Sunday, October 15, 2017

Top TV Shows

15. The Twilight Zone

A show that really shows off the power of the short story, The Twilight Zone had a different cast, premise, and theme every week. An anthology series doesn't always work, because audiences want to get involved with characters, they want to connect and come back and see what these people are doing again and again. The Twilight Zone, however, stimulated people's minds with its exploration of existential dread, horror, fantasy, and everything in between. As such, there are episodes that are good and those that are bad and most that are in between. But, I think this show deserves mention among the greats ever because of its ability to intrigue us, even if we're going back today and watching it 50+ years after it aired. It still works.

14. Saturday Night Live

SNL isn't as good today as it was back in my day.

Obviously that sentence is bullshit, the show has always had funny actors and sketches, even in its worst seasons. But that familiar refrain of "it's not as funny as it used to be" must've started around Season 2 and just continued on, because every cast has heard it. Bill Murray heard he wasn't as funny as Chevy Chase or Dan Akyroyd, Mike Myers heard he wasn't as funny as Eddie Murphy or Billy Crystal, Will Ferrell heard he wasn't as funny as Chris Farley or Adam Sandler, and Kristin Wiig heard she wasn't as funny as Amy Poehler or Tina Fey. The truth is that putting on an hour and a half long show, live!, every week is gonna produce great sketches and terrible sketches. That's just the nature of the beast. You have to accept the good with the bad, and know there's gonna be plenty of ugly as well. As Lorne Michaels has always said "the show doesn't go on because it's ready, it goes on because it's 11:30." Or as standup comedian and former show writer Hannibal Burress says, people tend to "over romanticize the Belushi era." But there have been too many amazing and timeless sketches over the years to even recount. There's no way you could put together even a top 25 SNL sketches list without leaving out a ton of incredible other sketches. And that ability to reach the highest highs is what puts the show here on my list.

13. I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy is a show that I first started watching when I was a child. It was funny then. I go back and watch it as an adult and it's funny now. Lucille Ball is deservedly praised for all of her work, Vivian Vance and William Frawley too (all won multiple awards for their work on the show). Desi Arnaz goes overlooked because he tended to underplay his work and let the others go big, but Ricky is as much the show's heart as Lucy is. Ricky is the straight man to all the craziness that Lucy injects into their lives, and Arnaz is brilliant in his way of showing us he loves Lucy, but gets frustrated by her as well. And I can appreciate today what kind of trailblazer this show was, especially with a female lead and creative force behind it, and an interracial central relationship. I Love Lucy was hilarious as well as door opening. As much as I love Friends, Big Bang Theory, or other shows, I Love Lucy is still the pinnacle of the traditional network sitcom, for me.

12. Breaking Bad

Walter White is one of the best characters we've ever seen on TV. And he grows and changes, not usually for the best, throughout the course of the show. He begins selling drugs just to make money so that his family has something when he's gone (as he's dying of cancer), but he grows over the seasons to become someone who sells drugs because it makes him feel good about himself. It gives him a sense of accomplishment, a sense of power that he's never felt, and the adrenaline rush of living in a world where he doesn't really belong. Like every show, it's not perfect. There are episodes that don't work quite as well, or don't add anything to the mix, and sometimes it's a slow burn of a show that I wished would ramp up. But, carried by the great cast and characters, led by Bryan Cranston's career defining central performance, Breaking Bad became a cultural phenomenon and one of the great shows TV has ever seen.

11. Scrubs

If Scrubs had ended after season 4 or 5, it would likely be much much higher on this list. It's brand of surreal cutaways and narration juxtaposed against medical situations (based on real life medical cases) makes for a wonderful journey as we follow John Dorian through his life as a doctor. But with behind the scenes troubles (constant threat of cancellation and eventually changing networks) that took their toll on the show, it went STEEPLY downhill following season 5. It became an unintended parody of itself. And that's too bad because it really spoiled those first few seasons that are about as good as a major network comedy can get. It has heart, it has laughs, it has a teensy bit of drama. It has one of the best ensemble casts in comedy. I just wish it didn't leave with a bad taste in my mouth.

10. South Park

I remember when South Park first came out. I remember reading in the newspaper (which is a very old fashioned saying now) about how this show about 4 foul mouthed elementary school kids in Colorado was ruining the youth of today and how it was the worst thing on TV because of its bad language and inappropriate storylines. Obviously 14-year-old me sought it out and had to see it immediately. It was the weirdest show I'd ever seen. It was amateurishly animated, crudely voiced, and absolutely hysterical. What's funny now is that those first few seasons got so much hatred and bad press for being the downfall of society and whatnot but if you go back and watch them now they are very very tame and hardly get a giggle out of me. South Park normalized itself by staying around so long and going so far out that it wasn't pushing the boundaries because it stopped caring about boundaries. It still has great episodes, even if the show isn't as good as it used to be. But seasons 4-8 are almost untouchable, 9-13 has many amazing episodes, and the other seasons are at least worth seeing even if they're not the highest highs the show has achieved.

9. The Sopranos

Tony Soprano is one of the most memorable characters in TV history. He's the one that most gets me to think about morality in fiction. We like Tony. We shouldn't like Tony. But James Gandolfini's performance is so charismatic and endlessly fascinating that we follow Tony through his family troubles, his mafia politics, his infidelity and murder, and his emotional breakdowns and even his humor. Tony is a funny character. And again, we like him. But why? It's not just because he's our main character, there are plenty of protagonists throughout fiction that we dislike. We may not look up to Tony, we don't admire him, but we do like him. And I think that's because The Sopranos got us to empathize with Tony. Tony is not at all like any of us, but we feel his feelings. We identify with his frustration with his spoiled kids and nagging wife. We understand his anger at his coworkers and employees. We relate to his need to process his emotions, and the way that feels like weakness sometimes. Tony is us. An extreme version of us, yes, but he represents just about all the emotions on the human spectrum (this set the stage for future takes on this type of man, like Mad Men's Don Draper). And although the mafia intrigue and machinations make for great drama and thrill, Tony is the center of this show, and is why it succeeds.

Oh, and that final episode that gets so much hate? It's absolutely brilliant. It doesn't matter what you think happened, the point is that Tony will always have to be on the lookout. He'll always be hunted. He won't ever be able to just sit and have dinner with his family without being on alert. It's a genius end to a genius show.

