March 5, 2010

Perfect Films: Vol. 1

What makes a film perfect? Well, number one, the absence of badness. Seems rational enough. But when was the last time you saw a movie with nothing wrong with it? There were no performances that bugged you, no groan-inducing line of dialogue, no look-at-your-watch moment. Probably not lately. Even the greatest films, the ones with artistry and ambition, are rarely perfect. A perfect film is a once-in-a-blue-moon, beautifully crystalline occurrence. The heavens open and you breathe a sigh of relief, Now, that was a perfect film.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

Casablanca is the textbook example of a perfect film. It has everything: romance, humor, political intrigue, really good looking people in trouble, Nazis, a theme song, Peter Lorre and an unimpeachably perfect script. Really. Screenwriting dialogue has never been better and if you can find a script that improves on the Epstein brothers', I will eat my hat. I'll even eat Rick and Isla's hats. Casablanca is just one of those films that appeals to everyone, everytime. When you analyze the individual elements, it doesn't seem like much. It's an average love story with an international cast, not unusual for films of the time. But it's how each element joins together that makes Casablanca into the perfect film it is. 

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

A film has to be more than technically perfect to qualify for 'perfect film' status, so some may argue with my inclusion of Lawrence of Arabia on this list. Certainly, Lean's masterpiece is technically perfect, a staggering, towering achievement in epic filmmaking. But many viewers find it too long, too boring, too white, and too male. Those viewers, of course, are what critical film scholars have termed, "stupid." Actually, in all seriousness, a 'perfect film' does not need to cross-over into 'favorite film' categories, it merely needs to be perfect. In all aspects, Lawrence fits the bill. The storytelling is flawless with a script by Robert Bolt that blends elements of the war film and the biopic, managing to surpass both genres. Lean's meticulous direction is at alternate points gripping and hypnotic. And then there's Peter O'Toole. Dear, dear Peter, Lawrence of Arabia himself, giving the performance, not only of his life, but of several mens' lives. Onscreen for almost all of the film's 216 minute run-time (more or less depending on which cut of the film you watch), for sheer presence, O'Toole out-performs most of the actors who are ever nominated for Oscars. He lost of Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, which gives you an indiction of the incredible talent represented in the Best Actor race that year. 

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

Like Lawrence of Arabia, I expect a bit of resistance at this choice, although for different reasons. Ghostbusters?, I hear you scoffing. Oh, yes, Ghostbusters. I justify my choice slightly by distancing myself from the candy-coated nostalgia haze clouding so many '80s "classics" that have become canonically vaunted with the rise of the 30-something fanboy bloggerstocracy. I didn't see Ghostbusters as a child; I saw it recently in reaction to the Ghostbusters III rumors floating around. Why was everyone so danged excited? Short answer: because Ghostbusters is freaking awesome, that's why. First of all, it's perfectly paced. It's a rare quality in comedies these days, but Ghostbusters knows where to place a montage, when to initiate a climax and how long it takes to vanquish a monster, and it's ain't very long. Bloated effects-laden pictures should look to Ghostbusters for a lesson in balancing action and humor perfectly. Secondly, the cast is perfect. This is mainly the result of comedians writing material for themselves and their talented friends. The result is the natural feeling of camaraderie and good-humor that infuses the film. Drs. Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler seem more like old familiar friends than characters hatched at a studio pitch meeting. 

City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. City Lights is his most perfect film. This may be an opinion piece, but the two preceding sentences are fact. Here's the synopsis: Charlie has fallen in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who has mistaken him for a wealthy man. They begin a courtship in earnest. Through a series of misunderstandings, Charlie is accused of stealing $1000 from a wealthy friend, which he gives to the flower girl for an operation to regain her sight. Charlie is picked up for theft and jailed. The final scene:

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Another great movie with a near-perfect screenplay, North By Northwest is Hitchcock's most shamelessly populist entertainment. Like Chaplin, almost any Hitchcock film could be eligible for this list (I mean canonical Hitchcock, of course, which excludes most of his early work in Britain and his comedies). But I think North by Northwest is Hitch's most iconic, most pleasurable and precise film. If Psycho is my favorite Hitchcock and Vertigo is the best Hitchcock, then North by Northwest is definitely the most perfect Hitchcock. It blends everything that typifies the director's suspense thrillers without being too heavy or too light. Vivid Technicolor, attractive and charming leads, political intrigue and sexual innuendo abound. Although a long film, the pacing achieved by Hitch and screenwriter Ernest Lehman is superb, engaging and spritely when necessary but never too slow to bore or too fast to confuse. Hitch's control of the cinematic space and expert editing in the crop duster scene is legendary. To be able to halt a chase movie in the middle of the action, strand Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere, elicit gasps from his audience instead of the chuckles you might expect when you ponder the absurdity of trying to kill a man with a biplane, and then re-adjust the film to an espionage thriller is beyond skill. It's perfection. 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)

The structure of this screenplay by William Goldman is so perfect, it's used as a model for screenwriting students. Goldman's 1982 book about writing in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade is still considered an industry Bible for wannabe filmmakers. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of a number of screenplays reproduced and analyzed in the book, and having read the full text I can tell you it's just as entertaining to read the script as it is to watch the film. Although technically a revisionist Western, about as far as you can get from John Wayne, the timeless qualities of BCATSK has launched it into the Western film canon. It has a pleasing buddy comedy structure that's still popular today, so instead of a more traditional film like Stagecoach informing the popular conception of a Western, it's Butch and Sundance (along with the ever-popular spaghetti Westerns of Leone and others). Not that I'm complaining. It wouldn't be on the list if it wasn't perfect. From the incongruously charming Burt Bacharach score to Goldman's endlessly quotable script and note-perfect performances by Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the world's most handsome outlaws, BCATSK is a pleasure and a great film I never tire of revisiting. 

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to name the funniest and most romantic romantic comedy, I'd probably start crying and then say Annie Hall. To me, Annie Hall is perfection, pure and simple. It works its magic on you subtly and eternally. As Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) fall in love with each other, you fall in love with them. And even though they don't stay together, it doesn't ruin your appreciation of the movie--it deepens it. There are plenty of classic moments, including the lobster scene, which I'm convinced inspired this equally classic bit from Friends. Well, anyway, what're you listening to me for? Just watch this: 

Well, that's it for Vol. One. Thanks to everyone on Facebook who contributed their Perfect Films!


  1. Great choices. I'm not much of a Woody Allen fan, as an actor or filmmaker, but Annie Hall is a terrific film.

    I'd actually replace City Lights with Modern Times or The Kid, as far as Chaplin goes. But it's sooooo incredibly difficult to choose just one Chaplin film, as they're all so superb.

  2. I chose City Lights because it has all of the greatest elements of Chaplin's work up until that point. For example, he parodies sound in the opening scene of City Lights and it's a one-gag think, whereas the joke is slightly strained in Modern Times when the Tramp "talks" for the first time during the singing/dancing scene. I love that scene but I think Modern ties is a more politically contentious and cynical film, despite its ending. The Kid is very sentimental but City Lights balanced both sentiment, a cynical view of modernism and urban plight perfectly. I think it's the pinnacle of Chaplin as filmmaker simply because it manages to combine all of his best elements.

  3. I'd also like to throw the following films in there

    The Godfather Parts 1 & 2
    Star Wars & The Empire Strikes Back
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    L.A. Confidential
    Schindler's List
    The Insider
    Taxi Driver
    Raging Bull

  4. Of those I'd definitely consider The Godfather (the first one), L.A. Confidential and Raging Bull for the next edition.

    I'd have to re-watch Raiders. I don't know about Vertigo for the reasons I've listed above. It is Hitch's greatest accomplishment but I don't know if it's perfect.

    I don't think those other films fit the criterion, although I like all of them, minus the ones you already know I don't like haha.

  5. thought of a few more.

    The Dark Knight
    There Will Be Blood
    No Country for Old Men
    Saving Private Ryan
    almost any Pixar film besides Cars, A Bug's Life and The Incredibles
    Citizen Kane (though I admire that film more than I actually enjoy watching it)

    out of curiosity, how does Schindler's List not fit the criteria?

  6. charlie chaplin's the kid should definitely still be up there i love the one line "a story with a smile and perhaps a tear"