Thursday, February 25, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Supporting Actor Performances

1. Ben Kingsley - Sexy Beast

Yes, the man who won an Oscar for playing Gandhi also played one of the scariest villains in movie history. Kingsley's Don Logan is such a ferocious performance that he makes former boxer and all around movie tough guy Ray Winstone (the lead of the movie) seem meek in comparison. Logan is a monster whose appearance is built up well, but then when Kingsley's on screen, he's like a tightly coiled snake that also loves to lash out with his fangs bared. It's an unhinged performance from one of the great actors, and although I don't think the movie is anywhere as good as Kingsley is, it's my pick as the best supporting performance I've seen.

2. Philip Seymour Hoffman - Almost Famous

For the last 10 years or so of his life, I think Philip Seymour Hoffman was the best actor working in movies, period. The problem then becomes "what was his best performance?" His work in Capote won him an Oscar, his role in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was on my shortlist of best lead actor performances, but I think since I have to pick, I'm picking his turn in Almost Famous, playing legendary rock writer Lester Bangs. He's funny, slightly pathetic, weirdly cool, full of quotable lines and word has it that Hoffman filmed his role in just a few days, while he had the flu. Whatever the circumstances, this is a great piece of acting from an incredible talent.

3. Samuel L. Jackson - Pulp Fiction

A performance so good it has defined the career of the great Sam Jackson. Jackson's way with Quentin Tarantino's words has always been phenomenal. He's the one who makes those scripts truly sing like they can. Pulp Fiction just edges out Jackson equal work in the lesser movie of Django Unchained, which is admittedly a much more complex role. But his Jules Winfield is the performance that makes Pulp Fiction work, and is my choice as the best Jackson has been in a movie (though we should never forget about his extraordinary turn in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever either). He's cool, thoughtful, funny, sometimes frightening (my favorite line is when he tells Marvin "I don't remember asking you a god damn thing" and the searing look he gives after), and overall simply a tremendous performance.

4. Tony Shalhoub - Big Night

My favorite performance from my favorite movie, Shalhoub's role is arguably co-lead to Stanley Tucci, but I would still consider it a supporting turn. As the perfectionist chef Primo, who refuses to compromise his art to please the philistine masses, Shalhoub's Italian accent is perfect. The way he and Tucci swerve in and out of Italian and English makes their roles as immigrants feel more real, especially impressive because unlike Tucci, Shalhoub isn't even Italian (his heritage is Lebanese). The accent helps sell it, but his odd sense of humor, especially in his attempts to flirt with Allison Janney's flower lady, also helps round out the character and the performance.

5. John Goodman - The Big Lebowski

It seems criminal that John Goodman's iconic work in this movie is all the way down at #5 on this list, but this is not 'Nam, Smoky, there are rules and those other performances had to go where they went. My favorite thing about Goodman's work here is the way he sells Walter's blustery ego. Walter is often loud and attempting to be overpowering even if he doesn't know what he's going to say. The starts and stops in his speeches are endlessly hysterical "Huh? No, what the fuck are you... I'm not... We're talking about unchecked aggression here, dude!" "The chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I'm talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude! ACROSS THIS LINE YOU DO NOT... Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please." Goodman has said it's his favorite of his own movies and performances, and it's not hard to see why. Goodman was robbed of not only an Oscar nomination, but also an easy win, when he was overlooked for this performance.

6. JK Simmons - Whiplash

The newest addition to the list is JK Simmons as Terrence Fletcher, one of the angriest people in the world. He pushes and pushes and pushes, typically not getting pushed back (until he meets Miles Teller's Andrew). He's a drill sergeant of jazz, and could've been a caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. Thankfully, Simmons shows so many sides of Fletcher, some for real, some not, some we're not sure about. It's really extraordinary work, coming from a great script and even greater movie (which always helps lift a great performance even higher in my mind). Rightfully, Simmons took home innumerable awards for his work here.

