the site, dig the idea of the Project, but – understandably – can’t read all these essays just to find something worth watching. So they suggested a roundup, after every 100 movies, of my favorites, or the ones I’d recommend. I think that’s a good idea. The Project is definitely a good time, and educational, but – as the essays will often contend – not all of these movies are worth watching. So here’s the list, my list, of films that are, I guess, Thousand Movie Project Approved.
Thousand Movie Approved.
In curating a List of my own, however, I’m having a hard time figuring the exact purpose of it. Is the foremost goal of this list to educate the viewer, to entertain her, to tell the story of cinema? What does “story of cinema” even mean? Would that mean the story of its great performers’ lives (surely we need to talk about D.W. Griffith, about Greta Garbo), or the evolution of its technology (something ought to show the inception of the close-up, the zoon, the journey toward sound and technicolor…), or would the story of cinema be the story of how it reflected its historical moment?
Well look: here’s two lists. The first will be a list of my five favorite titles out of the first 100 movies. These are stories that rang my personal bell. Like the essays themselves, this one’s All About Alex. Pay it no mind.
The second list, the T-Map, is what I’d recommend to somebody who wants to embark on an abridged version of Thousand Movie project and will allow me the honor of curating. If you wanna see the landmarks of cinema, get a vibe of the different eras and of the medium’s growth and burgeoning versatility, but you also wanna have a good time – the T-Map’s for you.
- I really don’t feel totally confident in saying Blackmail is my favorite movie from the List so far, because I haven’t been compelled to watch it again and again like I have with some of the others, but there’s something about this early talkie – both the dreamlike crackle of newborn sound technology and the intimacy that comes of its limited cast and few sets – that compels me. Something probably too personal to pinpoint. Hence its absence from the T-Map. But there’s a hypnotic quality to this simple murder story whose consequences escalate with each act. A kind of boutique eeriness that I think exceeds what Hitchcock was even aiming for.
- Dr. Mabuse, The Player is creepy and, probably more than any other movie on the List so far, stylish. Rudolf Rogge-Klein, the star (and subject of Thomas Pynchon’s digressive fascination in Gravity’s Rainbow) is a perfect example of a Silent Cinema Face. See his feelings, his thoughts and plots, all etched on that brow and snarled in that crazy nose. It’s the first epic about organized crime, and easily stands neck-and-neck with modern rivals. It’s four hours long, so it’ll take some settling in, but I suspect it’d be almost as effective as a single marathon viewing if, instead, you watched its six-act entirety as a serial, over the course of six nights. Try that out, and lemme know.
- I first fell in love with Bride of Frankenstein when I was in middle school because, having enjoyed it foremost above all the Universal Monster movies that I got in a DVD box set, I felt really refined and cool to find myself sitting attentively through a black and white movie, laughing at the funny parts, feeling moved by the softer ones – reactions that I tried to have on several occasions, with several other older movies in that box, and never managed. In the years since then, and especially within the context of the Project, I’ve come to appreciate Bride for the batshit work of personal vision that it is. Director James Whale was tasked with creating a sequel in the most conventional sense: show us again what we saw and liked a few years ago. But he took the assignment in an unexpected direction and wound up with a final product that surpassed its predecessor. His monster is a victim here, and questions of God and love and creation are crafted in nuanced and layered ways. It reveals more and more of itself with every viewing.
- Watching Little Caesar in its proper sequence on the List was super exciting mainly because sound technology was still new, and it meant that I didn’t have to read my way through the silent era anymore, or parse the grainy action to see what was happening onscreen. Just like Hitchcock’s Blackmail, the sound in Little Caesar is super crackly, and there’s a strange gentle whir underscoring everything. Dreamy. Pleasant just to listen to. It’s a B movie in almost every sense: a tough guy with his eye on the prize, a tragic rise and fall, friendships and romances are all challenged and then goodness prevails in the last act. The kinda story that runs itself. But Edward G. Robinson, as Rico “Caesar” Bandello, elevates the movie (if not the material) to something higher. The story is small, simple, with a limited cast of characters, and sets that seem built for the stage instead of a movie – it’s really not that remarkable. But it’s so fucking pleasant. Lightning in a bottle. It’s one of those situations where my affection for the movie is disproportionate to the movie’s quality. I guess it’s just charming, more than anything.
- Night at the Opera holds a special place in my heart because it was the first movie I showed at a Thousand Movie Project free public screening, and it generated one of the biggest and most enthusiastic turnouts to date. So while part of me looks back to the movie and thinks that maybe I’m not appreciating it for what it is, but rather for what it signifies to me, I definitely chose to screen it for a reason. More than almost any movie on the List to date, this is the one I prescribe for anybody who wants me to fish a recommendation outta this Project. A reporter asked me if I wasn’t intimidated by the fact that so many of these movies are in black and white – and it reminded me of what, at that point in the Project, I’d forgotten, which is that old movies are daunting just by merit of their age. Audiences think they’ll be bored because it’s not as visually stimulating as something modern. Which is true. Colors help hold your eye, and almost none of these have a shred of it. Night at the Opera, though, is lively to look at and still, eighty years later, hilarious. Almost every joke lands except for a couple of topical stuff from the ‘30s (those kids up in Canada?). If you or your friends are intimidated by the Project, and wanna start someplace friendly and welcoming, go for this one.
- Story of a Cheat: I write fiction and read a fair amount of it and have realized that, for the most part, I don’t care what happens in these stories. Voice is my favorite thing. There’s a lotta speculative shit to be said about Story of a Cheat, which is literally dominated by the voice of its main character (who not only narrates the movie but whose voice actually erupts, from the mouths of nearly every other character), about whether this is a postmodern movie or not. What I know is that I love the voice, this feeling like you’re being told a terrific story at a bar by a really witty and eloquent guy who’s somehow got a gorgeous visual supplement.
- Mutiny on the Bounty: After 42nd Street this was probably the biggest surprise from the first 100 movies. I sat down with this 2.5-hour pirate movie from whatever year, nineteen-thirty-fuck, with 100% certainty that I’d hate it. And it’s one of my favorites. No contest. Clark Gable is as wonderfully heroic, pensive-looking and valorous, as Charles Laughton is odious, cruel, smug-looking and just consummately awful – and yet, strangely, he commands a degree of respect from the viewer after pulling off a remarkable feat in the second act. It’s a complicated story with engaging characters, powerful performances from end to end, and it’s also a really big Golden Age Hollywood at its glamorous, windswept best.
- Haxan: Sort of a documentary, sort of a narrative, sort of a bizarre expressionist mindfuck, Haxan is one of the earliest examples of a filmmaker bending the form to accommodate his own slapdash, batshit, vulgar sensibility.
- Nanook of the North: One of the first feature-length documentaries, and one of the most iconic, Nanook shows the daily life of an Eskimo family trying to survive a brutal winter. It’s beautiful, funny, charming. There’s also some neat controversy about whether the director staged some of its scenes. An early example of a filmmaker bending reality, realigning it, to communicate a certain cinematic kind of truth. Like yeah, maybe Nanook didn’t do all of this shit in one day, but it’s the kind of shit he normally does. (Although the director’s alleged assistance in killing a walrus is pretty fucked up.)
- Dr. Mabuse, The Player: This four-hour crime epic is the first appearance of director Fritz Lang on the List and, as such, the first appearance of a filmmaker whose style will ring distinctive and influential to even the most casual moviegoer, somebody who doesn’t feel they have an eye for much beyond story. It got me thinking more critically about set design, about the depth of an image and the significance of a camera’s placement. It also got me obsessed with the versatility of lead actor Rudolf Rogge-Klein’s facial expressions. It’s also just really entertaining and twisty and cool.
