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  1. Nashville
  2. Prospero's Books
  3. Jacob's Ladder
  4. La Dolce Vita
  5. It's a Wonderful Life
  6. Catch-22
  7. To Have and To Have Not
  8. Breaking the Waves
  9. Rear Window
  10. West Side Story

Here's my tentative Top 10 list. I make no bones about the tentative part: These things seem to shift around daily. One day I think that all my favorite films should be life-altering cathartic experiences like Jacob's Ladder or Breaking the Waves, and the next minute I think they should be the last film I've seen. But the whole reason why I decided to make this list wasn't simply to show off what an intellectual I think I am but to be a listing of my suggestions for movies to rent if you're on your way to the video store and don't know what to rent. Though I would wish everyone to see these movies the same way I've seen most of them; on the big screen, in a half-empty theater, with someone you love.

Nashville

Here's a movie that seemed to do everything I want a movie to do: It changed the way I look at things forever, it introduced a new way of watching a movie to me, it made me laugh, it said profound things about the world and people, and it gave me a precious snapshot of a moment in time that encapsulates unconsciously the zeitgeist of 1976 in a way that will always be far more truthful than any backward glance could ever be.

The strange thing about a lot of movies is that they're so often set in the past or the future instead of the present. We take it for granted without ever questioning it: Do Hollywood executives ever stop to ask if anyone would want to see another movie set in the forties, the fifties, the sixties, etc? Everyone seems to agree that the past is always interesting, and, since Star Wars, the future seems like a pretty safe bet too. But Nashville examines the present of the year the movie was made, 1976, with the kind of fiendish attention to detail you usually see in a period piece.

Watching Nashville is like watching 1976 through the eyes of an alien being. It's obvious I've watched it recently, but the first time I saw it, as a new film in a real theater in the 70s, I was blown away by it. Plus it has a hilarious soundtrack, most of which was composed or improvised by the stars of the movie. The Henry Gibson songs are sarcastic country masterpieces.

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Prospero's Books

The first time I saw this movie I was sitting in a movie house in Paris after living in Italy for 4 years and I could barely remember English at all, and this movie swept me up in a confused whirl of outrageous imagery and poetic song. I had no idea what was going on up there on the screen. I had no idea what all those archaic English phrases meant. The plot was completely unknown to me. And it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. If you want to see something completely European and incomprehensible, see this movie.

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Jacob's Ladder

I entered into the theater to see Jacob's Ladder expecting some weird horror movie and left it feeling like I'd been through an LSD overdose of massive proportions. This movie upset me so completely that at times I felt like I wasn't even watching a movie at all, but that something had gone terribly wrong in my head and I just thought I was watching a movie, and someone was trying to snap me out of it somewhere in another reality I refused to acknowledge. Your mileage may vary, of course. I saw it alone in a theater, you might have to watch on your couch with constant interruptions.

I'll never forget the alienation this movie created in my head. It was as close to schizophrenia as most people would ever want to get, and all of the normal defenses of your mind will be fighting against the effect that I got from this movie. So I don't exactly wish that you agree with my assessment of this movie, but I hope that you can at least see how I might have felt that way, and appreciate this film as I do, as a masterpiece of mental manipulation.

Few films break through the century of assumptions we've constructed about what a film is and how we should interpret what is presented like Jacob's Ladder. Since we assume that we are to believe that what is presented is what's happening, Jacob's Ladder consistently undermines everything that happens through flashbacks, jump cuts, and sequential chaos.

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La Dolce Vita

Fellini! Fellini! How could I have a top 10 list without il Maestro? Who is the most original director of all time? Fellini! Who won more Oscars than any other director? Fellini! Who transported you into the bizarre alien world of make-believe, the fantasy, the carnival, the circus tent of Cinecitta and taught you that nothing ever needed to be real? And of course, what film other than this, his classic tale of post-modern alienation and disillusion, La Dolce Vita? It avoids the self-referentialism of 8 and 1/2, arguably also his greatest movie, while still making the same important points he made in that classic.

Everything happens in La Dolce Vita. Like all Fellini films, it's an out-of-control ride careening at a thousand miles an hour through the Italian countryside in the middle of the night with all kinds of crazy grinning freaks and beauties racing alongside of you. Never boring. Even with all those pesky subtitles. The sheer verve of it all carries you along. Don't miss my favorite Italian pop singer, Adriano Celentano, in the prime of his Rock'n'Roll glory!

A page about Federico Fellini

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It's a Wonderful Life

I went most of my life without even suspecting this movie existed, and the first time I saw it, at Brown Auditorium at Washington University (the backbone of the internet through which you might be reading this page), I was totally floored. I was too surprised by this movie to regard it as a cornball classic like someone who grew up catching casual snatches of it all over cable TV like kids today. The bittersweet life of regret lived for others, the helpless railing against fate in this movie, and the clear-eyed populism are all deeply held moral values of mine. The beauty of Donna Reed in this movie was for many years my ideal of feminine form incarnate, until I met Marnie K. Mills, when several other older dream girl fantasy forms came together in a total package of love.

George Bailey missing out on life in his little town is too poignant for words, and the impact this movie had on me was as profound as can be. If you've never seen it, watch it with attention: It's filled with incredible detail and resonates with the mythos of the American Dream.

A page describing It's A Wonderful Life (1946)

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Catch-22

The technique of adapting a great novel to the screen is all over the place in Hollywood; it goes from throwing the baby out with the bathwater to transliterating line by line. But Mike Nichols captured the soul of Catch-22, and made it one of the best films ever made. The cast is a huge ensemble from one of the brightest assemblies of male talent ever. This movie is at once sad and funny and insane and cogent. But mostly it is absurd and amazing, like the book itself.

I read the book before I saw the movie, and it's filmed in such a way that if you see a non-letterboxed version you often won't be able to tell what's going on.

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To Have and To Have Not

Hemingway was wrong for once, and here is the only movie from one of his books that is better than the book. Not that there's anything wrong with the book; but it's a sad little desperate book with characters that aren't full-blown and alive compared to this movie, which is a monument to how sexy Lauren Bacall was when she was courting Humphrey Bogart, and how overwhelmed he was by her. This is one of those movies that I wish I could see for the first time again, because I've seen it so many times that it could never be fresh for me again. But I also can still vaguely remember the delight I felt when I first saw it, and that memory is strong enough for me to put it up among my 10 favorites.

A page describing To Have And Have Not (1944)

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Breaking the Waves

A movie about the wild cruel injustice of our misinterpretations of goodness, and about the depths of martyrdom only true innocence can attain. A movie so intimately about good versus evil that it touches on the most basic aspects of our moral assumptions and asks profound and terrible questions about the true meaning of right and wrong.

While i watched this movie I was so horrified that I almost wanted to run out of the theater several times. I loved the protagonist so much I couldn't bear to see her hurt. But the director strangely and wisely inserted all these long, quiet still scenes of landscapes of rare beauty between acts with music from the seventies that really help to calm you down and they helped keep in my seat where the unceasing barrage of a normal movie might have driven me from my seat.

Breaking the Waves devastated me emotionally and almost overwhelmed me to the point where I can barely even recommend it. But if you do see it, make sure you see it all the way through to the end. It's the only way to survive it, I think.

The Internet Movie Database page for Breaking the Waves

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Rear Window

 

A page describing Rear Window (1954)

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West Side Story

 

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