For some reason a lot of people have asked me lately to name my favorite movies of all time. Good grief! It's like trying to pick my favorite child. And I have a lot of kids.
Mostly I've begged off and answered in genres. I love the great film noirs, I'll say, from "The Maltese Falcon" to "Double Indemnity," trying to pick titles that might be familiar.
Musicals: "Singin' in the Rain," "On the Town," "Carousel," "The Music Man."
Comedies: A lot of Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness titles, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Abbott & Costello. "Bringing Up Baby," "Some Like it Hot," "His Girl Friday," "The Sting," "Tootsie," "Raising Arizona."
Westerns: "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Rio Bravo," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Big Country," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Ox-Bow Incident," "Ride the High Country."
Science fiction and horror films: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Thing From Another World," "Forbidden Planet," the Vincent Price-Edgar Allan Poe pictures, Hitchcock's "The Birds" and "Psycho."
Dramas: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Casablanca," "In the Heat of the Night," "The Fugitive," "Tender Mercies."
You know. The standard-issue usual suspects.
But then I stumbled across an old story I wrote for the Deseret News — and I mean old. Would you believe it ran in 1982? Yes, they had movies then. With both sound and color.
It was fun for me to revisit this old story, not just because it included a list of my then-top 15 favorite films, but because it also had titles listed by several other film critics/buffs around town. And comparing notes again gave me a real lift, not just nostalgically, but also with the realization that I now have most of them in DVD form right here on the shelf or available through Netflix, something that wasn't possible back then.
Yes, children, when I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, we had to wait for movies to show up on TV (in truncated form with commercial interruptions), if they showed up at all. And even in 1982, the VHS home-video market was still in its genesis. But now. …
Ain't technology grand?
Anyway, I thought about the list I made in '82, and what I would list today, and, interestingly, it's not all that different.
The biggest differences? Back then I included Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941), considered by many the greatest movie of all time; "City Lights" (1931), the Charlie Chaplin silent classic; "Two For the Road" (1967), a tale of marital strife starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney; "A Thousand Clowns" (1965), an offbeat comedy with Jason Robards; "To Be or Not to Be" (1942), the original Ernest Lubitsch Nazi satire starring Jack Benny; "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), the frantic farce with Cary Grant; and "You Can't Take it With You" (1938), the best-picture winner from Frank Capra, starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur.
None of which would be on the list today.
But that's not because they've fallen into disfavor (in fact, I own all of them, save "A Thousand Clowns," which has never been released on DVD). The reason they would not make the top 15 this time is simply because others have risen above them, different films I tend to return to again and again, a little more often than those. (And in another 28 years, that could change again.)
The rest of the movies on that old list, however, would still be included today — "La Strada" (1954), "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964), "North By Northwest" (1959), "The Court Jester" (1956), "Duck Soup" (1933), "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and "The Graduate" (1967).
And what replacement titles would I throw in today? "A Shot in the Dark" (1964), "Vertigo" (1958), "Out of the Past" (1947), "Wings of Desire" (1987), "The General" (1927), "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) and "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946).
Remember these are my personal "favorites." Not "bests." And they are in no particular order of preference. And I could add another 15 or 150 off the top of my head if I really let myself go.
I'm quite comfortable recommending any and all of these, though I recognize that not all will appeal to everyone.
Not much needs to be said about "It's a Wonderful Life," except that I've probably seen it more often than any other single movie, and it never seems to lose its grip. "A Hard Day's Night" is, of course, the seminal rock musical of the 1960s and helped boost the Beatles into the celebrity stratosphere. And "North By Northwest" is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most entertaining thrillers, laced with a lot of comedy and wrapped up with that iconic Mount Rushmore climax.
But "The Graduate"? Really? The dark comedy about an older woman seducing a college kid? This movie had a profound effect on me when I saw it the first time, and it may well be the film that started me on the road to film analysis, thinking about what movies can say about culture and human behavior and life in general, and the less obvious meanings layered in subtext. But also about how movies are made, the art of director Mike Nichols' choices in the way the camera is used, as well as the set design, the lighting, the point of view and the performances of the actors.
"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" was my first foreign-language movie, and, as a young teenager, I was transfixed by Catherine Deneuve. But this is also a most unconventional film, an operetta, entirely sung, without a word of spoken dialogue as it tells the story of doomed young romance.
"La Strada" was the second foreign-language film I fell in love with, about a small traveling circus and the simple peasant girl (Giulietta Masina, filmmaker Federico Fellini's wife) who is sold to a brutal strong man (Anthony Quinn). Masina's expressive face is impossible to resist.
"Wings of Desire," a unique look at angels and their relationship with the living, is the most recent film on this list, another foreign-language gem that is artfully constructed.
"The General" is Buster Keaton's silent masterpiece (and he made many wonderful films), a hilarious and eye-popping Civil War train-chase tale loaded with slapstick comedy, wild stunts and a lot of heart.
"Vertigo" is Alfred Hitchcock's acknowledged classic, but it took me awhile to completely warm up to it. Now I see so much in it that I can watch it again and again and always find something new. James Stewart is great, and so is Kim Novak.
"Out of the Past" is a picture I discovered late, a stunning film noir thriller loaded with crackling dialogue, most of it delivered with hilarious aplomb by Robert Mitchum at the top of his "Baby, I don't care" game.
"A Shot in the Dark," "Duck Soup," "The Court Jester" and "What's Up, Doc?" just make me laugh like no other movies, no matter how many times I watch them.
And "The Best Years of Our Lives" may well be my absolute favorite of all, the story of three GIs returning from World War II to readjust to civilian life, and all them running into hurdles that are not easily overcome. But one of the things that speaks to me is that they do indeed overcome them. I saw this film when I was quite young and found it entertaining, but when I saw it again as an adult, after returning from Vietnam, it really connected with me. I've watched it many times and it never grows old.
In fact, I wonder if my wife would mind watching it again tonight.