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Through the Decades: The No. 1s

by Preston Wilder

First, a bit of context: in the summer I often like to go ‘Through the Decades’, looking back to previous years ending in ‘5’ and writing up my favourite films from the past. This year, however, for various reasons, there won’t be time to do that, indeed this week is the only respite we’re likely to get from the multiplex beat – so I thought I’d condense all ‘Through the Decades’ into one glorious week, citing only my No. 1 film at ten-yearly intervals from 2005 all the way back to 1935. Here they are, with the (minor) caveat that citing only top films is bound to result in some unsurprising choices. That’s why they’re No. 1, after all…

 2005: THE SQUID AND THE WHALE

Having said that, here’s a surprise: Noah Baumbach’s incisive, darkly humorous, still-underrated account of parents divorcing, based on his own parents. Dad (Jeff Daniels) is a self-regarding intellectual, Mum (Laura Linney) highly-strung and unfaithful; they fight like the Squid and the Whale at the American Museum of Natural History, and meanwhile their boys – Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, son of Kevin – are predictably messed-up. Brief, impressionistic and sketched in family shorthand, all the nicknames and in-jokes that parents and children use to navigate the chaos of being trapped in a lifetime relationship.

1995: LAND AND FREEDOM

Sitting in a bar recently, I got to talking with a fellow tippler – an electrician by profession – who, to my surprise, cited Land and Freedom as his favourite film of all time. I assume political leanings had something to do with it – but Ken Loach’s riveting tale of a young Liverpudlian in the Spanish Civil War is by no means left-wing propaganda, taking a long hard look at the self-delusion (though also the idealism) that marked the war on the Republican side. The battle scenes are stark and wrenching – but the long, lucid, passionate debate about collectivisation hits even harder.

1985: AFTER HOURS

“Is that all there is?” sings Peggy Lee towards the end of Martin Scorsese’s wry, glorious black comedy. Bright-eyed yuppie Griffin Dunne finds himself in downtown New York – in a time before ATMs and mobile phones – on the trail of a mystery girl who turns out to be slightly too weird; he makes a getaway but loses his money, can’t get on the subway and finds himself wandering the streets in a Kafkaesque urban nightmare. The shaggy-dog nature of the story may prompt cries of ‘minor Scorsese’ – is that all there is? – but don’t be fooled: he’s never done anything funnier, or more sophisticated.

1975: JAWS

I am not a Steven Spielberg fan – but Jaws is a masterpiece, a monster movie large enough to accommodate politics, character comedy from Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, and, in the famous ‘Indianapolis’ speech, a touch of rough-hewn poetry. “We’re going to need a bigger boat!” goes the best-known quote – but Spielberg, crucially, doesn’t get a bigger boat, which is why his biggest flaw (his eternal tendency to overdo everything) isn’t allowed to take over. MVP: Bruce the mechanical shark, for malfunctioning and forcing everyone to become more creative.

1965: REPULSION

Doll-like, chilly Catherine Deneuve goes nuts in a London apartment. A perfect film, in the sense of every moment being meticulously planned and executed – though also a problematic film, in the sense that Roman Polanski’s camera lays siege to a passive, tortured girl who only wants to be left alone. It’s a close call – but I watched the film again this year and it’s actually aware of the problem, all its male characters hopelessly turned on by the heroine’s passivity (they too want to possess her) and paying the price, Polanski acknowledging his own male gaze and moving beyond it. This is psychological horror of the highest order.

1955: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

Deep South Gothic, made by a man from Scarborough – actor-turned-director Charles Laughton – who never made another film, stung by the failure of this one. I’ve loved Night of the Hunter ever since it bewitched me at the age of 13: the florid language (David Grubb’s original novel is worth checking out), the small-town feel, the presence of water in the dreamlike river interlude or the shot of the drowned woman’s hair peeling out like tendrils – and of course Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, the terrifying preacher with ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on his knuckles. “It was with this left hand that ol’ brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low…”

 1945: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN

In the last year of the war, two very human dramas battle it out for the top spot: another viewing may well put Brief Encounter in first place – but for now I’ll go with this one, a coming-of-age drama electrified by director Elia Kazan’s ability to invoke intense emotionality without toppling over into fakery or melodrama. Peggy Ann Garner as the young girl, Dorothy McGuire as her flinty mother, James Dunn (who won an Oscar) as good-natured, spineless drunken Dad, are all superlative.

1935: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

“And two hard-boiled eggs!” The escalating madness of the stateroom scene. Groucho and Chico working out the contract – “It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call the sanity clause”; “Ha, you can’t-a fool me: there ain’t no Sanity Clause!”. The orgy of destruction at the opera. The hotel detective getting increasingly frantic. (Also, alas, the pauses for song.) I could go on all night, but it’s tough on my suspenders.

 

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