7. Robert De Niro - The Godfather part II

The performance that announced to the world the talent of Robert De Niro. He'd been in Scorsese's landmark Mean Streets the year before, but The Godfather part II was a big commercial success and showed him off to a wide audience. He nabbed him his first Oscar as well, one of the few Oscars given to a foreign language performance (De Niro's role is entirely, outside of a single sentence, in Italian, which he didn't speak and learned for the role). To try and play the same character that was already a cultural landmark from the previous movie must've been difficult. The fact that the role was played by the towering figure of Marlon Brando would've made it that much tougher. But instead, De Niro rises to create something all his own, while showing the shades of the behavior that Brando had already made famous. We really can believe that this is Vito Corleone years earlier, and De Niro has the same gravitas and talent to pull it off as Brando had.

8. Martin Landau - Ed Wood

When Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, I thought it was a travesty. Of course, I hadn't seen the performance, but beating out Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump, and Chazz Palminteri in Bullets Over Broadway just seemed wrong. But then I saw the movie. What I wrote about it was: " Landau deservedly won. His performance is one of heartbreaking sadness, of a man near the end of his life, addicted to morphine and desperately hoping to get back to his previous stardom. Thankfully, since this movie is a comedy, Landau is also hysterical. When one of the crew members asks for his autograph, he happily accepts, but when the guy tells him his favorite movie was one in which he played Karloff's sidekick, Lugosi responds with "Karloff? Sidekick? FUCK YOU! Karloff did not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in Hell for all I care!" There's not a lot of language in the movie like that, but when there is it's usually coming from Lugosi." I was very happy to be wrong about this amazing performance.

9. Jack Lemmon - Glengarry Glen Ross

One of the saddest pieces of acting I've ever seen, Jack Lemmon's work in this movie is on another level. Lemmon's expressive face shows us the desperation, loneliness, and unspoken sadness at the heart of Shelley Levine. Of course, his fellow desperate salesmen are in the same boat, but Levine as the oldest of the bunch is in a slightly tougher position. It's a great piece of writing from David Mamet, but Lemmon really elevates it higher than that. Co-star Al Pacino is the one that got nominated for the awards that year, but it's Lemmon who is the heart and breaking soul of the movie.

10. Edmund Gwenn - Miracle on 34th Street

A performance so good it had child co-star Natalie Wood convinced that Edmund Gwenn WAS Santa Claus. Gwenn radiates positivity and intelligence, wrapped up in earnest good hearted joy. It's a big reason why the movie works, and why it's long been a favorite of mine. The scene that has always been my favorite, as it is for many, is when the sad little Dutch girl comes to see the Macy's Santa Claus, even after being told he won't be able to speak to her, only for our Kris Kringle to start jabbering away with the little girl. It's a scene and a performance that touches me to the bottom of my heart.

I had so many candidates for this list that I whittled it down and still had another 10, so I'll just do a top ten, not in any order, honorable mentions for:

Josh Brolin - No Country for Old Men

Ian McKellan - Fellowship of the Ring

Robin Williams - Good Will Hunting

Jude Law - A.I.

Billy Bob Thornton - A Simple Plan

Leonardo DiCaprio - What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

Ralph Fiennes - Schindler's List

Joe Pesci - Goodfellas

Chris Sarandon - Dog Day Afternoon

George C Scott - Dr. Strangelove
Some might be surprised to see me include Scott, a performance from a movie I hate (others will be surprised to see that I hate this agreed upon classic, but I do), but Scott is so extraordinary in the movie that I had to include him.

Don't forget to check out my list partner Clint's blog for his list.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Top 50 movies: 16-20

And don't forget to check out my list partner Clint's blog for his list as well. Coming up next week is our top supporting actor performances.

16. Unforgiven
Year: 1992
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: 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.

