Welcome to TG10s. This year, echoing another publication, we are posting our top 10s, and taking votes from you. Keep reading The Twin Geeks for lists from our regular writers, as well as some extra special selection of lists from some amazing guests.
Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979)
Werner Herzog could never be accused of lacking in hubris. Certainly endeavoring to remake the cinematic urtext of the horror genre is among his top hubristic gambits (though, to be sure, did not involve hauling a ferry up a mountain). His gambit paid off though, as Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht is every bit as potent as its forebear and, with a hefty dose of Herzogian idiosyncrasies, manages to increase the eerie power of the film without overpowering the source material with a mélange of out-of-place weirdness. Real-life mummies, plague parties, and a Dracula who is as loquacious as the original’s Orlock was silent, are just some of the memorable distinctions in this version of the story, but Herzog also pays his respects to Murnau’s film by recreating many of its iconic shots and sequences. Herzog’s blend of documentary-like naturalism and mythic grandeur recontextualize the original film’s expressionist imagery into something that’s somehow even more primal. If cinema is the medium of dreams, then Nosferatu is certainly one of its most memorable; Herzog simply takes the dream and transforms it into a recurring nightmare.
Speaking of dreams, no filmmaker has ever depicted the semi-imagined spaces of the unconscious mind like Andrei Tarkovsky. And of all his films, Stalker is certainly the most dreamlike. The verdant, water-logged spaces feel at once tangible and impossible, like they are pieced together from half-forgotten memories and the vague unseen threats and magical promises of the Zone add a touch of the fantastic without teetering the film from dream-state to outright fantasy.
Stalker is totally transportive cinema. Surrender yourself to its unique, languorous rhythms and I promise it will work some of its magic on you whether you’re immediately receptive to it or not. I first watched it as a sophomore in college in a film theory class, and I was admittedly not the most accepting of its intentional lethargy (read: I was bored). Something about the film stuck though and I realized that months had gone by and I was still turning the film over in my head. When I finally got around the revisiting it, Tarkovsky’s magic had fully rubbed off and here the film sits alongside nine other of my all-time greats.
High and Low (1963)
Kurosawa’s bifurcated noir balances each perfectly structured half as its own perfect specimen of thriller filmmaking. Separately the chamber morality-play of the first half and the gritty police procedural of the second are immaculately staged examples of the genre; together, they form an all time great thriller that is as incisive about society as it is about what will raise the audience’s heart rate. Kurosawa in general is the most successful director to ever blend the art film (“high”) and genre film (“low”), so it’s beyond fitting that this is the best encapsulation of that particular blend.
Pound-for-pound Alfred Hitchcock is still the best to ever do it in the thriller space, a genre I hold in particularly esteem. He created the Rosetta Stone for the film grammar of the whole genre and still directors fail to properly make use of his crystal-clear blueprints. There are several of his films I could have placed on this list, but Notorious has an extra dimension that the others don’t have, in addition to its brilliantly tense suspense set pieces; it has a darker, sexier edge to it that plays out between a cruel Carey Grant, luminous Ingrid Bergman, and an almost sympathetic Claude Rains.
The sub-surface tension reacts wonderfully with the technical prowess of its more mechanical thrill and creates a multilayered thriller that crackles with electricity. Hitchcock’s prowess is so finely honed on this film that its climax, that simply involves our protagonists walking down a staircase, is arguably his greatest suspense sequence of all time.
Harakiri is a perfect case study in the art of storytelling. Masaki Kobayashi’s spare direction places all the emphasis on the dramatic tension that unfolds in a series of conversations and nested flashbacks. I defy anyone to watch this movie and not get hooked within the first five minutes; it’s impossible. Never has there been a movie so perfectly suited to watch without any expectations, not necessarily because of the twists and turns of the story (though they’re great) but because this is cinematic storytelling in one of its purest forms. Let the story take you and know you are in the hands of a master.
Polanski’s homage to noir is a cruel and fatalistic piece of clockwork that inexorably draws both the viewer and its hapless detective to its nightmare conclusion, feeling almost as much of a horror film as it does a noir mystery. The harder you try to solve it the more tangled up you become, and the sordid, unknowable ickiness of humanity’s dark center ultimately takes precedent over rational underhandedness. No villainous master plot reveal could be half as brilliant as the confounding depravity Chinatown leaves you with, an ending that cements its place as one of the greats.
The Innocents (1961)
What makes The Innocents the most chilling haunted house film ever to be filmed has less to do with the ghosts themselves (though they make for a few iconic freak outs) but, in true Gothic tradition, the uncomfortable sexual dynamics brought on by Victorian repression. Truman Capote’s screenplay deftly draws all the subtext of Henry James’ original story to the forefront and weaves it with canny visual metaphors that make for a horror film that’s as rich of a narrative as it is an unsettling mood-piece. Luminous black and white widescreen compositions and the freakiest child actors to ever do it round out this decadently creepy film.
The Conversation (1974)
In between the two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola quietly released this cutting character study of paranoia personified. Gene Hackman makes a strong case for being the greatest actor of all time in his buttoned-up performance as Harry Caul, a surveillance man who is only too aware how illusory privacy really is.
On a more basic level, I have a deep appreciation of films about professionalism that go all in on depicting their processes, and The Conversation is a top-notch process film. In this case all the audio surveillance equipment and the act of using it is depicted in exacting detail and Walter Murch’s unimpeachable sound design adds another layer of believability (and sheer craft) to a film that hinges on you buying into its audio-based paranoia. By the same token Brian De Palma’s Blow Out could have easily traded spots with this for similar reasons (Antonioni’s Blow Up, though great, is less enamored with its own professional processes.)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Where most noir films use literal violence to underscore their themes of corruption, Sweet Smell of Success uses words, and its dialogue cuts deeper than any knife ever could and is filled with more potent quotables than an entire year’s worth of other movies. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis engage in a match of verbal brinksmanship to see who can totally vacate what’s left of their already-tarnished morals, and you’ll be rooting for them to do it; it’s simply delightful to watch these two men spit acid at everyone and everything for 90 minutes straight, you just might need a shower when it’s all said and done.
Die Hard (1989)
Who would have figured a film with as haphazard a production as Die Hard would end up feeling like the most meticulously planned action movie, well, ever? McTiernan’s rigorous attention to geography keeps the action and suspense legible, the roving camerawork adds dynamism to every shot, and the pitch-perfect casting adds character to even the small bit-parts. Even as a perennial rewatch favorite I’m still uncovering new layers of craft to appreciate. And while the endless debate about Die Hard’s qualifications as a Christmas movie chases its own tail, its status as a genuine classic is something that is hopefully settled precedent by now.