The impulse to make lists is probably as old as language itself. But sometimes the debate that goes into the selections is as much fun as the list itself.
This month we invited five experts (a critic, an academic, two screenwriters, and a theater owner/festival director) to help us determine the ten greatest Texas movies ever. The rules were simple: no documentaries or made-for- TV movies and the list had to be final before anyone could go home. Our panelists were told to bring their own personal top ten as a starting point, and then the culling began. The final list then became the basis for a touring festival, put on in partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. That’s right, from June 3 to July 1 you can watch all these movies, either at the location where they were filmed or in a special thematic setting (the full schedule can be found here). And now, the best Texas movies are …
JOHN BLOOM is a film critic, author, television host, and syndicated columnist who writes and performs under the name Joe Bob Briggs. He is from Dallas.
KYLE KILLEN is a screenwriter and producer whose credits include the television drama Lone Star and the movie The Beaver. He grew up in Burleson.
TIM LEAGUE is the founder and CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and the co-founder of Fantastic Fest, an annual fantasy, horror, and genre film festival in Austin.
ANNE RAPP is a screenwriter whose credits include Cookie’s Fortune and Dr. T and the Women. She grew up outside Estelline.
CHARLES RAMIREZ BERG is an author and a professor of film studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is from El Paso.
CHRISTOPHER KELLY is a writer-at-large for texas monthly and the film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
CHRISTOPHER KELLY: So let’s just begin with the big question: What makes a Texas movie? What is the definition of a great Texas movie?
JOHN BLOOM: The great Texas movies, in my opinion, are about evil and sinners and darkness. Most of them are about West Texas. There’s a few about South Texas, but most of them are about West Texas. Even the ones that are about East Texas, they make them look like they’re in West Texas. And I’m not talking so much about geography as I am about the misfit, borderline criminal, sometimes borderline psychopath, that seems to thrive in West Texas. Red River, that’s John Wayne’s most psychopathic role. The Coen brothers got it exactly right when they made Blood Simple. The Coens, you know, they’re not from Texas. They’re making their first movie; they say, “We want to set a movie in Texas.” Why? Because evil thrives in Texas.
KELLY: What about you, Kyle? What do you think makes a film a Texas movie?
KYLE KILLEN: If it uses Texas as a character. But Texas can play a lot of different roles, the same way actors can do different things. There are good Texas-filmed movies that don’t feel like they have Texas as a character, that could have happened anywhere else in the nation, and those aren’t really Texas movies.
ANNE RAPP: Well, I thought about that all week, and the only thing I could come up with is that simple thing that if you go into a movie and come out and feel like you spent two hours in Texas, that’s a Texas movie to me. If you feel like you just spent two hours in our universe—that’s the parameters I use.
TIM LEAGUE: I started going through my list and looking at Texas archetypes, and I sort of second-guessed Dazed and Confused. It’s a phenomenal film, but what’s powerful about it is that it feels universal. There are very few elements that are distinctly Texan. So I’ve already pulled that one out, because it doesn’t reek of Texas. It reeks of adolescence. Whereas Friday Night Lights—that reeks of Texas. That’s a distinctly Texas story.
BLOOM: Jean Renoir made a movie in 1945 called The Southerner. It was based on a novel [ Hold Autumn in Your Hand] by George Sessions Perry, who was from Rockdale. It’s a movie about blackland farming, and it’s a very good movie. So, in my opinion, Jean Renoir is more of a Texas filmmaker than Richard Linklater. But also, from a chauvinistic point of view, I think Dazed and Confused, which is our coming-of-age high school graduation movie, is inferior to American Graffiti. And I don’t like being second-best to California.
CHARLES RAMÍREZ BERG: I tried the commutation test, where you take a movie and set it someplace else, and I agree. I think Dazed and Confused could have been Kansas City. Whereas I think Giant, that’s Texas. You have ranching, oil, and discrimination against Mexican Americans. That could only happen in Texas. Whether it was shot in Burbank or not.
BLOOM: Even though it was written by a Yankee.
RAMÍREZ BERG: I would say Slacker is more of a Texas movie than Dazed and Confused, because that could have been made only in Austin. That’s an Austin, Texas, story.
KELLY: But not one of you mentioned Slacker in your preliminary lists. Let’s table Dazed and Confused for a bit and come back to it.
LEAGUE: I want to throw one more monkey wrench into the criteria. The Searchers is a bit of a mess as a movie, but it’s been so influential. And there are certain movies like this that have resonance after the fact. I wouldn’t say The Searchers is one of my personal ten favorite movies, but it’s certainly one of the most important movies of the modern era. Does that factor into the top ten?
RAMÍREZ BERG: I voted for it, and I think it is a Texas story, even if it was shot in Monument Valley, because it’s set in Texas, it’s about the Comanches, and it’s about racism. And