17. Almost Famous
Year: 2000
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Cameron Crowe

A movie I've seen countless times and yet always feels new is this act of nostalgia from Cameron Crowe. Crowe finally achieved the flawless synergy of his love of rock music and the personal relationship dramedy that he’d been trying to perfect since his debut with Say Anything. He used his own real life experiences as a teenaged journalist for Rolling Stone magazine (where he toured with Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Eagles, among others) as the basis for his autobiographical masterwork. And while the theatrical cut of the movie is wonderful, the cut that makes it onto my list is the Untitled: Bootleg cut (i.e. Director’s cut). Although most director’s cuts are fairly worthless and indulgent, the original cut of Almost Famous only had one drawback (to me), which was that it felt a bit rushed. Crowe’s Untitled cut adds in just enough scenes to make the movie feel more lived in, more detailed, and add more character moments so that we really get to know and love these people.

Even though the movie skirts so close to cliché at nearly every turn, it never felt anything but alive to me. A lot of the credit for that goes to Crowe’s (deservedly) Oscar-winning script, but I think even more of it goes to the best cast he’s ever assembled. From Patrick Fugit as our hero William, to Frances McDormand’s overprotective mother and Zooey Deschanel’s flighty sister, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup’s quarreling band leaders, to Kate Hudson’s perfect Penny Lane and most especially Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs, the closest thing William has to a mentor. Hell, Crowe even gets a terrific performance from Jimmy Fallon. Fugit though, as the newcomer of the bunch, deserves special mention for his ability to capture a certain youthful naiveté and earnestness, while also taking us on William’s coming-of-age journey with enthusiasm and joy. It’s one of the great youth performances the movies have ever given us.

Probably the most talked about sequence in the movie is the “Tiny Dancer” scene. I’ve heard it described as transcendent by some, and ridiculous (or worse) by others. It is, of course, the former. After a night of in fighting and much drug intaking, the whole group is angry with Crudup’s Russell Hammond as he gets on the bus wrapped in a towel and still a little bit high. The bus sets off, and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays over the bus speakers. Eventually everyone joins in singing along, and with it, Crowe shows us the kind of healing power great music can have. Nobody says anything to Russell about the night before. They don’t have to. Music is a powerful thing, and Almost Famous captures that like no other movie I can think of.

18. Fanny and Alexander
Year: 1982
Country: Sweden
Language: Swedish
Director: Ingmar Bergman

One of the few movies I've ever described as "novelic", Bergman's masterpiece Fanny and Alexander was my #1 movie of the 1980's when I did that list a few years ago. With a strong note of magical realism, the movie 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 tended 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.

19. This is Spinal Tap
Year: 1984
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Rob Reiner

I recently wrote a bit about this putting it in my top comedies list, so I won't say too much more. But I'll say that my personal experience with it is that the movie is so jammed pack with jokes that I come away laughing at something different each time. It also works as a real story so much that you could enjoy it immensely and not ever laugh. It's just a wonderfully crafted movie in every possible manner.

20. On the Waterfront
Year: 1954
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Elia Kazan

Occasionally pieces of cinema become such parts of pop culture that people forget even where it came from or the piece loses its power from repetition. Upon first viewing On the Waterfront, I expected the climactic "I coulda been a contenda" speech to be one of those for me. Instead, I found myself weeping at the loss and disappointment Terry Malloy felt in himself and in his brother Charlie. "I coulda been a contenda" isn't even the important part of the speech, it's when Terry says "You was my brother, Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money." It's a devastating scene, and delivered by Marlon Brando in what I believe is the greatest screen performance ever given.

There's plenty of backstory to the movie, about how Elia Kazan named names so he wouldn't get blacklisted, and made this movie as a sort of sticking up for himself. But I don't really care about all that. I care about Terry and Charlie and the other characters in the movie. Kazan set up real and idealistic people and all the actors are flawless. It's overall one of the best acted movies I've ever seen, even with Brando taking such deserved accolades for his work.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Documentaries

Here's this week's list for your reading pleasure. Don't forget to also check out my list partner Clint's documentary list over at Guy with a Movie Blog.

1. The Beatles Anthology

A thorough celebration of the life and times of the greatest band we've ever known, The Beatles Anthology is my favorite documentary. At 10+ hours, time has never flown faster than when I was watching this. The filmmakers used bits of interviews, photos, performances, and sometimes songs to illustrate where the band was and what they were thinking and creating at any given time in their history. Going from their births to the end, I couldn't ask for more from this doc as a look into the group that has inspired me the most as a creative person, and been the best of the soundtrack of my life. This movie encapsulates all of that and more.

