10. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) [Main Picture]
Written by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), Sam Mendes’ biting suburban drama is perhaps the most universally adorned debut of all time – critics love Citizen Kane, sure, but outside of academic circles surprisingly few people have seen it. American Beauty was a huge success upon release landing Best Director and Best Picture at the 2000 Oscars, and it remains as popular as ever. It may be a bit cartoonish and clichéd but the whole film is held together by the gorgeous cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), delicate score (Thomas Newman) and the central (astonishing) performance by Kevin Spacey. So many scenes from this film have entered popular culture, not least Lester Burnham’s (Spacey) dream where he fantasizes about one of his daughters’ school friends lying naked on a bed of roses… it’s a stunning image, and one rooted into the subconscious of film fans everywhere. I find the film deeply moving and Mendes shows stylistic flourishes here that would be built upon in the rest of his career – think of the rainy slow-motion massacre in Road To Perdition (2002) – but none would be as complete as this film. Hauntingly emotional, it’s a true masterpiece.
9. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
What to say about this classic horror that hasn’t already been said? It’s controversial reputation has a stake in almost every country – it was banned in Finland, Iceland and Germany and here in the UK made the video nasties list, and wasn’t released uncut until 2001 – when it was rightfully given special edition treatment, released in Book Of The Dead packaging (an essential purchase for any horror fan). Certain critics gave it rave reviews but the general consensus labeled The Evil Dead as ugly, offensive and corrupting. Indeed, such accusations are just as silly as the film itself which also indulges in zany comedy and set-pieces, making iconic the character of Ash (Bruce Campbell), who by the third installment (Army Of Darkness, 1992) was a wisecracking cult hero. The practical effects are quite brilliant – some would say cheesy and naff, I say that’s why they work – and the unrelenting pace, incredible sound design, innovative camerawork and darkly tongue-in-cheek humour have ensured that it’s reputation is a classic is upheld now, on its 30th anniversary. If you haven’t already seen it, there’s no better time…
8. The Element Of Crime (Lars von Trier, 1984)
Although it’s far from perfect, von Trier’s sepia-toned noir is one of the most astonishing visual experiences I’ve ever encountered. The plot is non existent and the filmmakers’ decision to indulge in voiceover distances the audience rather than engages them, but as an experiment in visual storytelling it’s equalled only by the works of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. The look of the film – washed-out, dirty browns, naturalistic lighting – clearly references Andrei Tarkovsky, in particular Stalker (1979). One shot sees the camera track a helicopter over an ocean as it heads towards rising flames in the distance. The heat radiates off the screen and the lighting is beautiful… in that shot is tragedy and excitement, and it’s a work of art. The camera is completely free in Element Of Crime, scaling buildings up and down, traversing streets and the skies. It’s a real shame that there’s so little substance to discuss (a romantic sub-plot adds little) because I would stake a claim for this debut feature being among the best looking films of all time. Certainly no other directorial debut has this profound an understanding of visuals – even if they are stolen.
7. Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)
Undoubtedly one of the coolest films I’ve ever seen, Brick transfers classic 50s noir tropes into a contemporary high school setting and puts the aged Bogart-like antihero into the body of a precocious, wisecracking teenager. There’s no other word to describe the film than cool – from the muted tones of the photography and the softness of the lighting every frame of the film is executed with an assured flair. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hardboiled high schooler is an instantly iconic character – always sporting a bruise or two, he’s a quick-thinking, light-footed investigator on the outside looking in. He takes several punches throughout the film but always stays one step ahead of suburban drug-lord ‘The Pin’ (Lukas Haas). Although it derives from the classic noirs mentioned earlier Brick pretty much creates its own language – the nuances of the dialogue and pace of the delivery scores a perfect rhythm for the film, which knowingly lives in the shadow of both Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) and The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985). Dark, urgent and spiky, it’s the best cult film of the last ten years and Johnson’s best work to date.
6. Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982)
A terrific cast – Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin… Steve Guttenberg *ahem* – line up for one of the ultimate coming of age movies set in 1959 Baltimore. These guys, all in their early 20s, spend most of their time hanging out in a Diner and are forced to take a look at their lives and re-evaluate when one of their group gets married. It’s a story about maturing, accepting responsibility and embracing the difficulties of adult life but more than anything the film is just hugely entertaining and moving. I love films that simply present conversations between characters, especially around a food related setting (Rules Of The Game, Festen, Coffee And Cigarettes), and this semi-autobiographical nostalgia flick is among the best. Essentially a series of vignettes, the joy of the film comes from just watching these friends interact with each other, slowly revealing layers of depth through naturalistic conversation. It also captures the lost tradition of the American Diner – a few still exist today, but these iconic locations are now all but lost to current generations. With Levinson’s perfect debut – which is warm, honest and very funny – we can remember them forever.