8. Futurama

What was often thought of as "Matt Groening's other show" is really one of the best sci-fi pieces of fiction ever created in any medium. Futurama tackles just about all the classic sci-fi concepts, and all the while has the zany Planet Express crew to take us on that journey. Now, like Scrubs, it went on too long. 7 seasons when it really should've been 4 or 5, but that's still not fair because those last two seasons aren't bad, they just aren't as good as what came before it. Also like Scrubs, one of the best things about Futurama is that it so deftly balances the laughs with the tears. Episodes like "Jurassic Bark" "Parasites Lost" "Time Keeps on Slippin'" and "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings" are hilarious and pull at your heartstrings as well. Futurama is as crazy and wacky as a show can get, and there's not that dramatic heft to every episode, nor does there need to be. But when they turn on the waterworks, it flows big time. And all of that from a show that boasts lead characters of Fry (an idiot), Leela (a one eyed mutant), Bender (an alcoholic robot), and Dr. Zoidberg (a crab-like doctor who I put as my #3 animated character ever).

7. Game of Thrones

One of those strange cases where the adaptation is better than the books (sorry book fans, I can't get into the novels, the shifting viewpoints robs the narrative momentum and makes the books feel like a collection of short stories rather than a cohesive book). Game of Thrones is the epic fantasy series I wished for when I was growing up. Something that wasn't "for kids", and had darkness, but wasn't cheap or silly either. I've always loved medieval set fantasy stories, even tried to write some when I was younger, but this is the new standard bearer for the genre on screen. Hugely budgeted, terrific SFX and sets and costumes, with a sprawling cast of characters who may or may not survive, the technical aspects of the show are top notch. But it's the constantly twisting narrative and the game-as-can-be cast that sells it, ultimately. One of my favorite aspects is that there isn't even a main character. Ned, the closest thing we had to one, is only in the first season. But with Daenerys, Tyrion, John Snow and everyone who surrounds them, we go on their journeys week by week as we delve into what has become the best fantasy series ever put on screen (yes, I'll even take it over Lord of the Rings). It's got all the political intrigue of House of Cards, all the bloody action of any cop show, plus dragons and ice zombies! What's not to love?

6. Doctor Who

I've always been a fan of science-fiction. It's the genre of ideas, of exploration, of expansion. There's literally nothing that sci-fi can't explore. While I've seen and enjoyed some of the original series of Doctor Who, what I'm including here is really the 2005-present series. Although it can occasionally look cheap, especially the SFX in the first season back, the show never hesitates to explore headier themes than most popular shows would do. The show takes on classic sci-fi concepts as well as creating ones of their own. And it does this with a revolving door of leading men. The revival series started with respected dramatic actor Christopher Eccelston as the Ninth Doctor, followed by David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, and now by Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor. Everyone has "their" Doctor, either the one that's their favorite or was in the role when they started watching the show. They all have their strengths, but I think David Tennant is still my favorite, as he perfectly balanced the moral strength, dramatic heft, humor, and curiosity of The Doctor. The Doctor travels through all of space and time, he's hundreds of years old, he's seemingly seen it all. He's one of the great characters, leading one of the great shows.

5. Seinfeld

Although I called I Love Lucy "the pinnacle of the traditional network sitcom", that's because Seinfeld isn't a traditional sitcom. It's the show about nothing that managed to stay funny from Season 1 all the way through Season 9, leaving at the top of the ratings and the pop culture landscape. Going back now, since I was a kid and teenager through most of the show's run, it's amazing to look back and see how many classic episodes there are. It's even crazier that the B-stories are often just as memorable as the A-stories. I can't tell you how many times I've been watching a rerun and not even remembered that this A-story was in the same episode as that B-story, because you might think of it as "the episode where George gets the security guard a rocking chair" only to find out it's also the episode where Elaine dates "The Maestro" AND the episode where Kramer gets free coffee after spilling some on himself but ruining his lawyers plan by using a balm to clear up the burn. "Who told you to put the balm on? I didn't tell you to put the balm on!" Seinfeld is a show amazingly rich with characters and endless humor. By focusing on so much of the minutiae of life, Seinfeld ensured that it  stayed relevant many years after it ended. By being so specific, it became universal.

4. The X-Files

Another show that went on too long, but which reached insanely high highs during its peak. The X-Files was able to be a monster show, a police procedural, an action buddy comedy, a paranoid conspiracy thriller, and more. With the greatest lead duo characters in TV history, FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, we are taken on an amazing journey through this world of worm monsters and alien abductions. Everything fringe became fodder for the show, which used it as a constant battle between the believable and unbelievable. Mulder implicitly believes all these crazy stories and mutant sightings and everything. Scully is a trained doctor who puts her faith in scientific explanations. It's then flipped by Scully being a practicing Catholic and Mulder being a religious skeptic. Add that to the fact that they're two good looking people who will naturally have some sexual tension and you've just got the two most watchable characters on TV.

3. The Wire

One of the only shows to ever evoke the feeling of a novel, a feeling that you would think is rampant in the extended form of a TV show, The Wire has all the complexity and characterizations you'll find in the best written fiction. Though it only ran 5 seasons, each season took on a different focal point of the Baltimore area that it takes place in. Season 1 took on drugs, Season 2 illegal importing and human trafficking, Season 3 looks at the political landscape and corruption, Season 4 looks at the school system, and Season 5 looks at media corruption. But all the seasons play into each other, especially the drug trade of Season 1, which threads its way through the entire series. And we follow this through the eyes of the Baltimore Police Department, mostly Detective Jimmy McNulty, but also a wide tapestry of other characters as well. The way the show spreads out, includes so many people and so many stories, that's really what sells it and makes it feel like a wonderful novel. Because of that there's no single episode to recommend, even rarely individual scenes, because everything works together. The show deepens itself and even sneaks up on you in its brilliance. When I first watched Season 1, I didn't even realize how much I cared about these characters until about 2/3 of the way through the season when a big thing happens and all of the sudden we start getting pay off from the tremendous build up. The Wire has to be taken as a whole to be appreciated, the same way you wouldn't take a single chapter out of a book.

