It began on Twitter with FilmLand Empire blogger and sometime Cinemart contributor, Laurent de Alberti, discussing an attempt to name his top twenty films. He then asked if I could ever come up with a definite list, as a general enquiry. I’d never really thought about it, though did contribute my top ten horror movies ever for a recent Time Out feature (you can read it here). If somebody asks me to name my favourite film I usually say one of three things: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (strangely enough all movies made in the 1970s).
Yes, lists are usually pointless (to be honest), but there’s a level of intrigue and sometimes despair, which makes them worth pursuing. Laurent and I decided that the list must reflect personal emotion and feeling. Having to describe or justify the best film ever on some sort of objective scale based on a multitude of aesthetic and historical evidence is just pissing in the wind and dreaming.
This following daily top twenty is what I’d call a personal journey and naming my favourite films into some form of order. It goes like this: some I love and some I really love and cannot live without and will revisit until my death (which I hope will be postponed long enough into the distant future to see thousands more films). It represents both a critical study, personal choice (really the most important bit) along with good, old-fashioned celebration of some amazing pictures.
Once all twenty are announced they will be put together in one post. For now, enjoy the serialisation!
#20: City Girl (F.W. Murnau, 1930)
Common consensus, critical or otherwise, tells us Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is F.W. Murnau’s American masterpiece. And they’d be right. But so is City Girl (1930). The film had a problematic production with Murnau absent for some of it and then replaced (by hacks). Despite polite reviews at the time, City Girl was caught between the transition from silent to sound. Ironically, the sound version is now lost.
Murnau had arrived in Hollywood to make Sunrise at the behest of William Fox (a mogul in serious need of reappraisal). Sunrise was an artistic success and a box office flop. In between the director made 4 Devils (now lost). City Girl is the story of two young lovers from different places falling in love and returning the bridegroom’s homestead in Minnesota, where she learns to live the rural way. It’s a tough life and she’s viewed with suspicion. Mary Duncan, as ‘city girl’ Kate, is superb and deserves a place next to Janet Gaynor in Sunrise. Her character is plucky and sincere. Murnau’s poetic vision sometimes feels near-documentary with shots of farmers going about their daily toil. The film would prove an inspiration for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and is waiting for re-discovery.
City Girl is a film I adore largely because of Mary Duncan’s excellent performance. The actress would go on to retire in the early 1930s, too. Murnau’s last American studio picture might be the poor cousin of Sunrise but I love it more.
F.W. Murnau once said:
“The camera is the director’s pencil. It should have the greatest possible mobility in order to record the most fleeting harmony of atmosphere. It is important that the mechanical factor should not stand between the spectator and the film.”
Now watch this gorgeous little sequence. First time I saw the tracking shot sequence, I was truly moved. An incredible moment.
Now visit FilmLand Empire to discover his #20 movie www.filmlandempire.com.