5. Stachka [Strike] (Sergei Eisenstein, 1924)
A fascinating film theorist, Eisenstein was also one of the revolutionary filmmakers of the 1920s, leading the way for Russian Film School pioneers like Vsevolod Pudovkin (Mat, 1926). He wrote countless books on filmmaking (and I recommend them all, especially ‘Film Form’) but for the best understanding of his innovative Montage Theory (a style of editing that allows the collision of images to tell the story) you need to watch his films. The best of these is Stachka, a political propaganda film that ends in one of the most powerful massacre scenes in all of cinema. Scenes of police brutality are intercut with a shot of a cow being slaughtered – intelligent metaphor through editing. And although the metaphor may seem a little less subtle now Eisenstein’s unflinching eye still impresses – horses trample over striking citizens and one police officer drops a baby from the balcony. The camera pans all the way to the ground stopping at a heart shattering moment where you actually forget to catch your breath. Bold and beautiful, Eisenstein’s films are unique – but never again would he be as good as he is here.
4. À bout de souffle [Breathless] (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
Okay, it’s pretentious and self-indulgent to a degree that can be off-putting, and you could put most of À bout de souffle’s innovation down to accident, but ex-critic Godard’s understanding of the cinematic medium allowed genius and fluke to co-exist in a revolutionary crime story and practically launch the French New Wave. Without him we’d still be stuck in limbo, and À bout de souffle is undeniably cool – who could forget that shot of sharp, suited Jean-Paul Belmondo and cropped, spirited Jean Seberg strolling down the street in glorious black and white (courtesy of Raoul Coutard)? It’s a beautiful film and also an iconic one, not least for the epic conversation set-piece in the middle of the film, which keeps up the relentless pace in fluid camerawork and rapid-fire dialogue. Godard is clearly homaging classic American crime cinema but implementing hand-held camerawork, voiceover, jump cuts and tracking shots. In fact, the aesthetic decisions are so bold and unconventional that Godard was accused of having contempt for the audience, and literally making an unwatchable film. 51 years on and À bout de souffle isn’t just watchable – it’s endlessly re-watchable and the focus of study all over the world.
3. Performance (Nicolas Roeg, Donald Cammell, 1970)
I talked about this one on The Screening Room recently and can think of no better topic to resurrect my love for it than on a list of great directorial debuts. Roeg was a bold visual stylist who learnt his trade as a cinematographer, and Cammell was an art prodigy who left his roots as a portrait painter to indulge in the debauched swinging London scene of the 60s. Together they crafted Performance – a terrifyingly visceral, hallucinatory essay on the nature of identity, rock music and sex (which would become an important recurring theme of Roeg’s solo work). The camera is like a magic box in Performance – shots reflect through mirrors, change floorboards to ceilings, obscure images, cross-cut between past and present and jump cut between rooms, disorienting the viewer so that we never feel at home in Turner’s (Mick Jagger) mansion – and ensuring it remains a mysterious palace of excess for Chas (James Fox). The most important film to ever hit the British art scene (the music video started here) it remains a masterpiece of jagged narrative and visual experiment… see it at any cost.
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
A masterpiece from beginning to end, Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in the seminal Citizen Kane when he was only 26 – an astonishing achievement by anybody’s standards. The opening fade in to Kane’s mansion is instantly arresting, as is the whispered word “Rosebud” – which provides the central mystery for a film equal parts mogul satire, biopic and detective noir. Welles’ innovative direction is probably what holds it together, but his understanding of narrative storytelling is what really impresses – just look at the breakfast table montage where Kane’s first marriage is deconstructed in a series of sentences, each more biting than the last. The camera flourishes show a stylist pushing the boundaries of the medium but the socio-political elements of the screenplay, deft balancing of story arcs and universally brilliant performances also confirm it as the work of a craftsman of substance. Relentlessly entertaining and intelligent, Kane is beautifully lit, edited and acted and now celebrating its 70th anniversary is more relevant than ever. Welles was talented beyond his years and remains a unique presence in the history of American cinema.
1. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
It’s frankly amazing to think that a conversation piece about the justice system, set over one day in a single room, could be more gripping or exciting than most action movies, but in the hands of master filmmaker Sidney Lumet it becomes a masterpiece of calculated friction and exposed prejudice. It’s to the credit of Lumet and screenwriter Reginald Rose that the film has endured too – the idea of a lone man standing up against the preconceptions of a disillusioned American public could now seem a little pat and contrived. It’s hard to imagine any jury ever concluding their verdict in a fashion such as this. But 12 Angry Men is drama – and Lumet focuses all of his attention on character. It’s the personalities and opinions of these men that inform the tension and pace of the film. It’s also incredibly cinematic – beautifully shot, the multiple-angle perspectives and scope of cinema allows Lumet to explore every aspect of his story. You can even feel the sweltering heat of that day. Hard to believe this is only the first work of a filmmaker whose career is still going strong today.