9. THE GODFATHER (1972)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Jon Cazale
Why it's here: "The Godfather" has become one of those unassailable classics, like "Casablanca" or "Gone With the Wind," whose place in the Pantheon of Great Movies is assured until the sun burns out. This status has rubbed some people the wrong way, though. They're tired of being told they HAVE to see "The Godfather," that it's the greatest thing since, I dunno, the toaster. As a result, these rebellious cinephiles end up blaming the movie itself. "It insists upon itself," Peter Griffin once said on "Family Guy," articulating the view of that rare cinematic contrarian who refuses to see "The Godfather."
To that I say: "Whatever." I'm not going to, uh, insist that you see "The Godfather." I used to be one of those people, but I realized it's most unpleasant to be scoffed at or berated for not having seen a certain movie, like, say, "Titanic." I resisted seeing that one until this year, and I actually liked it, to my surprise. I don't think it's the masterpiece the Academy and millions of late-90s teenyboppers would have had you believe, but it's a solid entertainment, and I'm glad I finally sat down to watch it. Anyway, I digress. Look, I understand the aura that surrounds "The Godfather," and it can be very off-putting. I'll give you that. But you're just depriving yourself of a good movie experience. I'm not forcing you to join "The Godfather" cult, but you shouldn't let its popularity turn you off. (Although I will continue to hector you to see "Goodfellas," but that's because I just know you'll at least be entertained by it.) The only thing I can ask you to do is to try and watch it with somewhat of an open mind, and to judge it not on its reputation, but on its own merit.
And, boy, what merit! "The Godfather" elevates its story, which is incredibly pulpy in Mario Puzo's novel, to the level of classical tragedy, only from a uniquely American perspective. I'm sure you know the basic setup: Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the godfather of the title, is a powerful mob boss in his declining years. His enemies sense his vulnerability and try to kill him, leaving a gaping hole at the head of the family that must be filled by one of the don's sons. There's Sonny (James Caan), the hothead alpha male; Fredo (John Cazale), the gentle dope; and Michael (Al Pacino), the clean-cut "college boy" who has tried to steer clear of the family business but becomes in tune with his inner ruthless cunning. Adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) can't take power since he's not blood-related, but he's the consiglieri, or counselor, as the Corleone family becomes mired in a bloody war for power and influence over the New York-New Jersey criminal underworld. Director Francis Ford Coppola has said he envisioned the story as a spin on "King Lear." Only the children are men and they're not at each other's throats for the crown. In fact, it is Michael, the most reluctant of the sons, who ends up becoming the don as his father's health declines.
The most glorious thing about "The Godfather" is that most of this is conveyed with understated elegance. For all its scope and romantic sweep (particularly in its Sicily scenes), it's a relatively quiet movie that depends on its amazing cast to imbue their characters with emotional histories not necessarily seen on screen. You believe these people are part of the same family, that they've known each other intimately their whole lives. This authenticity makes so many of its scenes memorable in their own right and so many of its lines so quotable. It also gives the central tragedy of the story its weight. And make no mistake, "The Godfather" is a tragedy. The protagonists, aside from a few big deaths, are mostly victorious at the end, with Michael's power over his enemies and his family consolidated. But at what cost?
I have seen "The Godfather" countless times, and I still feel chills at the end when Nino Rota's score swells and the movie closes its door on the audience. At that point, I could easily cue it up right away and watch it again from the beginning. But then, if I'm going to invest another three hours in watching "The Godfather" saga, I might as well turn on "The Godfather, Part II" ...
Memorable quote: "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."
8. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)
Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O'Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode
Why it's here: "John Wayne" wasn't an actor. He was merely a persona, a collection of postures, mannerisms and catchphrases, all in the service of his old-fashioned, patriarchal worldview. He was a walking, talking, swaggering belief system. To his credit, though, he never really tried to be much more than that, though. He seemed content with being an emblem of what's now an outdated concept of American manhood. For this, The Duke, whose birth name was Marion Morrison, was beloved by many, and hated by perhaps just as much. To his detractors, Wayne was merely a one-note jingoistic clown, a simplistic celebration of masculinity and American brutality, even a Nazi. To me, though, keeping Wayne's outmoded, paternalistic politics in mind is central to enjoying his films, particularly the great ones, like "The Searchers" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." His on-screen persona, which was apparently not much different from his off-screen one, is an honest, vital reminder of one of the ways America saw, and still sees itself.
In "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, a truly Wayne-esque tough guy who lives near the Western town of Shinbone. He's an independent rancher and a quick draw, but he's inclined toward justice and is even sweet on local waitress, Hallie. He's clearly a good guy, but he's not the main protagonist of the piece. That, folks, is the ever-crotchedy James Stewart, who plays Ransom Stoddard, a tenderfoot lawyer from back East who's come to help tame the West with his law books and civilized notions of justice. Right away, though, he gets a rude awakening at the hands of the titular ironically named bad guy, Liberty Valance (a seething, explosive Lee Marvin), an outlaw who does a little badass contract work for the wealthy cattle barons in the region. Valance robs and beats Stoddard, leaving him for dead. The young lawyer (yeah it's hard to believe Stewart playing young in 1962, but I beg you to suspend your disbelief), though, is rescued by Tom and is nursed back to health by Hallie.
It isn't long before Ransom is up and about, barking for justice at the hands of the law. Only the local sheriff (Andy Devine) is a likable but cowardly oaf who's more likely to wolf down a steak and some potatoes than draw his gun. Anyway, justice in these parts, Tom tells him, has to be done by men with guns. Ransom, of course, resists stubbornly from the get-go, establishing tension between him and Tom that extends to both men's relationship with Hallie. Liberty Valance may be the villain of the piece, but the conflict is between Tom's and Ransom's seemingly incompatible notions of justice. Sure, Tom is in favor of law and order, and even the democratic process, but to him violence is the most definite means to an end when it comes to punishing the evil.
Eventually, Ransom is moved to violence after Liberty's savage attacks on Shinbone's local newspaper editor (Edmond O'Brien). He goes to Tom for lessons on how to shoot and kill, but it's clear that he's just not cut out for violence. It doesn't stop him from confronting Liberty in a shootout that, ironically, makes him famous and enables him to run for political office and push his progressive agenda. The most moving moments come at the end of the film, in which Ransom, now a stately old senator who returns with his wife, Hallie, to Shinbone from Washington to pay respects to the recently deceased Tom. It is in these scenes, most notably the heartbreaking final one, that he -- and we, the audience -- come to grips with the dark truth that lurks in the shadows of our history.
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is a bitter acknowledgement that even the idealistic men of law and letters who founded and expanded this country couldn't have done it without the gunmen who helped them tame the land and its people, both red and white. It neither condemns nor celebrates these men of violence, though. Rather, it pays its respects to them. Much like John Wayne, love him or hate him, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is a chilling but noble reflection of our country's violent heart.
Memorable quote: "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance."