I know, I know. It’s silly to pick just one movie as the best of anything - how can one movie possible encapsulate all that is terrific about a style, a genre, a story, an artform, a time or a place? It can’t. So let’s take that as a given - that no one movie could possibly be considered the best movie of all-time - and pick one anyway.
My choice? Two-Lane Blacktop. Reasons:
It’s a road movie. Along with comic books and jazz music, there’s no more quintessentially American movie idiom than the road movie*. Two-Lane Blacktop takes the expanse of the road and strains it through a strangely Beckettian sensibility - the road as existentialism, if you will. Monte Hellman (the director) also manages to make the endless vistas of the road seem claustrophobic. By doing so, he taps into the weird paradox at the heart of car culture: cars are a symbol of freedom, but you can only drive them on predetermined paths. That’s a pretty heady mental place for what is essentially a B-movie.
Warren Oates is in it. Not the best Warren Oates role - that would go to the Monte Hellman movie he made after this one: Cockfighter - but Oates is mesmerising just the same. A consummate bullshit artist for whom talking is the only way he seems to be able to reassure himself that he’s alive, Oates gives us a portrayal of a huckster as purely American as The Music Man.
It’s about nothing. Well, sort of. The movie sets itself up as a conflict between James Taylor (it’s worth the entire movie just to hear Taylor’s bizarre delivery of the word motherfucker) and Warren Oates, who are ostensibly supposed to be cross-country racing each other for the pink slips on their cars. But at some undefined point, the characters sort of forget all about it; the conflict isn’t so much unresolved as it is ignored. Slowly, the movie transforms itself from a movie about a subculture (in this case, car racers) to one about obsessions; as such, it moves from the specific to the universal. And that, my friends, is the mark of great art.
4) A great ending. Which, if you haven’t seen it, I won’t give away. But the final scene is pure iconographic film-making at it’s best.
Kevin “Greased Lightning” Cogliano
*The Canadian exception: Bruce Macdonald, who made Roadkill, Highway 61, and Hard Core Logo.
The greatest movie ever made in the US or any other country is “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo,” directed by the great Ray Dennis Steckler and starring Vin Saxon (a.k.a. rockabilly also-ran Ron Haydock) and Titus Moede (who later became a big-time porn director).