Thursday, April 25, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1990's

10. Defending Your Life (1991, directed by Albert Brooks)

Albert Brooks is a sadly underappreciated filmmaker. He's made other good movies, but Defending Your Life is his masterpiece. Daniel (Brooks) dies and is sent to Judgment City, where people from his part of the world are sent to find out whether they will be allowed to move on, or whether they'll be reincarnated on Earth for another go round. They have to defend the power that fear has over us in all its guises, from not taking a job you want because it'll be scary, to chickening out on making a move on the girl you really like. Daniel is assigned an attorney, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), and eventually meets another deceased person in the city, the fun and lovable Julia (Meryl Streep), also awaiting judgment.

Daniel's told that he will have to defend 9 days of his life while in Judgement City. "Is that a lot?" he asks. It's not a lot or a little, he's told, it just is. But to a neurotic guy like Brooks, that sure seems like a lot, and when he tells people how many he has to defend, people always give him a "Ooh, sorry" kind of response. But the city is nice, they can eat all they want without gaining any weight, and stay at hotels while they're there. Streep's character is booked at a Four Seasons type hotel, while Brooks is relegated to the local Holiday Inn type, only reinforcing his fears that he will be sent back to Earth instead of "progressing on". Streep's character is only defending 4 days, and when Brooks sneaks into her trial he sees things like her saving her family from their burning house and her prosecuting attorney crying and saying "I just wanted to see that again" after Brooks' prosecutor (Lee Grant) has been relentless in saying he doesn't deserve to move on.

The laughs come in all different ways here, some great one liners and set ups, but mostly I found them coming from the great characters Brooks sets up. He's his usual sarcastic neurotic self, but we feel some deep humanity in him as his life of second guessing himself may send him back to Earth just as he's met the love of his (after)life in Julia. And boy is Meryl Streep low key, warm, and altogether wonderful as Julia. It's not a flashy part like many of her Oscar roles, but it's a role that would've ruined the movie if it'd been cast with the wrong actress. Rip Torn is a hoot as the lawyer, and Buck Henry makes an always welcome and hilarious (but brief) addition to the cast Daniel's temporary substitute attorney.

Defending Your Life is a wonderful look at a possible afterlife, with many associated questions arising from the world Brooks creates. It's a terrific love story between Brooks and Streep. And above all it's just a damn wonderful comedy, and a terrific start to my 90's countdown.

9. Swingers (1996, directed by Doug Liman)

Swingers is an important movie for me in that I saw it as a young teenager, and it was one of the first low budget non-Hollywood type of movies I ever loved. It's funny to think of it now as non-Hollywood, since so many of the people involved went on to big careers, but at the time it was just a $200k movie that no studio wanted to make with the writer starring with a bunch of his friends and being directed by a guy, Doug Liman, who'd only made one movie before. But I'm glad things happened as they did, because Swingers is one of the great comedies if you ask me.

Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn play Mike and Trent, a couple of struggling actors who occasionally get auditions, but mostly just hang out, going to clubs all around LA with their friends Rob (Office Space's Ron Livingston), Charles (Alex Desert), and Sue (named after the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue", played by Patrick Van Horn), and cruising for chicks along the way. Mike's trying to get over his breakup with a longtime girlfriend, and Trent repeatedly and hilariously tries to get Mikey to follow his advice for how to pick up girls (whether he actually likes them or not is irrelevant). Against this aimless backdrop, Liman shoots a lot of handheld (and apparently often without filming permits) shots, giving the comedy a great homemade and gritty quality that is endearing rather than annoying to me.

Swingers launched both Vaughn and Favreau to much bigger things, both in front of and behind the camera, but I'm not sure either ever did anything better. Liman would go on to direct Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity, and the underrated Go, but I don't think he ever bettered this movie either. Whether it's Trent's "You're like a big bear" speech, Mike's incessant calling of a girl whose number he got earlier in the night, or even Favreau's little look when Trent says "Hey Mikey, it's been 2 days, you should call that Nikki girl", the humor comes in many ways, all perfectly delivered by the wonderful cast.

8. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993, directed by Steven Zaillian)

A fascinating movie with a lot of brains and insight, while also working on the level of being one of the great family movies ever made, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie that I watch pretty much every time it's on TV, and it's on TV way more often than you might think. I just find it so challenging, yet so lovable. It's perfectly acted by everyone in the cast, subtly directed by ace screenwriter Steve Zaillian, and gorgeously shot by the legendary Conrad L. Hall (where, shamefully, the movie's only Oscar nomination came from). Although "based on a true story", much of what happens is fiction, except for the fact that it follows a chess prodigy. But I've never been one to demand facts from my fiction, so I wholeheartedly love this little movie.

Fred Waitzkin (a never better Joe Mantegna) is a sportswriter who slowly finds out his baseball loving son Josh (Max Pomeranc) innately understands chess, without ever having been taught. Josh learns from "watching the men in the park", like Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), who yells at Josh's frightened mom Bonnie (Joan Allen) that her son is special, as he writes down the date of the first time he sees Josh play. Thinking his son might be the next Bobby Fischer, Fred is able to secure the services of chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), who eventually molds Josh as a player in one way, while Vinnie molds Josh into his own vision of what's right in the game. Taking Josh around to competitions, Fred meets other chess parents, fights against the teachers complaining about Josh missing school, and runs up against another chess prodigy that frightens Josh. The supporting cast is filled with people like Tony Shalhoub, Dan Hedaya, William H. Macy, David Paymer, Laura Linney, and many others who populate this wonderful movie with a variety of characters.

It's a fascinating look into a world most of us are probably not familiar with, but at once is very familiar. That of parents pushing their children to do things and be things that the children may not want to do. Josh's mom never loses sight of the goal, and just wants her son to be a good person, but Fred gets caught up in winning at almost all costs because "he's better at chess than I've ever been at anything", while Josh is not always capable of knowing when to take Bruce's often harsh advice and when to take the more nurturing but less fundamentally sound advice from Vinnie. To see Max Pomeranc's tremendous performance as he's being pushed and pulled in all these directions while only 7-years-old, is truly extraordinary. It's probably the best child performance I've ever seen in a movie. Thankfully, it's not wasted in a lesser movie, but into one of the best movies of the 1990's.

7. Out of Sight (1998, directed by Steven Soderbergh)

I wanted to see Out of Sight when it came out because I thought Jennifer Lopez was hot. It was that simple for me. I knew it had "that guy from ER" in it (George Clooney), but whatever, it didn't matter. I had no knowledge of director Steven Soderbergh, nor screenwriter Scott Frank, nor writer Elmore Leonard, whose book inspired the movie. But I think I watched it 4 or 5 times when it came out on VHS (aw, remember those days? I'm glad they're dead too). I was enthralled with George Clooney's cool, Jennifer Lopez's hotness and actual acting ability, the sexy cinematography and editing, and the terrific crime story of deals and double crosses and interesting characters. The supporting cast populated with great actors like Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn, Denis Farina, and an uncredited cameo from Samuel L. Jackson, never hurts.

It was a renaissance of sorts for Soderbergh, who'd made a big splash with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but had hit a wall both creatively and commercially afterwards. It also sparked a great artistic working relationship with Clooney, as the two would make 5 more movies together. But they never topped this initial collaboration (though their terrific remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris gets better every time I watch it). Like Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Barry Levinson's Get Shorty, Out of Sight might not be completely faithful to the source novel, but it "gets" Elmore Leonard. It has the distinctive dialog, an unforced cool, and a leisurely paced narrative that Soderbergh mixes up by telling out of chronological order. It's famous "locked in the trunk" meeting between Clooney and Lopez is justifiably famous as it's off the sexiness charts, but the Don't Look Now evoking sex scene later in the movie is equally as sexy and proves that sexiness can easily exist without nudity. It's fun, funny, violent, sexy, and proof of how great the 90's were that it's only #7.

6. Goodfellas (1990, directed by Martin Scorsese)

Now, speaking of fun and violent, Goodfellas is one of the breeziest 2 1/2 hours in movie history, but is one of the most profane and violent mainstream movies you're gonna see. Not talking about gore or blood necessarily, but violence in the way people speak and treat each other, in addition to the guns and bats and ice picks and whatever else that these gangsters use to dispatch of one another with.

“As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster” Goodfellas follows the story of the half-Irish Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his attempt to rise in the ranks of the New York mafia from the mid-1950’s through the late-1970’s. Being half-Irish is an important component in Henry’s story because it prevents him from ever becoming a “made guy”, as only those with 100% Italian blood can ever be “made guys”. The same hurdle blocks Henry’s mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) as well. However, as a child Henry is paired with the sociopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) who as a full blood Italian could one day rise to made status. The three friends begin to pull different jobs to try and make a name for themselves, including the infamous Lufthansa heist.

Henry soon meets a fiery Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and impresses her by taking her to the Copacabana but instead of going in the front door, he goes through the kitchen and comes out right in front of the stage as a table is placed there for them (this is where the famous tracking shot takes place, commonly considered the greatest of Scorsese’s career). Karen, taken aback by the treatment Henry receives asks him what he does for a living, “I’m in construction” Henry says without missing a beat. They’re quickly married and soon Henry has gained a mistress, begun the selling (and intaking) of cocaine, and has to deal with the repercussions of Tommy’s violent quick-trigger temper.

In addition to the flawless acting, Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus deserve infinite praise for their work on the editing and cinematography, respectively. Ballhaus’s roving camerawork helps us feel personally involved in these people’s lives, and Schoonmaker’s propulsive editing makes the movie feel alive with energy. The most obvious examples of Ballhaus’s great work is the famous tracking shot in the Copa, and the great camera work during a certain sequence of the movie scored to the piano section of “Layla”. Schoonmaker’s genius in particular shows during a bravura sequence where Henry spends a frantic, paranoid day where he believes an FBI helicopter is following him as he dashes all over town running guns, tries to organize some drug trafficking, and attempts to cook dinner for his family (“don’t let the sauce burn” he keeps repeating to his family).

That said, some people may be bothered by both the language (the “f” word is used an alleged 300 times in the movies 145 minutes) and the violence. These characters are not nice people, and the fact that they show no remorse for their actions may also disturb some. The movie is not overly graphic in terms of gore, but there is no shortage of violence depicted on screen. Still, it's to Scorsese and company's credit that I can't help but smile while watching all of that go down.

5. Dead Man Walking (1995, directed by Tim Robbins)

THE most emotionally devastating movie I've ever seen, Dead Man Walking's genius is to get us to be destroyed by the execution of an awful human being. Sean Penn's extraordinary work as Matthew Poncelet (the best of his considerable career) and the tireless decency and love from Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) force us to see that every life is precious, even those of people who've stolen that precious gift from others. Robbins being the writer/director and staunchly against the death penalty, there are certainly indications that the movie is anti-capital punishment, but it has the intelligence and heart to also understand what an execution can bring to the families of those who've been wronged.

The story is that Poncelet is on Death Row for the murder of a teenaged couple and rape of the woman. Though he maintains his innocence, all evidence and testimony points elsewhere, and I never felt that the movie took Poncelet's declarations of innocence at all seriously. He asks local nun Sister Helen Prejean to help with his legal appeal, hoping to reduce his death penalty to life imprisonment, as his accomplice got. The families of the teenage couple gawk at Sister Helen through uncomprehending eyes, insisting she's taking "his side" while she tells them that everyone deserves a defense and killing another person won't bring back those already killed. But the final 30 minutes or so is the most destroying piece of cinema I've seen, as we see Matthew come to grips with the realization that he can't get out of his sentence, and Sister Helen's guides him through his final moments as she pleads with him to truly take responsibility for what he's done and have the possbility of redemption in God's eyes.

Flawlessly acted, written, and directed, the movie is never sensational about such an inflammatory subject. It sees everything the way it is, gives everyone their time, and simply regards the process of execution. Leaving the audience to make up their own minds about what they think. Robbins sidesteps every opportunity to preach to the crowd. He's much too smart for that. He knows that simply showing the story (adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean), and making sure to show everyone as a real person, we'll see that Matthew's death really doesn't bring back that poor teenage couple. All we're left with is another dead body.

4. Unforgiven (1992, directed by Clint Eastwood)

Little Bill: You'd be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.
Will Munny: That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill.

My vote for Clint Eastwood's masterpiece as actor and filmmaker is the universally acclaimed western Unforgiven. The terrific characters set up in the original screenplay by David Webb Peoples people this movie with a lot of life, and Eastwood's flawless casting of great actors like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris, in addition to himself in the lead role, really helps bring the story alive. Ultimately though, it's the story of William Munny, who'd been cured of the evil ways of his youth by his now deceased wife, leaving him with two young children, and a lifetime of guilt and frustration. When the opportunity to make some money comes up, taking revenge on a couple of guys who attacked some whores in a brothel in Montana, he takes it. We follow him on his eventual descent back into the William Munny of legend, as the job becomes much bigger than taking down a couple of hoodlums, when Hackman's corrupt Sherrif Little Bill doesn't take kindly to Eastwood trying to cash in the reward for these fellas he's given leniency to.

It's a gorgeously shot, wonderfully acted, and terrifically written elegy of a movie. Eastwood's farewell to the western genre that'd made him a household name. Almost noirish in its moral ambiguity, Unforgiven also works as a straight ahead western adventure, even if you don't want to look deeper at the things he's saying with it. One of the best movies to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars, Unforgiven stakes its claim as possibly the greatest western ever made too.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994, directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction hit the moviegoing public like a lightning bolt in 1994. It's unashamed use of violence and creatively foul language offended a good deal of the people who went to see it (there were actually a number of boos from the audience when it took home the Palme D'or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival). It also hit me like a lightning bolt when I first saw it at about the age of 12 or so. It was the first movie I'd remembered seeing told out of order (no, I hadn't seen Citizen Kane by 12, nor had I seen Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs) and the stunning dialog really lodged a place in my young brain. Tarantino's skills as director also had quite an impact on me, building tension in some scenes, hilarious comedy in others, and his use of music struck a significant chord with me back in those days of not knowing just how much he was stealing from Scorsese (in style and approach more than content).

So many movies that hit you at a young age simply don't continue having the same sort of impact as you get older. Pulp Fiction, though, still thrills me and makes me laugh (it's one of the great dark comedies at its core), nearly as much as when I was 12. There's not really a whole lot more to write about one of the most written and talked about movies ever made. Not for everybody, but definitely for me!

2. Dark City (1998, directed by Alex Proyas)

I vaguely remembered Dark City being advertised, but only knew one person who saw it in theaters and they told me it was just ok. So I was surprised when I saw at the end of the year that it landed at #1 on Roger Ebert's year end top ten list. That made me want to check it out and see what was up. I did, and just thought, "it was ok". But then I started thinking more about the philosophy behind it, and especially the images contained within it. I was caught by the incredible German expressionistic architecture, and the subconscious evocation of old school noir movies (subconscious to me, because I didn't know much about noir at the time) and the paintings of Edward Hopper. So I bought it on DVD, watched it again, and liked it a lot. Then a few weeks later watched it again, and loved it. A few months or a year or whatever later, I watched it again and decided it was one of my favorite movies. In 2008, director Alex Proyas released his Director's Cut of the movie. I'm not normally a fan of DC's, but this one took one of my favorite movies and turned it into an all-time top 5 for me. The theatrical cut is like a sprint, the quick cutting and relentless pacing rushing towards the final confrontation. The DC adds in just a few scenes, but Proyas cuts them in in a way that lets the movie breathe and not exactly take its time, since it is still paced quite rapidly, but feel like it's not the sprint to the finish line that the original cut is.

The first section of the movie is brilliantly constructed in a way to make a little off balance in our viewing. Our protagonist, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), doesn't know who is he, where he is, or why he's there. Proyas shoots with no camera movement, and the rapid cutting and seemingly disconnected storytelling putting us subconsciously in the shoes of our hero. Slowly, he begins to think more clearly and put together the strands of his life with the help of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a mysterious doctor (Keifer Sutherland), and the detective (William Hurt) assigned to a murder case that John is the lead suspect in. As John does this, Proyas slowly starts letting shots linger a bit longer, move a bit more, and yet never lose the remarkable attention to visual detail that Proyas displayed in the earlier sections. The movie is chock full of references to other works, whether it's the landmark sci-fi epic Metropolis, the anime classic Akira, or the short stories The Tunnel Under the World and The Lottery in Babylon. Another influence, the French movie The City of Lost Children, is even quoted when one of the villains mentions that the people "Walk through the city like lost children."

The movie that Dark City most often gets compared with is The Matrix. They came out a year apart, in February of '98 and March of '99 respectively. They are both dark on a visual level, and deal with the central idea of "the world you live in isn't real," a classic sci-fi concept that both movies use as a launching pad. The Matrix uses it for half-hearted philosophy, but mainly for an action movie (which is all The Matrix is, no matter what any nerd tries to convince you otherwise), and even reused a few of Dark City's sets on its Sydney, Australia sound stage. Dark City uses it for philosophical contemplation and half-heartedly for an action movie. Proyas also uses the story as an excuse to have incredible image after incredible image on screen. Ebert said so eloquently in his original review (he's since written another one, when he added it to his list of "The Great Movies", as well as doing a commentary track for the DVD) and I can't top it, so I'll just close with this quote "If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then Dark City is a film to nourish us. Not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects--and imagination."

1. Big Night (1996, directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott)

I've written about Big Night over and over again, because it's the movie I most connect to on an emotional level. It's a terrific comedy, a heartbreaking drama, and an actors showcase as the ensemble put together by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott, including the two of them, is simply extraordinary. I initially wrote that Big Night was about life, and I believe that more than ever now. It's about relationships, new and old, romantic and platonic and familial, beginning and ending. It's about trying to start your life, or a new life in the case of Tucci and Tony Shaloub's Italian brothers. It's also about food, that life giving nurturer that we disrespect so often. Tucci has said "I thought I loved food when I started making Big Night, but I loved it even more after. It was never my intention to make a food movie. The movie was about the relationship between art and commerce, the art being food." But no movie has ever loved food like Big Night. The cooking, the presenting, the eating, it's all here, it's all delicious looking, and it means so much. When Shaloub's character is disgusted by the "Italian food" served at the restaurant of Pascal (Ian Holm), he isn't just disgusted, he shouts "RAPE! RAPE! That's what that man serves every night, the rape of cuisine!"

It's a movie that is comforting to me. It's a movie that is moving to me. It's a movie that is endless in its humane depth of insight. It is my favorite movie and definitely the #1 movie of the 90's.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942 - 2013

Film critic Roger Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70. There have been countless tributes and RIP's out there from fellow critics, actors, filmmakers, bloggers, even President Obama. Most people knew him from his TV partnership with Gene Siskel, where their "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" was used and repeated so much it became part of pop culture, eventually they even had it trademarked. But he started his career when the Chicago Sun-Times film critic retired and he was put into the position in 1967. He always considered himself a writer and reporter above all. He wrote more than 7,000 reviews during his career, most of which I've probably read. He even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the first movie critic to be bestowed the honor. He apparently had more than 31,000 Twitter posts, though I'm not a big Twitter person so I didn't read most of them. He also posted on his blog frequently, and I read most of those entries.

No one is more responsible for my growth in film knowledge and appreciation than Ebert. As I got into my teens and needed something to push my brain, I came upon Ebert's writing. I'd always preferred Siskel on the show, but Ebert's writing was like a whole new world to me. His weekly reviews (often pushing near 300 a year) have been regularly read by me for more than a decade. His "Great Movies" essays on the essential movies in history were always a welcome Sunday read. Any time I saw a new movie, usually even if I'd read his review before watching it, I wanted to see what Ebert had to say, even (and sometimes especially) when I thought he was wrong. Even today, I've seen a lot of Siskel and Ebert reviews on TV (or YouTube or where their reviews live now) but it's no comparison to what I've read from Ebert.

With on screen partner Gene Siskel
His obvious and unpretentious love of all good movies was a revelation to me. Here was a guy who would give 4 stars to a big Hollywood blockbuster, or a tiny little indie movie, or a foreign film, as long as he thought it deserved it. There were no boundaries, and that was incredibly freeing to me. As long as you could articulate what it was you liked, there was no need to say anything but what you believed. I know now that that's not necessarily a unique quality for a film critic, but at the time it seemed so many were either stuffy anti-Hollywood types, or idiot blockbuster hounds. But in Ebert I found a talented writer who nurtured my love of both watching and writing. In fact, it's over the years of reading his work that led me to start writing myself. This blog doesn't exist without Ebert.
Recently with wife of over 20 years, Chaz
He was tireless in his work. He was still posting reviews as of last Friday, and posting on his blog as of Tuesday. On his blog over the last few years, he related many very personal stories of his cancer treatments and recovery. He'd post on religion, politics, and in one heartbreaking and extensive post, detailed how he battled alcoholism. After cancer took his ability to speak (as well as eat solid food) in 2006, he said he was so open about his fight because his good friend Siskel had been so private about his fight against the brain tumor that took him in 1999. It let us, the readers, into his daily life and his struggle so that he became more than just some movie critic or writer. He was our friend Roger. I don't remember ever shedding a tear over the death of someone I didn't know, and that didn't change yesterday, because Roger Ebert's fans knew him well. RIP

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1980's

10. 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 get her killed when she threatens to reveal their affair and upset his shining reputation in the community.

Allen essentially remade this second portion as his great 2005 movie Match Point, but here it's nicely contrasted against the humorous Allen pieces. Like his hero Bergman, 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.

9. 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.

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. But honestly, after a recent re-watch, this spot could also be taken up by his low-key family classic My Neighbor Totoro, one of the most likable movies ever made.

7. 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 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.

6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, directed by Irvin Kershner)

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.

5. 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.

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.