- The Last Laugh: To make his silent movie even more quiet, more cerebral, director F.W. Murnau eliminated intertitles from this meditation on man’s pride, how it’s broken, and the superficial means by which it’s rebuilt. The single intertitle comes in at the end of the movie, where Murnau tells us that the producers have forbidden him from leaving us at the tragic ending he preferred, and so we’re given a happy ending in which our broken hero inherits a fortune and al of his woes are made right. But it’s interesting to think about Murnau’s intentions here. Was he really forbidden from having a tragic ending? If so, why? And if not, then why would he pretend? What might the title suggest about his addition of that happy ending? This one’s for the more meditative, existential crowd. Also: Murnau’s skill with the camera, with zooming and panning and gliding, manipulating the image, moving the viewer through his constructed space – it’s probably the strongest example of his knack for visual storytelling. Some will say Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, his next movie on the List, is the real way to go. But the T-Map says Last Laugh.
- Modern Times: This isn’t Chaplin’s funniest movie by a long shot but it’s one of the most enchanted and imaginative. Also one of his most political. I watched it, liked it a lot, thought it was genius – but I’m not sure of how to discuss it now. No matter: it’s a fun movie with some iconic images. Also, if you wanna get big on movies you’ll find that Chaplin is essential viewing. Give it a shot.
- The General: This one’s often referred to as the greatest movie ever made, which I don’t totally agree with, but for those who, like me, contend that Buster Keaton was more talented than his box office rival, Charlie Chaplin, The General slams that case home better than anything you could put into words. His knack for timing, the precise physicality that seems more effortless (and yet complicated) than Chaplin’s waddle and frolic, makes a case for Keaton’s legacy as not just a great humorist, but a uniquely gifted artist. And this one’s probably his masterpiece.
- The Unknown: My cousin’s wife is a nutritionist with three young daughters and event hough she’s great about making sure that they eat well, and the meals I’ve seen her prep all manage to look both appetizing and health, she’s of the strong opinion that it’s totally fine – in fact healthy – to eat something from McDonald’s now and then. Like once every two months. I don’t remember her whole argument, but it was a good one,a nd I’m gonna use it as my case for The Unknown: it’s good to have a little McDonald’s now and then. This movie is 100% exploitative schlock but it’s beautiful, and clever. A near-death Lon Chaney Sr. and a super young Joan Crawford, at the start of her career, star in this film by Tod Browning (later made legendary for Dracula and Freaks) about a morbid love triangle among circus performers. Topical, too, is the story of a man with no arms who earns the love of a woman who, having suffered at the hands of men all her life, can’t stand to be touched. Watch this and appreciate that not every old movie is dapper, or highbrow, or tame.
- The Passion of Joan of Arc: Director C.T. Dreyer’s minimalist masterpiece, shot almost entirely in closeup, features a performance by Renee Falconetti that’s been called the greatest film performance of all time (never repeated – Falconetti had such an awful experience that she swore off of cinema, and died thereafter of complications resulting from an eating disorder). Also interesting is the fact that the movie was deemed lost for many years until a random copy turned up in the janitor’s closet at a mental institution. But it’s Falconetti’s performance and the filmmaker’s style, finally, that make it worth watching. Dreyer’s minimalism, with stark white walls and sparsely furnished rooms and actors all dressed in drab colorless garb, is as interesting to look at as Murnau’s innovations with such a mobile camera. The movie may not look interesting at first, and maybe it isn’t a hoot of a story, but, like with Murnau or Lang, Dreyer’s style here will show the up-and-coming film buff, in a blatant way, just how differently filmmaking can be done.
- 42nd Street: I wasn’t a fan of musicals when I started the Project, and frankly would still have to be forced at gunpoint to go watch a new one in theaters, but 42nd Street, the first musical on the List, was the first dose of what would ultimately be a complete 180-degree turn on that attitude. Or nearly, I guess, since I still don’t flock to them. Maybe like a 165. Anyway. It’s directed by Busby Berkley, who reappears on the List with almost the exact same cast to direct Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. This one doesn’t have musical bits sprinkled throughout, as the modern musical would, but instead leaves everything for a big show at the end. It’s gorgeous, a spectacle, and hypnotizing even for somebody as jaded toward the genre as I was.
