Cliff’s 10 Best Movies of All Time — Alternate Take

A while back I posted “Cliff’s 10 Best Movies of All Time.” Lists like this, whether about movies, books, or music, are fun but also fundamentally fraudulent, since no one who puts them together has read, seen, or heard every film, novel, or record out there. The longer we live, and the more we encounter, the more our experience broadens, and the more we reflect on what we have already experienced. It is with that in mind that I offer an alternate Top 10. This list does not supersede the first one — I stand by the films on that list — nor does it exactly combine with the first to form a Top 20, since part of my rationale for the original choices was that each one represented a particular idea or quality, which is not necessarily the case with the new list. Best to call it, as jazz musicians do, an alternate take. So, in no special order:

MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). Fascinating beyond all reason, and, if you think about it — and you don’t have to think too long — horrifying in its implications. I’m not sure David Lynch completely worked through the logic of this story; it’s more as if he glimpsed something he himself didn’t understand and merely reported back, which is scarier still. This movie knocked my socks off.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943). Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s moving epic about a career soldier (Roger Livesey, a sort of British Cary Grant) whose weakness is his belief that the world is as honorable as he is.

JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975). In this film by Chantal Akerman, we watch single parent Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) as she makes meatloaf, washes dishes, has quiet dinners with her teenage son . . . oh, and takes in male sex clients. The sympathy we develop for Jeanne during what ought to be unwatchably dull sequences is a miracle, and the ending is a heartbreaker.

NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964). Michael Roemer’s film, starring Ivan Dixon and Abbie Lincoln, was made during the civil rights era but is not about civil rights, exactly. It is simply a deeply human story about one couple’s struggle to stay together in the face of societal conditions that would be funny if they weren’t so horrible. Completely unsentimental and very affecting.

GOODFELLAS (1990). You like mob movies or you don’t. I do. This is one of the best.

THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY II (1989). I admit this doesn’t sound like much. Most sequels are created solely to make suckers of people who liked the original stories, and it’s a rare sequel that comes close to equaling, let alone surpasses, its predecessor. But here is one of those rare films. As cliché as this sounds, you will laugh all the way through The Gods Must Be Crazy II, and when it’s over you may have a tear in your eye. (And it’s not necessary at all to have seen the original.)

SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). Ingmar Bergman’s TV miniseries, condensed for theatrical release. An amazingly written and acted portrait of a marriage that fails but refuses to die. (Only one thing didn’t make sense: Who could leave Liv Ullmann?)

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Capra’s masterpiece has become just another part of Christmas, which makes it easy to forget just what a great film it is. It’s a Wonderful Life is novelistic in its accumulation of detail and its treatment of the passage of time, with its attendant disappointments. I cry every year.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). The Dude! Macabre fun, the Coen brothers’ way. Inspired.

UNFORGIVEN (1992). “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” This is Clint Eastwood, after making more shoot-em-ups than you could shake a stick at, reflecting on the real cost of violence.

What’s on your list?

4 thoughts on “Cliff’s 10 Best Movies of All Time — Alternate Take

  1. Hey, Cliff. I love the alternate take concept, as thought the top 10 list is a composition subject to improvisation and the vagaries of the moment, as opposed to an immutable sculpture in which, for each moviegoer, the list must be set in stone. Among other things, I am sure that any list I put together is missing important films that I simply cannot remember at the moment due to a failure of my synapses and not the film itself (we are 50, after all). With that in mind, here is a take:

    The Dead — A miniature, but Huston’s flawless, faithful and beautiful rendering of the Joyce story.

    Anatomy of a Murder — Jimmy Stewart AND the Ellington Orchestra! Intelligent courtroom scenes that credibly, and engagingly, center on the arcana of evidentiary rulings and not implausible lawyer theatrics.

    Throne of Blood — Kurosawa does MacBeth in Medieval Japan. The setting, style and mood work perfectly with the story.

    Diner — About the best young guy banter film there is. The film doesn’t idolize or judge its characters, but just lets you be with them for the good times and the consequences they are too young and stupid — despite their smarts — to foresee.


    Atarnajuat — the story has the shifting moral weight of a Greek or Elizabethan tragedy. An early digital full-length film, beautifully shot in the frozen north.

    Fanny & Alexander

    [Placeholder for Marx Bros. movie] — there’s no perfect Marx Bros. movie but I love them too much to leave them off. At any given moment, Duck Soup and Night at the Opera are leading contenders for this spot.

  2. Cliff,

    I was pleasantly surprised. This is not a bad list for someone who thinks THE GODFATHER is a great movie.

    My ten best changes depending on what day it is. Today it’s:

    2. THE RED DESERT (and about 4 other Antonioni films)
    4. PERSONA
    5. GREED
    6. SHERLOCK, JR.
    9. T-MEN

    P.S. Saw the Heath brothers at the Vanguard. Dude’s in his late 80’s and he’s still honkin’ that horn.

  3. Josh — I’ve seen all on your list except Atarnajuat, which I didn’t even know about. Good choices; I particularly love Diner. Barry Levinson doesn’t get enough credit. His dialogue is the best. I think it’s Tin Men in which a character describes Bonanza as a show about “a 50-year-old man with three 47-year-old sons.” Noel — I love The Wild Bunch, and I’m thrilled to see The Long Goodbye on your list. I love Elliott Gould in that. I won’t tell you the ones on your list I haven’t seen yet! Cool about the Heath brothers. I saw Jimmy Heath read at Albert Murray’s funeral back in September.

  4. Josh, I meant to add that I recently watched Preminger’s Advise and Consent, which like Anatomy of a Murder was a kind of procedural — in this case about the process of confirming a Cabinet nominee. The film is also interesting for the baby steps it takes toward liberal positions (it was made in 1962). There is a female U.S. senator, black congressional aides running around (though they have no lines), and a very interesting take on a gay bar.

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