2. Hoop Dreams

A wonderfully human look at the lives of two up and coming basketball stars in inner city Chicago in the late 80's early 90's. Hoop Dreams started as a 30-minute project looking at how 8th graders were recruited by suburban schools to play basketball, the project grew and grew until it became something totally different, the best documentary I've ever seen. A look at how the business of basketball, and of trying to find the next Michael Jordan, can chew up and spit out unsuspecting families and people, Hoop Dreams has a right to be angrier than it is. Director Steve James instead encompasses all the human emotions, even taking us into the life of one of the young men's mother as she works her way through nursing school to help provide for her family. It's a tough life for these kids, made tougher by the fact that neither was the next Michael Jordan (as most young men aren't). It may look like a doc about basketball, but really it's about life in America.

3. 4 Little Girls

Spike Lee's most passionate, angry, and emotional movie is this doc about the young girls killed in the September 15th, 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Lee brilliantly sets the scene with newsreel footage, home movies, family interviews and more to get us in the mindset of the time. We're put in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, and its contentious place in the South. A lot of things surround what happened, but one thing is certain: These girls were taken from their families and the world by racism, pure and simple. But Lee doesn't make pure and simple movies, thankfully. This is, like his later When the Levees Broke (about Hurricane Katrina), a movie full of life, love, and yes a lot of anger at the senselessness of what happened.

4. The Last Waltz

The Band is one of my all time favorite groups. This is Martin Scorsese's account of their final concert, which they called The Last Waltz. For their last show, they invited some friends to help out. Those friends included Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, and others. But my favorite performances are those from The Band by themselves. "Up On Cripple Creek" "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and especially their definitive take on Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It", which opens the doc.

I'm saddened that Richard Manuel, who had the most heartbreaking and beautiful voice in all of rock music, was so broken down through his addictions and hard life on the road that we only really see him sing a verse of the Dylan/Band classic "I Shall Be Released". This has always been drummer/singer Levon Helm's problem with The Last Waltz, both he and bassist/singer Rick Danko considered Manuel to be the lead singer, and yet he is nearly absent from the final cut of the concert we see. Guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson says that Manuel was too far gone in his addictions, and he and Scorsese did the best they could with the material they had.

There's a sadness alongside the joyousness of the music here. A type of sadness not usually seen in concert films. You can see that the guys love playing music together, and with their friends, but there's a sort of knowing wistfulness in everyone's eyes, particularly Robbie's. The Last Waltz was a wonderful celebration of one of the great bands of all time, but also a melancholic goodbye to the music that they made together. The Last Waltz is the greatest of rock docs, about one of the greatest of bands.

5. Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World is a splendid little documentary about the wild sights, sounds, and people that occupy Antarctica. Made in association with the National Science Foundation, legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog guides us through this land and its people, while narrating in that familiar and comforting accent of his. We find that the people who inhabit this place are mostly intellectuals there doing scientific research, but also we find that the general sense of everyone is that of an outsider, a misfit, an adventurer. After all, if you want to get away, or even just explore a new land, where's a better place than the "end of the world"?

Whether it's in the breathtakingly shot underwater scenes (filmed by a diver friend of Herzog's), the gorgeous innards of a volcanic vent, or just the barren landscape of ice (some of which is 9,000 feet thick) Herzog feeds us these unbelievable images. Some of the underwater stuff wouldn't look out of place in the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Herzog even likens the divers to astronauts exploring outer space. Encounters at the End of the World is a fascinating, educational, occasionally humorous, and definitely adventurous journey to the otherwordly continent of Antarctica, and I highly recommend taking the trip.

6. Woodstock

Director Michael Wadleigh and his team of editors (including a young Martin Scorsese and his future editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker) took an ungodly amount of footage shot at the 1969 Woodstock festival and with it made one of the great documentaries. Not just a celebration of the music of the festival, but of the people, the time, and even just the feeling of being there. Although 3 hours long, the time flies by as we're transported back to that muddy field over 3 days. And it really is a transporting document now, as we grow further and further away from that hippie Mecca that sprung up and was a beacon for hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, and became a landmark and symbol for many of those who wanted to be there. Wadleigh and his team make us feel like we're there, and it's an amazing viewing experience.

7. Touching the Void

Almost a horror movie, as it recounts and recreates the terrifying mountain climbing incidents that befell Joe Simpson and Simon Yates in 1985 while climbing Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. We see the men, in talking head interviews now, talk about the normal mountain climbing preparations that were made, and watch and hear them talk about the horrifying things that happened when things don't go as planned on the way back down. These sequences are re-created with actors as Simpson and Yates essentially narrate. A harrowing "what would you do?" of a movie, crossed with the life affirming triumph of the human spirit kind of documentary, Touching the Void is quite a thrilling, frightening time at the movies.

8. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

That's right, a documentary about a guy that makes sushi. But not just any guy. Jiro Ono is the master of sushi. Chef/food writer Anthony Bourdain has said the 20 minutes he spent at Jiro's 10 seat restaurant may have been the best meal he's ever eaten. When Jiro was awarded a 3-star rating from the Michelin Guide, they said that 3 stars (a rating which only around 100 restaurants in the world have achieved) was the only acceptable rating for Jiro's food. Not that it makes a bit of difference to Jiro, he is not spurred on by outside praise. He seeks only to achieve perfection in the simplicity of his own mind. He is the harshest critic of his food, he seems to take less pleasure in his food than most chefs, but it's not because of a lack of pride. He, like our traditional view of the Japanese, takes all the pride in the world in his work. His work just happens to be sushi. No appetizers, no entrees, no salads. Sushi. And the waiting list is often months long.

The movie is a fascinating portrait of the pursuit of perfection. We don't meet Jiro's wife, but he has two sons. The oldest, Yoshikazu, is 50+-years-old, and in the Japanese tradition, working for his father, intending to take over when the old man retires. But Jiro is almost 90 now, and seems to only want to do one thing in the world, make sushi. The younger son, Takashi, opened a mirror image of his fathers restaurant (mirrored because one is right handed and the other is left handed, and the restaurants sit accordingly), but admits that he'll never be as good as his father. So although his restaurant is very successful, he must charge less money than Jiro, because his sushi is inferior to his dads. Jiro admits to not being a great dad, and others talk about how he hates national holidays because he must close. He seems to be only interested in obsessive perfection of his sushi. I wouldn't have thought a movie on this subject (despite being a big fan of sushi) would be as engrossing as this, but the relentlessness that Jiro possesses is fascinating. The single mindedness with which he lives his life is quite a sight to see and explore on screen. It's one of the best explorations of obsession we've ever seen on screen.

9. The Up series

Down the list a bit simply because I couldn't pick just one to put on here, Michael Apted's Up series first started in 1964, and has then revisited as many of the participants as wanted to join in again every 7 years. As of 2012's 56 Up, only one of the 14 children has refused to participate (ironically, the person, Charles, has gone on to be a documentary filmmaker for the BBC). A fascinating snapshot look at people's lives and how they evolve from childhood. We feel like we get to know these people, really know them, more than we do in pretty much any other project in movie history. I can't really describe what's so great about these movies, they must be experienced.

10. Once Brothers

Another basketball doc, this one part of ESPN's great 30 for 30 series. Focusing on the crossroads of political turmoil and athletics, this looks most at the tension between players on the Yugoslavia national team as the country was slowly dividing up due to the Yugoslav Wars. Specifically this movie looks at the relationship between the Serbian Vlade Divac and Croatian Drazen Petrovic, the team's biggest stars. Most famously, after winning the 1990 FIBA World Championship, Divac took a Croatian flag out of the hands of a fan rushing the court and threw it to the ground. Divac wanted the game to have meaning in keeping Yugoslavia together, to be a unifying force, so he wanted Yugoslavia to be celebrated and not individual states (and future countries). Unsurprisingly, it wasn't viewed that way by the Croatian public, who the doc shows still to this day some people spitting on the name of Divac. As the players went on to NBA careers, it got worse as the spotlight grew bigger. With Drazen's untimely death in 1993, the situation was never really able to be healed either, giving a bitter taste to so many things the friends should've been able to share.

Honorable mention to:
Burden of Dreams

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

two brilliant behind-the-scenes docs on the disastrous productions of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, respectively.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Big Short

The Big Short had a lot of stuff working against it as I entered the theater. I'd not been excited by the trailers. It was directed by Adam McKay, whose previous films were all Will Ferrell vehicles, and as much as I like those movies he was obviously going to be out of his depth when trying to tackle a drama about the recent housing and world financial crisis. McKay had assembled a terrific cast: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, I even saw the ageless Marisa Tomei in the trailer. Yet I wasn't excited to see the movie. But when it came out, it inexplicably got really good reviews and was nominated for a handful of Oscars, including big ones like Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and even Best Picture. That's not an immediate indication of quality, but it at least makes me want to check out a movie if it gets that kind of awards love. I was blown away by what I saw. This movie is intelligent, irreverent, entertaining as hell, righteously angry, and ultimately tragic and thoroughly disgusted in our system.

A bestseller by Michael Lewis (also the author of bestsellers Moneyball and The Blind Side), The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine has been adapted for the screen by Charles Randolph and re-written by McKay (credited as co-writers) and it's a very tricky adaptation. The movie shares plenty of similarities with Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, but where that movie cared little for the details of how common people got screwed over by Wall Street and instead focused on the monstrous (and often hilariously entertaining) behavior of its drug addled main characters, McKay wants to explain to you as best he can just exactly what happened and how. This may make it sounded dry and boring, but it isn't at all, it's quietly exhilarating. McKay wants us to understand the terms the banks and investors use, terms we think we don't understand simply because the system is designed to keep us thinking the banks are the only ones who understand what all that shit means. But as the crisis, and this movie, point out: the banks and investors often didn't really understand what the fuck any of it meant either. They just wanted you to sign on the dotted line and get out of their office. You're just a number in their own bank account.

There's really no point in trying to recap the plot, as the explanations become labyrinthine quickly. But the movie follows a handful of guys betting against the housing market when that seemed an insane investment. The housing market has always been one of the most stable in America, and these guys are investing millions of dollars betting that it will fail. This is all based on the work of Dr. Michael Burry (Bale), who simply sees an investment opportunity because he's crunched the numbers no one else has bothered to even really look at. Then guys like Jared Vennett (Gosling), Mark Baum (Carell), Ben Rickert (Pitt) and others are pulled into the crazy idea of making upwards of 200 to 1 returns on their investments.

Eventually, as we know, the market did collapse. It takes a while though, as McKay furiously shows us that Wall Street was propped up by the American system. It's almost too depressing to even break down how these banks lied to us, cheated us out of untold billions of dollars (or more), took people's homes, and yet the government did nothing but give them more money. Not even a fucking slap on the wrist. Not the breaking down of the banks, not letting them fail in the real capitalist free market way they should've failed, not taken over by the government, or even better regulated by the government. Just a disgusting hemorrhaging of money to save these people that wasted money over and over again.
Again, this is a tricky subject for a movie to tackle, and even trickier to do it well. There's humor here, but also anger and a ton of specialized terminology designed to keep people stupid (or at least feeling that way). McKay deserves a lot of credit for managing this large amount of information as well as it could've been managed. It's a dense movie, but he teaches us what some things mean, gives us metaphors for understanding other things better, and never insults our intelligence. Also, as a narrative storyteller, he never gets bogged down in too much talking, always keeps us going going going, in the best way possible. The movie is very talky, but it's made so engaging in the writing and acting that we welcome the dialog.

