Friday, December 23, 2011

Favorite Films of Favorite Directors

The best films have one thing in common--outstanding direction from remarkable artists who hone their craft over long careers. Overseeing all aspects of film production must be an incredible job. So much to keep a handle on. When they get it right, it's magic. Sure, they miss the mark occasionally, leaving us wondering how so and so made such a stinker, but more often than not they amaze us rather than disappoint. More than a few of the best have a masterpiece or even two on their resume.

What follows are my favorite films from my favorite directors. I planned to restrict it to ten but found that silly and unreasonable. I don't suggest that these are necessarily these directors' masterpiece, though you can often make that argument. Rather, the films are the ones I enjoy the most, for any number of reasons, and the ones I rewatch over and over. Ask me next week and you might get something different, depending on my mood.  But for today, here they are in chronological order:

Frank Capra: It Happened One Night - 1934

Sure he can be overly idealistic, but no one captured Americana quite like Capra. His first big hit is his best because there's little sentiment, just a romantic comedy, a road film about a couple you know are destined to fall in love. The hitch-hiking sequence, the Walls of Jericho, Gable's donut dunking, and best of all, the "Man on the Flying Trapeze" on the bus. A sweet and funny trip in nostalgia. Like all the other films in this list, it has terrific pacing. (Runner-up: It's a Wonderful Life)


Howard Hawks: Only Angels Have Wings - 1939

Hawks credo was that a good film had "three great scenes and no bad ones." Any number of his films meet that test. A versatile director, he excelled at films featuring a small group of men engaged in dangerous work, showing comradeship and bravery in the face of long odds. This aviation drama exemplifies that as well as any. My favorite Jean Arthur film, it has Hawks' signature overlapping dialog and one of Cary Grant's first reach beyond light comedy. Gotta love the Peanut Vendor scene.  (Runner-up: Rio Bravo)

John Ford: Stagecoach - 1939

The American master, Ford set a high standard. Here, he makes John Wayne a star and introduces magnificent Monument Valley to film audiences. The Indian attack is as exciting as any sequence in the genre and includes the remarkable stunt work of Yakima Canutt. Still one of film's best ensemble casts: Mitchell, Trevor, Meek, Devine, Carradine are all great.  (Runner-up: The Searchers)

Billy Wilder: Double Indemnity - 1944

Noir at its best when it comes to a dangerous femme fatale and a sap who can't help falling into her trap. A wickedly entertaining Wilder script and Edgar G. Robinson's finest performance. Stanwyck does sexy trashy better than anyone. The blond wig and ankle bracelet fit her character perfectly and you gotta love the clunky Dictaphone. (Runner-up: The Apartment)

William Wyler: The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

In the handful of greatest American films ever made, this is as perfect as it gets. The best "coming home" film, I don't know how anyone cannot be moved by the poignant story of three vets trying to assimilate back to civilian life after the horror of war. Gregg Toland's deep focus cinematography is particularly wonderful and the entire cast is outstanding. So many great scenes: Fredric March and Myrna Loy's embrace, Dana Andrews in the bomber graveyard, his phone call to Peggy from Butch's bar, and his father reading his citation for bravery. You can well up just thinking about it.  (Runner-up: The Heiress)   

David Lean: Great Expectations - 1946

Most people think of Lean's big epics when they hear his name but I love his early stuff, particularly his two Dickens' films. This is the best translation of a Dicken's novel to screen and Lean and his actors do a wonderful job recreating some of Dickens' most memorable characters: Francis Sullivan as Jaggers, Finlay Currie as Magwitch, and Marita Hunt as Miss Havisham are terrific. The best scene comes early-Pip and Magwitch in the graveyard. Outstanding cinematography and spooky as hell. (Runner-up: The Bridge on the River Kwai) 


Carol Reed: The Third Man - 1948

Not nearly as prolific as other directors in the list, I have to include him. It's my favorite film, ripe with atmosphere like no other. It's an exciting visual experience the first time you see it and the intrigue is spell-binding. I love the decrepit look of post-war Vienna, the piles of broken bricks, the perpetually wet streets, and the crazy zither. The film is unique. Joseph Cotton is always solid and, like his character Holly Martins, I absolutely fell in love with Alida Valli. Her final long walk down the tree-lined avenue, past Martin without looking, is perfect. The sewer sequence is riveting and Welles' first appearance a wonderful shock.    (Runner-up: The Fallen Idol)      

John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle - 1950

I can't think of a better heist film. Huston puts you in the world of small-time crooks like no one else since and Sterling Hayden's doomed Dix Handley is fascinating. Some great period character actors: Louis Calhern; the marvelous Jean Hagen, who epitomizes all women who love a loser; and James Whitmore. A rotten double-crosser and poor Sam Jaffe, the brain who likes to watch young girls dance. Marilyn Monroe defines sultry with sex appeal that practically oozes off the screen, and darn it, you can almost forgive Calhern's motives.  (Runner-up:The Maltese Falcon)

Yasujiro Ozu: Tokyo Story - 1953

Ozu's simplicity and am amazed how his static camera works for the story. Best of all is Setsuko Hara, one of the world's greatest actresses. The third in the marvelous Noriko trilogy, each film is magnificent. Hard to choose, but this one touched me the most. Hara is less the central character here than in the other two films, but you can't take your eyes off her. (Runner-up: Early Summer)

Fred Zinnemann: From Here to Eternity - 1953

When I think of Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Ernest Borgnine, the first film that comes to mind for all is this one. Zinnemann did a great job focusing on the best parts of the novel. One of the reasons I admire the film is the subject--my father was a 21 year old sailor aboard a destroyer in Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Lancaster and Clift did better work elsewhere, but overall this is a terrific ensemble piece. I love Deborah Kerr in anything, and she handles the change of pace here easily. Karen Holmes  is a such a vulnerable character. Watch her eyes as she stares at Lancaster in the bar. She's totally in love and hoping that finally, she's found the man to make her happy. She looks great as a blond too.  (Runner-up: High Noon)

Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo - 1958

If there's any director in this list I could select any number of films as a favorite, it's Hitchcock. Easily my favorite and most-rewatched director. I pick Vertigo because it is his most complicated and layered film. We are all obsessed with something, or someone, at some time in our life and Vertigo takes obsession to a scary place. It interests me that upon release it apparently was not all that well received, while it now ranks with the best American films ever made. Perhaps Stewart's best performance, which says a lot; that memorable and wonderful Hermann score; the Saul Bass title sequence; and the gorgeousness of San Francisco.  (Runner-up: The Thirty-Nine Steps)

Orson Welles: Touch of Evil - 1958

A story of corruption and distrust that is signature Welles. Lots to love here: the fantastic long single-take opening sequence, unusual camera angels, Mancini's unnerving score, Joseph Calleia, unexpected cameos, Welles' as the repulsive but sympathetic Hank Quinlan, and Janet Leigh in a nightie.  My favorite line is a leeringly butch Mercedes MacCambridge saying "I want to watch!" This one more than Citizen Kane reveals what Welles could have achieved had he been left alone.  (Runner-up: The Lady from Shanghai)


  1. Thoughtful and thought-provoking list.

    Ford is my favourite director, but I think I'd have the most trouble narrowing down my Wyler faves. Not willing to put my brain to the test right now as it might explode.

    1. Thanks, CW. It is hard to narrow down your favorites isn't it? It's amazing how much energy these directors had to make so many wonderful films.