- All Quiet on the Western Front: I’m not a fan of war movies in general, and I was especially put off by the idea of what might appear on the List after watching King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), but All Quiet on the Western Front, a product of the early sound era that somehow surpasses the audio shortcomings of its day, is a beautiful, exciting, heartbreaking anti-war movie. It illustrates the unique horror of trench warfare and, a pre-code spectacle, circumnavigates conservative sensibilities by working in some powerfully brutal scenes. This movie leaves an impression.
- Freaks: Tod Browning took a risk here, casting actors with deformities to play spectacles in a circus, and for many years the movie was just underappreciated but actively condemned, and banned from theaters around the world, grouped with the more gruesome B horror movies to whose company it may appear to be best-suited. But it’s something way better. It’s still categorized under Horror in lots of streaming services, but that’s only because of the final confrontation between the circus performers and the cruel gold digger who’s trying to exploit them. Most of the movie is a very tender portrait of the bonds forged by outsiders within a safe space that they’ve made for themselves. When an interloper breaks through under false pretenses, tries to exploit them, subjects them to the same ridicule that they’re forced to endure in the outside world, that interloper is dealt with. Had Browning not made movies like Dracula and The Unknown, this would probably be seen today as a drama. But it’s an artful example of a filmmaker taking edgy or offputting visuals and presenting their beauty. It’s a distinctive performance all around.
- Land Without Bread: Director Luis Bunuel just wants to fuck with his audience here and it’s interesting to either fall for his tricks or not. In Land Without Bread, with the still-relatively-new medium of film, Bunuel exploits our gullibility in the face of powerful imagery. He shows us a suggestive image, provides a (false?) context for it through voiceover, and the audience either takes it as truth or doesn’t. If you suspend your disbelief, and opt to accept the movie as an honest portrait of a town in poverty, then Land Without Bread can break your heart (as it did mine when I first saw it). If you take a more jaded approach, and watch the whole thing as an artful thirty-minute prank, you’ll be amused by the extremes to which Bunuel takes his experiment.
- A Night at the Opera: Everything I mentioned for this one in my personal list still applies here. Its humor is timeless and the comfortably predictable romance is pepper with enough remarkably inventive gags, and lovely musical numbers, to make immediately and profoundly clear the Marx Bros genius.
- Broken Blossoms: D.W. Griffith is pretty much the godfather of cinema and while his most (in)famous movie, The Birth of a Nation, is definitely worth watching despite its amazingly fucked up second half, wherein the Klu Klux Klan rescues a southern community from freed slaves (white actors in black face) who are trying to rape the women and kill the men, it’s three hours long. It’s not a blast. Griffith followed it up, surprisingly, just one year later with his largest work, probably his masterpiece, called Intolerance – which sounds ironic at first, considering the depictions in Birth of a Nation, but Griffith seemed genuinely surprised by accusations that his last movie had an even remotely racist vibe. Intolerance, too, is definitely worth watching. It’s a massive movie, thousands of extras, spanning pretty much the entirety of human civilization to depict different kinds of intolerance. It’s amazing. But I’m not gonna put it on the T-Map either because, great as they are, I think that both of those movies are better to have seen than to watch, if that makes sense. Like you’ll enjoy them more when they’re behind you and you get to call certain images to mind. So, to give you a necessary sample of Griffith’s genius, I’m gonna suggest his smaller effort, Broken Blossoms – which is itself fraught with all kinds of racist shit, and your eyes are gonna roll, but it’s really good. The story’s about a Buddhist who goes from China to London and, natch, the Chinese character is played by a slouched and squinting white guy. But there’s a powerful love story between him and the young Lillian Gish, Griffith’s muse, who plays a young girl living with some guy, I don’t remember if it’s her dad or boyfriend or employer, who abuses her. Rough to watch in places, but it’s worth the endurance.