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129 'Best' Films: Rich, Risky And Enduring

One Critic's Must-see Titles Won't Be Yours, But Let's Start Talking. Chaplin, Sturges, Brando, And Don't Forget 'The Man With Two Brains.'

April 17, 2005|Peter Rainer | Special to The Times

There is perhaps no greater folly for a critic than prescribing a list of must-see movies for someone else's library. Your psyche is laid bare to the ridicule of those who don't share your own sweet reason. Worse, you look like an ass. In that dark night of the soul, can you really defend "The Man With Two Brains"?

Well, yes, I think I can. Believe me, you have not lived until you've heard Steve Martin pronounce the name of his character in that film -- Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr. You also have not lived until you've seen Max Ophuls' opulent "Earrings of Madame De...." How can these two films possibly coexist in the same galaxy? Ah, but that's the beauty of it. Because our relationship with movies is so intimate, they can be any and all things to us. The oddest extended film families feel right at home with one another. When I was asked to put together this list I responded with the appropriate gravitas, but the truth is, I've been happily tabulating titles for years. The dirty little secret of movie critics is that they are compulsive list makers. Another secret is that, despite the canard that all critics are like George Sanders' Addison DeWitt in "All About Eve," stropping our syllables and slavering for fresh blood, the tribe does possess a beneficent streak: We love it when we can move people to love the same movies we do.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 129 words Type of Material: Correction
129 Best Films -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about amassing a DVD library of classic films listed four as available but, in fact, they are obtainable only as imports: "Double Indemnity," "Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff," "Napoleon" and "The Nun's Story." Another film, "Earrings of Madame De," is not in release. In addition, four films listed as unavailable on DVD are in fact available as imports: "The Music Room," "Charulata," "Devi" and "The Young Mr. Lincoln." "La Jetee" is available domestically as part of "Short 2 -- Dreams" with narration in English. It is available in its original form as an import. The films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers also are available as imports, but not domestically. Imported DVDs generally require a different operating system, most commonly PAL.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 24, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 4 inches; 133 words Type of Material: Correction
129 'Best' Films -- An article last Sunday about amassing a DVD library of classic films referred imprecisely to several titles. Four films listed as available are in fact obtainable only as imports: "Double Indemnity," "Chimes at Midnight/Falstaff," "Napoleon," and "The Nun's Story." Another film, "Earrings of Madame De," is not currently in release. In addition, four films listed as unavailable on DVD are in fact available as imports, including "The Music Room," "Charulata," "Devi," "The Young Mr. Lincoln." "La Jetee" is available domestically as part of "Short 2 -- Dreams," but with narration in English. It is available in its original form as an import. The films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers also are available as imports, but not domestically. Imported DVDs generally require a different operating system, most commonly PAL.

I am not looking for my list to become boringly definitive. Playfulness, principled playfulness, is the order of the day. I don't believe in a canon for literature, and I certainly don't believe in one for film. The medium isn't all that old, and canons are creaky. My roster of 100-plus favorites of all time on DVD, my Harvard Classics, is built upon shifting sands of shifting taste and enough memories to flood a cineplex. And yet in my mind I can instantly summon up any of the films on my wish list; like someone smitten, I knew from the moment I first saw them that they would be with me forever. Still, as a suitor, I like to go slow: Few movies on my list are from the past decade, and that's not just because it's been a weak one. I'm wary of sidestepping the test of time and falling into what I call the "Easy Rider" syndrome. Have you seen that film lately, man? It's aged about as well as a quart of Ripple. I've also soft-pedaled epic-size entries because they look best on the big screen (assuming you can find a revival house that's showing them).

There are good reasons, historical and otherwise, why many so-called classics are indeed classics, but quite a few of the usual suspects won't be touted here: No "Gone With the Wind," no "Potemkin." I compiled my choices by free association. Off the top of my head, before I checked any reference books, I wrote down the films that meant the most to me, the ones that changed my way of seeing and gave me lasting pleasure (or dread). That initial list numbered several hundred, so draconian decisions were made. I can live with that, and hope you can too. If nothing else, my little ramble may move you to summon up your own movie theater of the mind.

IMPRINTED IN CHILDHOOD

For many of us, our memories of childhood and adolescence are inextricably meshed with the movies we watched growing up. If you saw "The Wizard of Oz" or Walt Disney's "Pinocchio" when you were very young, you could not help but be astonished. They became showpieces of your imagination. But not all showpieces are created equal. Can anyone who saw William Cameron Menzies' starkly surreal "Invaders From Mars" as a child think back on it with anything but abject terror at the image of adults -- they could have been one's very own parents, even! -- being turned into zombies with icky plugs secreted in the nape of their necks? I was freaked out by "Freaks," which I made the mistake of seeing by myself in a cavernous and mostly empty New York revival house.

It was in that same theater, while in high school, that I discovered Bogart. As a performer seemingly without a whit of pretense, he cut through the crud that made mannerists of so many other actors of his era. I imitated Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and thereby set a near-permanent curl in my snarl. "The Big Sleep" made very little sense to me, and I didn't care (especially not when I learned that Raymond Chandler couldn't figure out the plot either). The teaming of Bogart and Bacall was as sexy as a blues glissando. These birds of paradise are joined forever in noir heaven.

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