©2019 Kari Carlisle
What is the most important part of a movie? Is it the plot? The caliber of the acting? The quality of the direction? Certainly, music and editing play important roles. I move that while all these elements are important in the making of a good film, the cinematography ultimately tops the list in a motion picture’s ability to move its viewers, its power to bring you right into the world, not merely a viewer of it.
This week, the American Society of Cinematographers recognized its 100th anniversary and published its list of the top 100 films of the 20th century that mark achievements in cinematography. As I read through the top ten, as well as the remaining unranked 90 films, I could see why many of them were selected. I have seen quite a few of them, and while many are not well-known, they are imprinted on my memory because of the amazing cinematography.
I took special interest in the diversity of genres which even included one documentary. Of particular note are the science fiction and fantasy movies, as well as two horror, totaling more than 10% of the list.
But first I want to recognize the #1 spot, even though it is a historical drama. Lawrence of Arabia is one of my all-time favorite movies. I’ve watched it many times on VHS and DVD over the years, and when a local theater offered a single viewing of the movie on the big screen late one night for 25 cents, I could not pass up the opportunity. The cinematography, the music, and Peter O’Toole’s piercing blue eyes fairly leap out from the big screen so much more powerfully than the television. Unless you have seen Lawrence of Arabia and been so moved as I have, you cannot appreciate the homage to O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence in Prometheus in which the artificial intelligence, David, emulates him.
In the number two spot on ASC’s list is Blade Runner. Its cinematic qualities copied many times since, Blade Runner set the stage for the modern dystopian zeitgeist.
Also in the top ten (at #9) is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though we may still debate the film’s meaning, there’s no debate over the revolutionary quality of the film to transport us to space effectively for the first time in movie history.
Though the bottom 90 are unranked by ASC, I took the liberty of assigning my own ranking of the rest of the SFF and paranormal films on the list. I letter them so as not to confuse with ASC’s top ten.
A. Alien. Having seen this both when it first came to theaters and 25 years later on the biggest screen in Phoenix, the timelessness of its cinematography is evident. My visceral reaction as an adult to the chest-popping alien scene was nearly identical to my reaction seeing it for the first time as a teenager.
B. The Shining. Admit it… you cannot separate yourself from Danny as you ride that Big Wheel around the hotel corridor corner and stop dead at the sight of those creepy twin girls. To this day, it’s hard for me to walk down a long hallway of an old hotel without feeling a twinge of dread.
C. The Matrix. The visual impact of finding ourselves in a reality different than the one we have known all our lives could not have been made through dialog.
D. Metropolis. By today’s standards, this movie’s cinematography still stands, especially considering they did not have computer-generated graphics available to them.
E. The Wizard of Oz. As a girl, how many times did I go skipping down the yellow brick road with my friends? Many, many times.
F. Brazil. A dystopia that is a little too close to reality for comfort, you can feel the strangulation of paperwork and ductwork, the relief of freedom through Sam Lowry’s fantasy world, the satisfaction of Harry Tuttle’s rebellion, and the frustration of Harry Buttle and his family. Not to mention the occasional bombing. One of my favorite movies.
G. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s one thing to see a faint light in the sky and wonder how it could be moving erratically. It’s quite another to be driving down the road, your car stops running, everything starts shaking, and intense, multicolored lights burn your skin. Makes you want to build a mountain in your living room.
H. A Clockwork Orange. Already well-represented on the list, Stanley Kubrick envisions a dystopia uncomfortable in its psychological underpinnings. Is that all it takes to drive someone to evil and back?
I. The Exorcist. Only last on my list because I haven’t seen it! Adding to my watchlist…
Take a look at the full list HERE. Are there any science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies of the 20th century that you would add?