Well, we've been heading for this all week and finally it's here...my favorite movie. First, let's recap the other 24 (write-ups on them can be found through this link):
24. To Kill a Mockingbird
23. On Golden Pond
20. Annie Hall
19. Raging Bull
18. Cool Hand Luke
17. All the President's Men
16. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
15. Die Hard
14. The Shawshank Redemption
13. The French Connection
12. The Last Emperor
11. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
10. A Streetcar Named Desire
9. The Lion in Winter
8. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
7. Raising Arizona
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
5. The Godfather, Part II
4. Star Wars
3. The Color Purple
2. The Godfather
and the best film ever made, in my opinion is...
1. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
First, let me say a few things about Spielberg as a Director. You will notice that he and Coppola are the only directors with more than one film represented on this list. In Coppola's case, his two films are parts one and two of a series. Spielberg's films are three completely different movies. He is my favorite director simply because no matter what he touches, he makes it work like no other. I once took a film history class and our final was to write a comparative paper on a director using three of his/her films. We were told specifically not to use Spielberg as that would automatically be failed. He apparently didn't like him much. Many film critics are snobbish about the boy wonder. Why? It must be because Spielberg knows what an audience likes and he delivers. This ruffles the feathers of those that think the French New Wave was like the second coming of Christ. When I look at Spielberg as a director, I see a body of work that has tried just about everything. Outside of the three films on this list, there's also Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, E.T., Always, Jurassic Park and Catch Me If You Can just to name some other favorites. I dare you to name another director that has such a varied list of successful films.
With that in mind, it brings me to the film Jaws. Just as Spielberg's body of work is a mix of many genres, so too is this movie. In fact, that is what cements it as the top film. I can see, in Jaws, a suspense/thriller, an action/adventure, a buddy movie, in some ways a comedy, there is a love story in there and a romance of sorts with the shark, a western in the sense that they are chasing a villain across the open range (in this case, the sea), a tight drama focusing on characterization, fantasy, tragedy, blockbuster and of course, what most people consider the film to be, a horror movie. What other film mixes so many elements with such ease and skill? I can think of none. Then, to take a step further, is there a more influential film from the past 25 years? Jaws ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster. Some might not think this a worthy accomplishment, but I would answer this is simply the Hollywood disease. They take anything that makes some money and continue to rehash it time and time again. The first is usually successful, the later attempts, usually not so much. Granted, we got Star Wars, Back to the Future, T2, Men in Black and a host of other good movies to come from this tradition but for all the good one must slog past a million horrible entries thus giving the blockbuster a bad name. But Jaws was the first, and frankly, the best.
But what about the movie itself, you ask? Well, let's start with the actors. Roy Scheider has had a nice career. I personally love All that Jazz and The Men's Club, but this is his best performance. His Chief Brody is a study of a man with fears and fallibility that takes care of the job when it comes down to it. He loves his wife and children and respects the job he has been given and faces his biggest fear to make his town safe from a killer shark. Gary Cooper anyone? High Noon? Something like that. When you put his character next to Richard Dreyfuss' Hooper you have now entered the buddy picture. Their interplay is priceless. One of my favorite scenes from the movie occurs when Hooper brings over the two bottles of wine for dinner and then starts eating Brody's dinner plate because the chief is so wrapped up in trying to figure out what to do. From this scene I will always consider a very large glass of wine a "Chief Brody Glass". As for the job Richard Dreyfuss does himself, I cannot say enough good things. From his introduction ("Hello back, young feller") all the way to the end of the movie, he invests Hooper with a comedic yet serious persona that serves to not only educate the audience on the Great White Shark but to also provide laughs at needed moments and the catalyst for Brody's mission. If not for Hooper, this movie goes no where. He is what leads the men out to see to hunt the shark and of course, it is nice that he accompanies Brody back from the hunt, something he does not get to do in the book.
Lorraine Gary, playing Brody's wife, gives a subtle, yet effective performance that is perfect compared to Scheider's worried police chief. The scene in which she tells Brody not to worry so much about their son playing in his new boat and then sees the picture of the shark from the book - she screams for Michael to get out of the boat and it's the perfect concerned mother. It's too bad she's never had that large of a career because she's a damn good actress. Then, of course, there's Murray Hamilton as the stubborn mayor. He plays a nice foil to Brody's worrying and his scene in the hospital after Michael comes into contact with the shark is classic. But no one in this movie is better than Robert Shaw. His Quint is a clinic in character acting. He has some of the best lines in the movie and delivers them all in a perfect style and cadence leading one to believe he has been a fisherman all his life. In fact, the scene aboard the boat in which he relates the tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis was written by him the previous evening (to make up for being so drunk on the previous days of filming.) His performance is a classic. From the moment we see him scrapping his nails down the blackboard to the point in which he enters the shark's mouth, he tears up the screen and plays his instrument at the perfect pitch.
To go beyond the singular performances, I also consider the second act of the movie (everything aboard the Orca) to be one of the best examples of ensemble acting ever put on film. No one outshines the other and their performances meld into one another to create the right amount of tension, humor and seriousness. To see them practicing their craft, listening and responding to each other, playing off the little quirks each has - it is truly masterful. Of course the script does allow for some of the best interplay between them. Derived from the Peter Benchley novel, Carl Gottlieb (who also has a bit role in the movie) works with Benchley to flesh out the shark and it's relationship to our three major characters. The sense of suspense is heightened because you don't even see the shark until half way through the movie. The characters are all fully fleshed out and we are made to appreciate each one, from the leads all the way down to Harry with the bad hat and the woman who doesn't think that's funny, not funny at all.
Also contributing to the tone of the film is the classic score by the master, John Williams. His simple "duh, dum...duh, dum" is the only manifestation of the villain until we actually get to see Bruce the shark. Used with dark lighting, it is as scary as any cheap boo scare, gory shot or psychological creepiness others resort to. Spielberg doesn't have to play it cheap. Of course, part of the brilliance of this method of suspense was caused by the inability to find a working model of the shark that was believable on a close up shot, but this is just another happy accident that theatrical art is full of. Spielberg uses his limitations to the fullest and we are paid in full with the result. The cinematography is beautiful, reinforced for me by watching the DVD when it was released. And some of the shots are truly brilliant - the underwater stuff, the chase scenes on board the boat and my favorite, the two shooting stars we see from the long shots of the boat at night. Just little things added to make the whole that much better.
All told, this film is a masterpiece of cinema that should be archived and studied for many future generations. With the addition of computer effects and digital cameras, I fear some of what makes this movie so great is now obsolete, but that is what gives it such high historical importance. The acting and the special effects, the script and sound, the look and feel - all combine to make this the greatest movie ever made. Many have disagreed with me on this point but I have yet to hear an honest argument disputing this and I doubt I ever will.
*** *** ***
And that winds down the countdown. I would like to give some honorable mentions to a few films that did not make the list. In no particular order: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blazing Saddles, Psycho, Seven, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kramer vs. Kramer, Nixon, Tootsie, The Exorcist, and The Philadelphia Story. It was difficult leaving some of them off of a list of my favorites, but there are only so many slots to be filled. As this has turned into a monster post, I will finish with my typical...(this is a line from a very good movie - kudos to anyone that can guess which one) That is all.