Gary Arnold retires this week as senior film critic of The Washington Times, a job he has held since 1989. His columns From the Vaults — devoted to vintage movies — and Beyond Hollywood — about art-house films — will continue to appear in our Arts & Culture section on Saturdays and, occasionally, here in the the the Show section on Fridays. Below are his list of the 10 best films of his reviewing career, along with a sample of his most heretical critical verdicts.
Top 10 Best films of my reviewing career
Urged to compile a comprehensive “best movie” list culled from the 36 years I have spent reviewing movies in the Washington area — respectively for The Washington Post, the Connection, the TV commentary show “The Moviegoing Family” and The Washington Times — I have complied. But it should be understood that this period produced hundreds of movies that are still worth seeing. So the following list is absurdly compressed and confines itself to only one title by any particular director. Obviously, several have left bodies of work that defined and enhanced the entire period.
So, in chronological order:
1. The Godfather
2. The Emigrants
3. Close Encounters
of the Third Kind
4. The Black Stallion
5. Local Hero
6. Choose Me
7. Henry V
9. The Player
10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Not that I wouldn’t prefer to revisit quite a few others on any given night. For example: “American Graffiti,” “Citizens Band,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Zelig,” “Master and Commander,” “Cesar and Rosalie,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Emma,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “La Belle Noiseuse,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Blue,” “A Passage to India,” “Star Wars,” “The Incredibles.” Others too numerous to mention is putting it mildly.
Sorry Mel, Annie and Forrest
Nobody can accuse Gary Arnold of susceptibility to groupthink. Below is a small sample — trust us, very small — of his most heretical critical verdicts.
Love Story (1970)
“When it comes to a movie like ‘Love Story,’ criticism and immunology necessarily overlap. It was quite apparent from the clearing of throats, muffling of sobs and blowing of noses at the preview showing that if you resist ‘Love Story,’ you probably resist it in vain. Many people — perhaps a clear majority of the human race — are not just willing to be sapped by this sappy material; they’re also willing to grab the emotional blackjack and happily sap themselves.” (“Love Story” ranks an inflation-adjusted 32nd in all-time box office, according to Boxofficemojo.com. It came in at No. 9 on the American Film Institute list of all-time best romantic movies.)
Day for Night (1973)
“There was a lot of hambone and fraud in Hollywood’s typical accounts of backstage or backlot life. But they were also vivid and involving in a way that ‘Day for Night’ never is. One almost comes away with the impression that Francois Truffaut wants us to share his infatuation with a colorless business. The movie flows along smoothly on a very low current of inspiration.” (“Day for Night” won the 1974 Oscar for best foreign film.)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
“Mel Brooks is so preoccupied with the idea of acting outrageous that he neglects to give the material any style or unity. Moreover, I don’t think he realizes that he’s acting outrageous about a moribund, irrelevant subject. ‘Blazing Saddles’ is probably the Western spoof Brooks has wanted to make for 20 years, and he’s had to wait too long. If his jokes were any older, they’d be pushing up daisies in some backlot Boot Hill.” (In inflation-adjusted terms, “Blazing Saddles” ranks No. 45 all-time in U.S. box office, according to Boxofficemojo.com. It placed No. 6 on the AFI all-time best comedies list.)
Annie Hall (1977)#
“The salvo of raves for Woody Allen’s rather hesitant and anemic new comedy ‘Annie Hall’ recalls the trigger-happy ovations at the musical ‘Annie.’ In each case, one can discern pleasure-starved publics going out of their way to take the thought for the deed.” (“Annie Hall” won four Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best actress.)
The Adventures of Ford
” ‘The Adventures of Ford Fairlane’ is a screwball joyride. The funniest movie surprise of the new decade, ‘Ford Fairlane’ may need to overcome formidable resistance stemming from the notoriety that leading man Andrew Dice Clay has acquired as an obscenely obnoxious stand-up comic.” (“Ford Fairlane” earned three Razzie awards “dis-honoring Hollywood’s worst” films, including worst picture, worst actor and worst screenplay.)
Forrest Gump (1994)
” ‘Forrest Gump’ begins and ends with images of a windblown feather, but its touch is anything but feathery. Director Robert Zemeckis applies a heavy hand to jerk tears and laughter from this ambitious but self-conscious conception. As a result, ‘Forrest Gump’ is about as subtle as a blunt instrument.” (Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, “Gump” took six, including best picture. With a take of $329.7 million, it ranks 14th in all-time U.S. box office, according to Internet Movie Database.)
The Lion King (1994)
“The hitch in the narrative git-along is the sanctimonious note that creeps into the film’s insistence that Simba mature into a worthy chip off the old block. Since Mufasa is spoken by James Earl Jones, his most sonorous paternal cliches have an overfamiliar ring, especially when wafting down from the spirit world. ‘The Lion King’ is contrived to get all choked up about father-son bonding, which always seems a trifle daft in the context of lion society.” (This widely beloved animated musical grossed $328.4 million in the United States, good for 15th all time, according to IMDB.)
The Pianist (2002)
“The first 90 minutes or so of ‘The Pianist’ seem as gripping and distinctive as the ominous scenarios of ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Grey Zone.’ But the depiction begins to lose intensity once the protagonist, portrayed by Adrien Brody, becomes a more or less solitary figure, with few resources of his own. In the process of emptying out his life in a social sense, the movie itself grows torpid and never quite recovers in time to take stock once the war is over. Mr. Brody cannot carry the weight of solitary interludes on his thinning physique or stricken, brooding face.” (Nominated for seven Oscars, this Holocaust picture won three, including best actor for Adrien Brody.)
Hey — nobody’s perfect.