The very first time I posted a “Top Five” list on this blog — during the first year, on Jan. 9, 2006 — I threw away the opportunity.
I did the most obvious topic of all — best movies of all time — and while the five were all completely deserving, I didn’t really think about it. I listed them, and didn’t even bother to explain my choices. I guess I just thought there was all the time and space needed in the future to fill in the gaps.
Here were the five:
1. “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
2. “The Godfather.”
4. “The Graduate.”
5. “High Noon.”
Recently, I had occasion to ask, “Why wasn’t ‘His Girl Friday’ on the list?”
Well, I was asking myself something similar last night when, just before hitting the hay, I watched a few minutes of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” after seeing it was available on Prime.
And of course, since I needed to get to bed, I spoiled myself by scrolling to the very best scene of all. I’ve talked about it here before. Which, for whatever reason, I can’t find on YouTube — although here’s a piece of it, for some reason messed up with a sepiatone effect.
It’s that scene when Abe explains to his confused Cabinet exactly why the 13th Amendment has to pass, and has to pass now, before the war ends. It is the most amazingly perfect explanation of a political situation — of perhaps the key legislative moment of our nation’s history — that I have ever heard or read. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation is on the ragged edge of uselessness (something many in the room likely understood, but as we see all the time these days, the audience does not), all the contradictions he has had to navigate to get this far without such an amendment — treating escaped slaves as “contraband,” which meant regarding them as property, which meant respecting the laws of the rebelling states, and sometimes regarding them as a foreign entity when his most core conviction is that they are not, and so forth…
And it’s all delivered by one of the best actors who’s ever lived, in what is probably his greatest performance, speaking in that backwoods aw-shucks way Lincoln had, the plain man so comfortably dissecting the most complex truths…
It’s amazing. And while this is the best, the film contains scene after scene like it. I remind you of the one in which Tommy Lee Jones takes his oh-so-self-righteous fellow Radicals to task by demanding that they try thinking, just for once, about the opportunity before them: “But… Hasn’t he surprised you?”
And so forth.
It would be amazing, a top-drawer film, on the most superficial of terms — based on mere wonder at how much they make Day-Lewis look like Lincoln. See the image above from my Prime account. I mean, if Lincoln didn’t look like that, he should have.
But there’s just so much more, in every detail. Of course, one is tempted to dismiss in on those grounds alone — Spielberg was such a mature master craftsman, at the peak of his game (which impresses us more — Scorsese’s raw “Mean Streets” or his polished “Goodfellas?”), and he had so many resources that previous generations never dreamed of. He was deliberately making a great film, and he did it.
Lacking that freshness factor, it seems out of place on a list that includes “Casablanca” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Those people had no idea whatsoever they were making something for the ages. It just happened. Poor combat-fatigued Jimmy Stewart was just trying to get a movie cranked out, having just returned from the war, and Capra was just doing that thing he always did, loving America the way he did…
But it’s right up there, however you count its virtues.
Anyway, I just wanted to say something about it, again (yes, I’ve praised it and praised it before).
Confession time: When I got the idea to write this, I was thinking this was Abe’s birthday (although Wikipedia had set me straight before I started writing). When I was a kid, and we celebrated both of them separately, I always had trouble remembering which was the 12th and which was the 22nd. I mean, come on — they’re practically the same number.
So I guess it’s just as well we mashed them into one day. Although, of course, I don’t think I’ve ever had that day off. Whatever…