2. Rick and Morty

Okay, I seriously thought about putting Rick and Morty #1 on this list. Since I first discovered it less than a year ago, I've watched the entire series (including this year's long awaited Season 3) more times than I can count. I am actually in the process of writing an episode by episode account of my thoughts about the show, so I won't write too much here. It's one of the most talked about and dissected shows TV has ever seen. It's intelligently written, with deep themes, complex characters, and plenty of dick and fart jokes.

1. The Simpsons
Yes, the Simpsons isn't as good today as it was 10 or 15 years ago, but there is such a depth of humor in this show that I had to put it number 1 on the list. It'll make you laugh, cry, and laugh again. It has the same heart that Matt Groening put into Futurama, but here it's mostly contained within the iconic Simpson family. Homer is a glorious idiot, but also a man who loves his family and the show is often at its best in the early years when it showed that Homer just wanted to be a good dad or husband. That's when the show really soared. But The Simpsons also has so many crazy and funny characters that it's overwhelming. Everyone has a favorite (Dr. Frink for yours truly, flavin!) but we all love them all. Even so, the core of the show is the title family, and the show is able to explore everything about the human experience either through Marge, Lisa, Bart, Maggie, or Homer. And over the course of nearly 30 years, 620 episodes and counting, and a movie, The Simpsons has seemingly covered all the ground there is to cover, even exploring science-fiction and horror through their annual Halloween Treehouse of Horror anthology episodes. A wonderful topper to this list of the best TV shows ever made.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Top 25 of the 1980's

25. Back to the Future (1985) directed by Robert Zemeckis

Simply one of the most likable movies ever made, Back to the Future has become a cultural touchstone. Everyone has seen it. Everyone loves it. And it's not hard to see why. Michael J. Fox oozes likability, Christopher Lloyd is hilarious and brilliant as Doc Brown, I just put Thomas Wilson's Biff on my top villains list, this movie really doesn't have any flaws. It's a big, blockbuster, mainstream Hollywood movie, with everything that brings with it, but in the best possible way.

24. Amadeus (1982) directed by Milos Forman

Antonio Salieri just missed out on my best villains list last week. I didn't include him because I ultimately don't think he's a villain. I can easily see myself in Salieri, as a creative person who always feels inadequate or like there are so many other who do so much better than me. Amadeus is a brilliant portrayal of the artist's struggle with being good. Artists want to create their art and not need validation from the audience, but nobody is perfect. Nobody is without vanity, and we all want to be liked. We all want to be respected for the things we create. By the consuming public as well as other artists. But we also see other artists who create without effort, seemingly tossing off things that are better than anything we could ever have churned out. That's the relationship between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in this movie. The most telling scene is when Mozart is dying, but using Salieri to dictate his final piece of music. Salieri relishes every note, determined to get this little bit of brilliance out of the genius before his death, all the while hating him for being so effortlessly brilliant.

23. Coming to America (1988) directed by John Landis

One of the first comedies I was obsessed with, Eddie Murphy's best overall movie is also his funniest. While many of us remember and revere his (and Arsenio Hall and Clint Smith's) work as the barbershop characters, which is amazing, the last time I watched it I was really taken in by Murphy's work as Akeem, the prince. The chemistry he shares with Arsenio's Semmi is what really drives the movie. Akeem's naivete, his stiffness, and his heart is what rounds the character out, but he's also very subtly funny. The movie also, of course, does highlight Murphy's ability to play different characters, whether it's Akeem, Randy Watson ("give it up for my band, Sexual Chocolate!"), or Clarence and Saul the old Jewish man in the barbershop, Murphy is as brilliant as any comedian has ever been at inhabiting the different people and getting us to laugh.

22. The Right Stuff (1983) directed by Phillip Kaufman

I don't hear The Right Stuff brought up much, and that's too bad because it's an amazing epic of all American glory. The story of the test pilots that began making the move to break the sound barrier, going Mach I, Mach II, and eventually out to the stars as the first astronauts. This movie contains everything you could want in a movie, likable characters, fascinating story, beautiful cinematography (especially the iconic walk down the corridor that the astronauts do, all shot to perfection by the great Caleb Deschanel), and terrific acting by a wonderful cast. Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and my favorite, Sam Shepard. It's a really interesting look at how something such as the Space Program got started and what kind of people were involved, and how they were used and molded to be national heroes, despite the fact that they pretty much all operated at a constant death wish. The possibilities of dying in a plane crash or a rocket explosion feel like they increase every time our heroes go up. It's tense, beautiful, funny, engaging, with a whip smart script credited to director Philip Kaufman, though initially written by William Goldman. It's a movie that even being over 3 hours in length, should be seen more often by more people. Roger Ebert declared it the best movie of 1983, and put it only behind Raging Bull on his own top movies of the 1980's list.

21. A Grand Day Out (1989) directed by Nick Park

Though many prefer the follow up Wallace and Gromit short, A Close Shave, for me A Grand Day Out has the most charm and enjoyment. Possibly the most likable characters ever created, Wallace and Gromit have crackers, but no cheese. Well, we all know the moon is made of cheese, right? So Wallace builds a rocket and they fly to the moon to get cheese. Why not just go to the grocery store? Because this is better. My favorite gag has Gromit figuring out why the rocket isn't taking off. Although the stuff on the moon maybe doesn't work quite as well as the stuff getting us there, it's still a blast and my favorite of the short films from Nick Park (who lost the 1990 Oscar to himself when he won for his equally brilliant Creature Comforts).

20. Raising Arizona (1987) directed by the Coen Brothers

Raising Arizona is one of the great absurdist comedies we've ever seen. The Coen brothers going all in on over-the-top comedy, beautiful cinematography, a peculiarly heightened reality, and two of the best performances from Nic Cage and Holly Hunter that are the center of gravity around which this movie orbits. It's hard to talk about this movie, I think, because you simply have to see it to see if you connect with it or not. I have to say that, for me, Holly Hunter having just been given a baby that she's claiming as her own and hysterically crying "I love him so muuuuuuuuch!" makes me laugh every time. It's a ridiculous situation, but Hunter also imbues it with real emotion, which makes it work on a whole other level too. This character is cuckoo, but she really does care too. And Cage's character just wants to make her happy. While this movie is not on the level of No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, or even Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona is still one of the funniest movies ever made and would be the crowning achievement in other filmmakers' catalogs. It's a testament to the Coen's genius that this may not even be in their top 5.

19. Platoon (1986) directed by Oliver Stone

Platoon kind of gets forgotten these days, it's a harrowing account of Vietnam seen through the eyes of Charlie Sheen's Private Chris Taylor. Oliver Stone imbued the movie with his own experiences serving in Vietnam and his ambitions as writer/director shine through in his occasionally disturbing and often beautiful look at the debacle of a war. Highlighted by a cast that includes Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, Keith David, and even a tiny role by Johnny Depp. It's a wonderfully acted movie all around. Berenger in particular is incendiary as the violent and aggressive Sgt. Barnes. When it was released, Platoon garnered all the awards and love, while Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was seen as the lesser movie. The "other Vietnam movie of 1986/7". Although they have different things to say about human nature, war, and other things and can happily coexist, I feel like time has given way to the overwhelming amount of Kubrick fans pumping up Full Metal Jacket, while Oliver Stone has progressively alienated or disappointed his fans to the degree that many have forgotten how great a filmmaker he was at his peak. And I think Platoon is his best film. 

18. The Blues Brothers (1980) directed by John Landis

One of the most quotable movies ever made, this movie is so good you forget that the characters started on Saturday Night Live. The movie is so good that people don't even remember it as "an SNL movie", it transcends that label and becomes a great movie. Packed wall-to-wall with classic soul and R&B music played by great musicians (including guys like Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, who you hear on guitar and bass in most of Otis Redding's songs) and guest stars like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, and more. Couple that with hysterical lead performances by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, supporting performances by Carrie Fisher and John Candy, among others, and this movie is just plain fun. It's ridiculous, probably too long, the car chases become almost surreal, and yet it somehow still works. Not a traditional musical, but I'd probably only put it behind Singin in the Rain when it comes to that genre. I can't even count how many times I've seen this movie, and I would happily sit down and watch it again right now.

17. Rain Man (1988) directed by Barry Levinson

Although it has become an iconic movie, Rain Man is really a surprisingly affecting look at a man beginning to grow and heal and learn to love something more than himself. Everyone remembers Dustin Hoffman's showy role of the autistic Raymond, which is a terrific role and performance (even if it doesn't represent the reality of autism, the movie isn't a documentary so I don't care), but it's Tom Cruise's character and performance as Charlie that is the heart of the movie. He's a classic fast talking, high energy, narcissistic Tom Cruise character, but over the course of the movie he softens, he lets himself become vulnerable, and he makes a connection with this brother he never knew he had. And by the end, even though Charlie doesn't get what he wants, he gets so much more. He's grown as a person. He's a better person, and Cruise's underappreciated work is what really elevates this movie into best of the decade status. The movie was recognized with Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, Actor, Director, and Best Picture. I don't know how Cruise was overlooked in the love fest, but this is some of his best work and was deserving of notice as well.

16. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) directed by Isao Takahata

Writer/director Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most emotionally powerful cries against war that the movies have ever seen. It's set on the Japanese side of World War II, but makes no attempt to vilify Americans nor justify Japan's involvement in the war. The Americans are only dealt with in the absolute terms of the planes that rain fire upon Tokyo and the damage that causes to the people living there. Takahata is concerned only with people, and actually makes no overt anti-war statements whatsoever. He simply shows the devastation that war has on people. He's a humanist who creates such rich characters that even though they're animated, we still fear for their survival as though they were actual human beings.

Grave of the Fireflies is also the movie for people who believe that animation, and anime in particular, is just for kids. Few live action movies have ever created characters and bonds as real as those between Seita and his young sister Setsuko. That both characters are doomed we know from the opening narration, as Seita says "September 21, 1945... that was the night I died." We see him, alone, dying of starvation in a train station. We go through the movie as Seita's spirit recounts his life, starting with losing his mother during the bombings. That may make the movie sound unusually depressing, but that's not Takahata's goal here. There are many delightful scenes between the brother and sister, particularly when they are capturing fireflies to light up their shelter. Still, Takahata doesn't sugar coat the war experience for these kids. When they're left to fend for themselves, we feel their hunger and desperation in the deepest part of our souls. War is truly hell, and this movie captures that in ways we've rarely seen before.

15. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the great animated movies that your average moviegoer hasn't seen. It was a wonderful gift given to us by the great Hayao Miyazaki in 1988. It follows two young girls who move with their loving father into an old house near a forest in rural Japan, where they encounters mystical creatures, including Totoro, the King of the forest. What's wonderful about the movie is that it's just as engrossing when dealing with the magical Totoro and his friends as it is when we're simply watching the girls and their father clean up the house, or visit their sick mother in the hospital. It's a magnificent visual experience, with evocative renderings of the small village in which the family lives as well as the surrounding forest. In particular the animation on the sisters is brilliantly expressive, using the exaggerated tradition of anime to get us to recall the feelings of childhood.

Once you've seen the movie it's not hard to understand why Totoro is as beloved and recognizable in Japan as Mickey Mouse is to us. Totoro looks after the girls, finds them when they get lost, and uses his magical powers to speed up the growing of some trees the girls planted. I don't see how someone couldn't love Totoro. One of the great family movies ever made, and oddly fitting and beautiful that it was screened as a package film with Grave of the Fireflies. That movie's almost unrelenting dourness contrasted against one of the most conflict free movies of all-time.

14. Lethal Weapon (1987) directed by Richard Donner

Lethal Weapon is a movie best summed up by Roger Ebert, I think, when he said: "The movie's so tightly wound up, it's like a rubber band ready to snap. Richard Donner, the director, throws action scenes at us like hardballs, and we don't know when to duck. All of the elements of this movie have been seen many times before - the chases, the explosions, the hostage negotiations - but this movie illustrates a favorite belief of mine, which is that the subject of a movie is much less important than its style. I'm a guy who is bored by shootouts and chase scenes. I've seen it all. But this movie thrilled me from beginning to end."

And he's right, there's nothing new in this movie, so why is it so good? Because movies aren't about what they're about, it's how's it about it that's important. Car chases can seem boring when done wrong, same for shootouts and cops and robbers and drug dealers and everything that this movie has in it. But when it's done right? It can be a deliciously fun and wild ride when it's done like it is here. Gibson and Glover have unbeatable chemistry, and without the two of them it's a totally different movie. And their odd couple pairing is another cliche that this movie takes and shows us what a real movie can look like when it's done right.

13. The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) directed by Frédéric Back

A movie that I named as the best animated short film ever made, it's no surprise that Frédéric Back's brilliant and beautiful adaptation of Jean Giono's short story ends up here on my list of best films of the decade. Narrated by the great Christopher Plummer, it tells the story of a lonely shepherd's quest to re-forest an area around the Alps in Provence, France. Though on the longer end of the short film form, at 30 minutes, the time flows by thanks to Plummer's voice and the achingly gorgeous animation from Back. One that needs to be experienced, and yet further proof (as though we needed it) that animation is hardly just for kids, I can't think of a type of person that wouldn't enjoy this movie.

12. Ran (1985) directed by Akira Kurosawa

The master Kurosawa makes his final appearance on these lists, in what was really his swan song epic, and it's a doozy. If you ask me, he was the King of Epics (that's right, Lean, De Mille, Spielberg, nobody does epics better than Kurosawa), and this one was his most epic. It's his version of Shakespeare's King Lear, but with the retiring king dividing his kingdom among sons not daughters. As the sons war and the old man ends up wandering the countryside with his fool, Kurosawa stages huge battles with large armies, big sets, and lots of blood splattering the ground (and the wall in one flawlessly filmed, and alarmingly sudden, execution scene).

As I've grown into more of an adult the epic battles have impressed me a bit less and I find myself more drawn to the Red Beard, Throne of Blood, High and Low, and Ikiru's of the master's resume, but Ran is too gorgeous of an achievement to let go too far down a favorites list. Certainly among the most visually impressive movies I've ever seen, Kurosawa even had to make a warm up movie (the undeservedly forgotten Kagemusha), which is good, but even Kurosawa said it was just to make sure he could make Ran, which he'd been preparing to do for at least 10 years before it hit the screen. His painters touch on the canvas of cinema will always be remembered by those cinephiles like me who can't get enough of his particular brand of greatness.

11. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) directed by Woody Allen

One of the classic stories of Woody Allen writing and re-writing and re-shooting a movie until he liked it, Crimes and Misdemeanors went through a lot of changes until we end up with essentially two different stories. There's the story of documentary filmmaker Cliff (Allen) making a positive doc about a man he hates (Alan Alda), and then there's the story of Judah (Martin Landau) who has an affair with a woman (Anjelica Huston) and ultimately turns to his ne'er-do-well brother (Jerry Orbach) to have her killed when she threatens to reveal their affair and upset his shining reputation in the community.

Woody Allen essentially remade this second portion as his great 2005 movie Match Point, but here it's nicely contrasted against the humorous Allen/Alda piece. Like his hero Ingmar Bergman (and shot by Bergman's regular cinematographer Sven Nyqvist), Allen ultimately makes a point about the silence of God in our daily lives, but the movie is not a message movie against religion, but just a damn entertaining and thought provoking ride through the lighter and darker sides of Woody Allen. And like all his best work, it grows in the memory.

10. A City of Sadness (1989) directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Like a lot of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's work, A City of Sadness is a look at Taiwan's broken past through the lens of a single family. Beginning in 1945, living in the aftermath of WWII, when Japan gave up control of Taiwan after 51 years. Though optimistic at first, the people aren't treated any better by the incoming Kuomintang government (KMT) from mainland China. A City of Sadness was the first movie to tackle the "White Terror", the name for the suppression of the political uprising following the February 28th Incident (starting in 1947), in which thousands of Taiwanese were either imprisoned, executed, or both.

The great Hong Kong actor Tony Leung's central performance as a deaf-mute man struggling with the sudden xenophobia surrounding him and his family is the movie's best asset. Leung has a face that instantly engenders empathy and relatability. We identify with his open faced emotions, fear, anger, and love. Hou's trademarks of long shots, elliptical storytelling, and gorgeous cinematography coupled with the tremendous acting all around, but especially from Leung, really helps this movie set sail as one of the great movies of its decade.

9. The Decalogue (1988-89) directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski

The Decalogue is a Polish collection of 10 one-hour-long films based on the Ten Commandments. It is one of the great achievements of world cinema. Most people have favorite sections, mine is the first, but they are all brilliant. They can be taken individually or as a whole, and it works. The pieces inform and enrich each other. They deepen and make each other more powerful. Kieślowski even took two of the section, #5 and #6, and expanded them into full length features, called A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. They're wonderful too, but I prefer them in their shorter form in The Decalogue. And Kieślowski doesn't stick to a "one commandment, one film" rule, as he blends and revisits certain themes to better enrich his characters and their situations. Admired by critics (like Roger Ebert, who for a long time included it on his list as one of the 10 greatest films ever made) and fellow filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick so loved the series that he wrote the forward to the published scripts in 1991). It's a tough sell, but you'll be happy you took the leap of faith into Kieślowski's world. Poland is one of the great countries of world cinema, and this is their masterpiece.

8. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) directed by Hayao Miyazaki

While it has some flaws, notably the parts of Joe Hisaishi's score that echo Nintendo games, Nausicaa is Miyazaki's greatest achievement. Although it was one of his earlier works, the animation is still top notch and often poetically beautiful. The movie as a whole encompasses all of his trademarks beautifully, strong ecological message, obsession with flying, and a strong young female protagonist. And Nausicaa is the young heroine all the subsequent Miyazaki female heroes are measured against. She smart, fun, and bravely courageous in the face of adversity.

The tremendous climax of the movie is one of my favorite scenes in the entire Miyazaki catalog, in which massive destruction is caused by the "God Warrior" who's been bred by the villains. It's a frightening sequence as this giant being causes untold havoc but falls apart as it's been hatched too early. A terrific set up for not shying away from the action scenes Miyazaki is so good at, but also giving it some context and meaning so that it's not just mindless action (which it never is in his work). A terrifically animated epic that has topped my Miyazaki list since I first saw it.

7. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) directed by Steven Spielberg

Spielberg is one of my favorite filmmakers, and all of his schmaltzy sentimentality has never been on more glorious display than in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Much like Yoda, the title character is flawlessly puppeted and engagingly voiced, effortlessly getting us to believe this character and get emotionally involved with it. And to have Henry Thomas as a partner doesn't hurt. Thomas gives one of the 2 or 3 best performances by a child actor I've seen, running the emotional gamut and giving us humor, pathos, and a great humanity to Eliott, the main character. The supporting actors are all just fine too, but for me it's always a two "man" show, with Elliot and E.T. It's a magical journey throughout, and a wonderful take on the concept of "first contact" that I've already written about my love for.

What saddens me is that just like he did with Close Encounters, and his friends George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola did, Spielberg went back and messed with the movie to make a "special edition" of it. I have very strong feelings about this, and I think it's because they're conflicting. I think the filmmakers should have the right to fuck up their movies by doing these types of things with them, but I hate it when they exercise that right. Scorsese once said that the reason he'd never done anything like this (or even re-cut a movie for a "director's cut") was because once the movie is released to the public it doesn't belong to him anymore, it belongs to the audience. Thankfully, Spielberg has said that he shouldn't have done the "digital enhancement" and when people ask him which version to watch he says to watch the original. I agree, it was one of the best films of its decade.

6. Do the Right Thing (1989) directed by Spike Lee
Written, produced, directed by and starring Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing is one of the most life filled movies ever made. Evoking one of those unbearably hot summer days where everyone mostly just sits around bullshitting and complaining about the heat, Lee populates his Brooklyn neighborhood with all kinds of interesting characters, from pizziera owner Sal (Danny Aiello, nominated for an Oscar for the role) to Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), to Tina (Rosie Perez), Sal's son Pino (John Turturro), and local DJ Mr. Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson). Spike's character Mookie, Sal's delivery boy, is our guide through the neighborhood, as he bounces around delivering (and sometimes avoiding delivering) pizzas around the block. Tensions slowly rising throughout the blistering day, the plot meanders enough that I didn't think it would ultimately lead to anything more than tension. Oh, how wrong I was.

All that tension leads to anger, misunderstanding, and ultimately violence and rioting in one of the most emotionally devastating movies I've ever seen. One of the most famous scenes has become Spike's Mookie throwing a trash can through the window of Sal's, as the crowd cheers him on and joins in. People have asked over the years "Did Mookie do the right thing?" My feeling has always been a firm no. But, from the time Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) come into Sal's at the end, not a single person does the right thing. There's a point in the riot when Mother Sister comes up, and I thought she would act as the disappointed voice of reason, instead she eggs on the crowd, and I was completely floored at Lee's steely eyed intent on showing everyone succumbing to their worst herd behavior instincts. No one plays the voice of reason, no one stops themselves, no one does the right thing.

And then Lee ends the movie with conflicting quotes about violence from Dr. King and Malcolm X, showing Lee understands the duality of man and refuses to spoon feed any answers about anything to the audience. He refuses to be didactic, and in doing so made a movie of incredble depth and maturity. One of the best and most important movies of the decade.

5. Empire Strikes Back (1980) directed by Irvin Kirshner

So the Star Wars universe makes an appearance! This is one of those movies that I often forget just how really good it is. I know I like all the Star Wars movies (even the new ones) but until I watch them again I forget how well they work. Still firmly in the Saturday morning adventure serials crossed with the space opera setting, Empire is always pointed to as the best Star Wars movie, and there's a reason. The acting is better than any of the other movies, as the story gets a little darker and the actors have more to play with. There's also better humor, both in the banter between Leia and Han (and Luke) but I also tend to forget just how funny Yoda is.

Ah, Yoda, one of the biggest reasons for this movie's success. He's easily one of the best and most affecting non-human character in movies. When we meet him here, he's an eccentric and funny little guy, but he still conveys the old pains and history that we don't learn about until later. Wonderfully voiced by the great Frank Oz, who also puppeteered. It's his training with Luke that really elevates the story, as we watch Luke grow both inside and out. It's still a big fun summer blockbuster George Lucas type of movie, but it's the best he ever did, and has to go on my list of top 80's movies.

4. The Princess Bride (1987) directed by Rob Reiner

There are probably only two movies as quotable as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and this is one of them (the other is coming up in a bit). Based on the book by ace screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men), which he adapted to the screen himself, it's a movie that I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw it, and I was only 5 or 6 years old. It's been one of my most watched movies since then, and that's a very common story for the movie's many fans.

The casting is perfect, not a single character could've been played any better. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful idealic couple in Westley and Buttercup, but of course everyone knows this movie belongs to the supporting characters. Mandy Patankin has said that people still to this day come up to him on the street (multiple times a week) and say "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." and he never gets tired of it. Wallace Shawn is inconceivably good as Vizzini, and Billy Crystal and Carol Kane are hysterical in their brief time. Chris Sarandon is wonderful as Prince Humperdink, and his sidekick Count Rugen is played with surprising coldness by comedy genius Christopher Guest. The biggest surprised to me when I watch it, even after 20+ years of seeing it, is the wonderful performance from Andre the Giant as Fezzik. It's not like there are many giants in the world that could've acted the part, and reports are that he could do hardly any of the physical things the role required (he had large back pain to go with his large size), but his ability to imbue Fezzik with warmth, humor, and a certain way of reminding us he was still big, strong, and scary. And of course there's Fred Savage as the spoiled sick little brat, and Peter Falk as his grandpa reading him the story. Both perfect.

It's a storybook movie that actually feels like a storybook, and is a movie that I hold other such fantasy movies up to in comparison, whether they're comedies or not. Because The Princess Bride is so perfect, it's one of my "sick movies", where it's easy to watch because it makes me feel so good to see it again. To spend some more time with these characters and the terrific writing. And it's one of those rare movies that I loved as a kid, and go back and watch it as an adult and love even more.

3. Raging Bull (1980) directed by Martin Scorsese

Scorsese's black-and-white classic adaptation of Jake LaMotta's memoir is one of the hardest and easiest movies to watch I've ever seen. It's easy to watch because Scorsese was at a particular artistic peak when making it. The shot composition, the storytelling, the performances he got from his cast, everything is at the absolute highest technical peak it could've been. It's a hard movie to watch because Jake LaMotta is one of the most self destructive, violent, hateable main characters in major movie history, and he'd agree with that assessment.

We follow Jake (Robert De Niro) through and out of one unhappy marriage, into another with teenage beauty Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) that is fraught with paranoia, violence, and altogether unhappiness. Not much different is the relationship with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), whom he abuses almost as much as he does his wife (though no one is blameless, making for a general unpleasantness to the characters). But Jake is a great boxer, able to take a lot of punishment from his opponents (namely Sugar Ray Robinson) in what becomes almost a masochistic streak for Jake and occasionally an arena for him to get out a certain amount of his inner frustration as he mercilessly beats the face of another boxer his wife had described as pretty, leading one ring side viewer to utter the famous line "He ain't pretty no more."

De Niro is spellbinding as Jake. All 3 main actors were deservedly nominated for Oscars for their work, with De Niro winning his only Best Actor award. But the layers De Niro gives to Jake allows us to not be able to look away from him even while he's in a jail cell pounding his head against the wall in a painfully emotional explosion of self hatred. Not an easy movie to watch, but a fascinating one, beautifully made and acted, and one whose reputation only grows. A few years ago it was named by the AFI as the 4th best American movie ever made. While I don't place it that high, it's definitely one of the best movies of the 80's.

2. This is Spinal Tap (1984) directed by Rob Reiner

The other movie that can compete with Monty Python and the Holy Grail in quotability, and strangely also directed by Rob Reiner, is this birth of the mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap. So perfect were the English accents by the American actors playing the band (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest), so spot on the satire that many people (even musicians like Eddie Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, and Steven Tyler, among others) didn't know it was all a joke. Pitched just this side of full on parody, the movie satirizes the self importance and bloated nature of the rock lifestyle, especially that which had gotten so popular in the late 70's and early 80's.

The natural sounding mostly improvised dialog and hand held documentary like shooting was not at all common at the time, leading some people to tell Rob Reiner that they'd enjoyed his movie but that he should've picked a more famous band to do the documentary on, as they'd never heard of Spinal Tap before. Although on first viewing I found it kinda slow moving and didn't particularly care for the manager character, I still liked it. But this movie is like an old friend that you love more every time you see it and your affection for only grows. I could spend a whole review just quoting the movie but will instead point out that it is the only movie on the Internet Movie Database that is rated out of 11.

1. Fanny and Alexander (1982) directed by Ingmar Bergman

And my best movie of the 80's is actually a 5-hour-long miniseries made for Swedish TV by the great Ingmar Bergman, but whatever. There is actually a version that was edited down to 3 hours and released around the country in a similar way that his great miniseries Scenes From a Marriage was in the 1970's. Even in its truncated version, Fanny and Alexander is the novelic story of the title siblings who are thrown for a loop as their beloved father dies of a stroke and their mother remarries the authoritarian local bishop. As the mother both becomes pregnant and realizes that this home won't be filled with the joy of the previous one, she works to make sure she and her children are safe. Though mostly seen from Alexander's perspective, Bergman effortlessly balances all characters so that everyone is developed and gets their moments in the sun, even the hateable bishop.

While with a strong note of magical realism, the movie also has an obvious influence from the work of Charles Dickens. I'd actually venture to say that this is more Dickensian than any Dickens adaptation we've seen. It's a large movie with reportedly over 60 speaking parts, which adds to the feeling of a novel. And though his movies tend to be smaller rather than this big, it doesn't lose any intimacy and is imbued with more love and nostalgia than any other Bergman movie. It's almost as if it came from a different filmmaker than the one who gave us Persona and The Seventh Seal.

Intended to be his final theatrical movie (though he'd release Saraband in 2003, 4 years before his death), it was also intended to star his favorite actors Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, as well as Ingrid Bergman, though none ended up in the final movie for various reasons. Instead, we don't recognize most of the actors, excepting a few Bergman regulars like Erland Josephson, which only further allows us to fall under the novelic spell of this masterpiece of movies. Deservedly winning 4 Oscars, for Costume Design, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Cinematography, and Foreign Language Film, in addition to Director and Screenplay nominations for Bergman himself, the greatness of this movie has to be seen and experienced and lived in. It's the best movie of the 1980's for a reason.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Best movie villains

10. Biff/Rich Biff/Old Biff/Griff Tannen/Mad Dog Tannen - Back to the Future series

Only demoted on the list because his villainy is spread over multiple roles and timelines and movies, Thomas F. Wilson's brilliant portrayal of the Tannen clan is under appreciated and needs hi-lighting. Everyone knows Biff, but what about Rich Grown Up Biff in the alternate timeline in Back to the Future II? He's a Trump-esque figure and Biff plus entitlement and money is a very dangerous combination. Also, what about Old Biff? Not a villain so much, but still a wonderful bully. Griff, the future version of Biff in BTTF2 is one of the most deliriously over-the-top performances ever given. And Wilson is able to make his performance fit into the old west timeline of Back to the Future III as well. Just tremendous work throughout the series, and had to be on my list.

9. Amon Goeth - Schindler's List

Ralph Fiennes' narcissistic, psychopathic portrayal of real life Nazi Amon Goeth is a chilling piece of work from the great actor. Nazi are, rightfully, given the villain role in movie after movie in the history of post-war cinema, but none have been as blood-draining-out-of-your-face cold as this one. When Schindler (Liam Neeson) tries to appeal to Goeth to stop killing so many Jews in the concentration camps, he does it by appealing to Goeth's superiority complex, trying to convince Goeth that he can pardon the lives of the Jews because he is so God-like powerful within the camp. Fiennes' reading of the line "I pardon you" will probably haunt me forever in its narcissistic happiness.

8. Terrence Fletcher - Whiplash

One of the few great movie villains who has real humanity and purpose underneath is JK Simmons' Oscar-winning work in Whiplash. Fletcher is on a lifelong quest to find the next Charlie Parker, and his method of doing that is to systematically beat down each and every student who comes through his school. Like a drill sergeant, he wants to take away their humanity, but instead of being built up into a soldier who follows orders, he wants a free thinking genius who will challenge him back. When he gets so far down on Andrew (an equally brilliant performance by Miles Teller) that Andrew gets him fired and quits playing music himself, he sets out to take Andrew down again, only for Andrew to rise from the ashes and challenge Fletcher like he'd always wanted someone to come back at him. It's a dark ending, one that both celebrates Andrew's victory over Fletcher, but one where we realize that something awful has just happened. A new Fletcher has likely been made. That's frightening due to what we have seen from Simmons' career best work.

7. Don Logan - Sexy Beast

In a performance that topped my Best Supporting Actor Performances list last year, Ben Kingsley leaves all memories of his defining role as Ghandi as he emerges as cobra-put-into-human form that is Don Logan. Lashing out through a stream of constant and inventive swearing, Kingsley is actually able to make legendary movie tough guy Ray Winstone seem meek and ineffectual. Kingsley's work is so otherworldly amazing that the movie as a whole can't recover when he's not on screen. Logan, and Kingsley, are so good they essentially ruin the movie by making everything else around them seem boring and dull.

6. Noah Cross - Chinatown

What seems like a character representing the corruption of the rich, who control our past, present, and even "the future, Mr. Gitts" instead slowly gets revealed to personify most of the evils of humanity. Whether it's murder, rape, incest, or any other dark corner of mankind, Noah Cross is a dark, towering figure in the landscape. His southern charm, and reassuring John Huston voice, turns oily and snake-like before long. That he doesn't pay for his sins, and even gets to keep the nasty cycle of his existence going by the end of the movie gives the fatalistic weight to the final line of the movie "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" giving us the feeling that there's nothing we can do sometimes in the face of true evil. A powerful ending to one of the great movies, and it wouldn't work if it weren't for the villainous Noah Cross and the great performance from John Huston.

5. The Joker - The Dark Knight

There are certain characters that just have that certain indefinable thing that makes them compelling. I think The Joker is the best example of that. While some folks like Jack Nicholson's performance of the role in Tim Burton's Batman, I think it's nothing special. An overrated performance in a terrible movie. Jared Leto's terrible performance in the also terrible Suicide Squad is another awful bit of writing, directing, and acting. But sometimes you get something like Mark Hamill's take on the character in Batman: The Animated Series. His maniacal vocal performance of the character I had long thought would be the high water mark, until Heath Ledger's instantly iconic role in The Dark Knight. I was one of those vocally against Ledger's casting, as he'd had a long dry spell before his brilliant work in Brokeback Mountain. And when the first publicity still was released, it looked like Ledger would be playing Marilyn Manson. But when that first trailer was released I got chills. I got chills when I saw his work opening day, and his performance really cemented The Joker as one of the great villains, for me.

4. Bobby Kent - Bully

Undoubtedly the least seen entry on the list is Nick Stahl's performance as real life murder victim Bobby Kent in Bully. A seething pile of suburban repressed anger, sexual frustration, and likely self hating homosexuality, Kent is one of the most reprehensible characters to ever be played on screen. Stahl gives him all the internal angst that we don't quite understand Bobby, but he's not an unknowable monster. He's a monster, that's for sure, constantly bullying his best friend Marty with violence, verbal abuse, and forced viewing of gay porn among other things. Bobby is relentless in his abuse of Marty and all those in their social circle. That is until his "friends" get so fed up that they murder him. It's a testament to Stahl's work that we are horrified by the murder, but also understand it. We even empathize with Bobby's abused friends, until we end up realizing that they're just as fucked up and broken as Bobby was. It's a sad movie, a really good one, but hard to watch. And Stahl's performance is the center of the storm.

3. HAL 9000 - 2001: A Space Odyssey

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave." HAL is a great movie villain because of two things: his power over the spaceship our protagonists are traveling on, and the flat, almost affectless vocal performance from Douglas Rain. HAL can't let the humans compromise the mission to Jupiter, and through the cold logic of a computer, he tries to take care of the situation, even if it means that no humans survive the journey. In a movie pregnant with silence, HAL is probably the most talkative character, and ends up the most memorable. The emotionless red light that we associate with HAL takes on a sinister character as well, and yet it's a testament to Stanley Kubrick's genius that it's only ever a red light. Also a testament to Kubrick is that HAL's "death" is quite an emotional experience. I've even cried on occasion when HAL says "I feel my mind going." Rarely has a computer ever taken on such character and compassion, while doling out such fear and panic. And that's what makes HAL such a memorable, complex, interesting villain.

2. Anton Chigurh - No Country for Old Men

Anton Chigurh is like a walking embodiment of Death itself. Javier Bardem's implacable face and voice lending an air of chilliness to the character, whether he's calmly taking deep breaths while he strangles a man, pulling back the curtain to minimize blood splatter when murdering a man in the shower, or thinking to remove his shoes to quiet his sneaking up on those who would hope to murder him. The compressed air tank he carries around gave me new appreciation to the sound design of a movie (as did this movie as a whole), as that little hiss becomes as sinister and imposing a sound as a shotgun or car explosion. Even the characters in the movie can't seem to make heads or tails of Chigurh, "He's a peculiar man." Woody Harrelson's character says. That unknowable quality to Bardem's work is part of what makes him so memorable. It's part of why Chigurh sticks out so much, not because he's underdeveloped as a character, but because we're not sure who he really is. It's a fine line, but Bardem walks it well and creates one of the great movie villains ever created.

1. Dolores Umbridge - Harry Potter series

I didn't intend for the top spot on both my villains and heroes list to be taken up by Harry Potter entries, but that's just how it happened. To those less familiar with the series, this might seem a strange choice. "What about Voldemort?" they might say. "Some lady in pink is really a scary villain?" yes. Yes, she is. And I think it's because she's not the powerful genius wizard that Voldemort is. She's not the grandstanding iconoclastic villain. Dolores Umbridge is the reprehensible every day kind of evil. If Voldemort is Hitler, Umbridge is the Amon Goeth letting her inner psychopath ruth amok, murdering people for fun in the camps. She takes great pleasure in torturing Harry, with the stated intent of making him live by the rules. But we can see that Umbridge also represents the mundanity of evil in that way. She's the type that didn't start the evil revolution, but she's certainly going to let her racism, superiority complex, and abusable power position all get thoroughly exercised. Stephen King called Umbridge the "greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter..." I think she's much worse.