McKay doesn't let us off either. The movie is set up so that the big banks and Wall Street become the villains, so that we're almost glad when they start to fail. We have monsters to root against, and we and the heroes will benefit from the monster's death. McKay gives one of the key moral speeches of the movie to Brad Pitt's Ben Rickert. Ben helps two young investors, Charlie and Jamie (terrifically played by John Magaro and Finn Whitrock), make deals that will make them millionaires when the banks fail, the two kids start celebrating (and we celebrate with them). Ben unleashes his revulsion on the boys, pointing out that they're celebrating what is ultimately people losing their homes and lives, telling them about how much higher the death rates become during economic crisis times. He points out that they're cheering for the demise of the lives of others, simply because it will make them rich. Afterwards, Charlie and Jamie, admirably, take it upon themselves to try and use the media to then warn the public about what is going to happen, only to get stonewalled by the same system that allowed the banks to do what they did in the first place.

The actors really help elevate this great movie. Christian Bale is the one up for an Oscar, and he's quite good in the role of the one eyed, Asperger's having Dr. Burry. But it's also the showiest, tic-iest role of the bunch. To me the kicker is Steve Carell. He's outspoken, angry, glad the banks are going to fail after years of lying to everyone and happy to make a profit off of their demise. But he also has years of pain inside of him, and he has a good heart. Carell holds the tragedy of the situation for us in the audience. There's a scene at the end, where he's talking to his lead analyst Vinnie (the also tremendous Jeremy Strong) that brought tears to my eyes with the disgust in the system that Carell displays wordlessly on his face and in his voice. This is the face and image I remember most days later. It's a powerful and important movie, thankfully, also very entertaining. But don't be surprised if you come out much angrier and maybe a little nauseous at what you now know.

Top 50 movies: 21-25

21. The Apartment
Year: 1960
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Billy Wilder

One of the loneliest movies I've ever seen, The Apartment is often labeled a comedy. It is funny, I suppose, but not a laugh riot. Jack Lemmon gives his best performance in the role of corporate climber CC Baxter who focuses on his career to distract him from how alone he is. Fred MacMurray is hateable but completely real as the empty boss who takes up with whatever pretty young thing will have him to keep him away from the unhappy marriage he's been trapped in for years. And Shirley McLaine is wonderful as the depressed elevator operator who is currently hooking up with MacMurray while being pined for by Lemmon. This portrait of these 3 isolated people is surprisingly effective, I think because it looks at loneliness in different ways, because these people aren't lonely in the same way or for the same reasons. Add onto that that Billy Wilder was a tremendous and entertaining filmmaker and so this movie is as well, and you have one of the best movies I've ever seen, and one that really blew me away when I saw it. It felt like the kind of movie people complain that Hollywood never makes or that doesn't win awards or that doesn't connect with audiences. This movie did all of those things and easily deserves its place in the popular canon of films.

22. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Year: 1973
Country: Germany
Language: German (though shot in English for financial/contractual reasons, Herzog considers the German language version truer, and I agree)
Director: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog's first movie with the towering talent and even larger ego and just plain insanity that was Klaus Kinski, Aguirre was an obvious influence on Coppola's later Apocalypse Now. Poetic, horrific, hallucinatory, and nightmarish in its descent into madness alongside its title character, Kinski's Aguirre. Like all Herzog movies, the images it contains are wondrous and occasionally overwhelming in their impact. The opening shot of thousands of people walking down one hill only to be walking up another (where the camera is) while on a steep hill with gorgeous (yet ominous) fog collecting to the side of the screen. The final moments of Aguirre, alone and surrounded by chattering monkeys while he mutters to himself of his greatness. These by themselves would make for a tremendous movie, but when contrasted against each other, and separated by many other brilliant scenes (including one darkly comical moment when a man is beheaded and his head, laying in the dirt, finishes its sentence anyway) make this the master filmmaker's highest achievement, one of the great movies ever made.

23. Singin' in the Rain
Year: 1955
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Stanley Donnen, Gene Kelly

I don't love musicals. I grew up watching them with my mom, who loved them, but I generally just thought "meh." But when it comes to Singin' in the Rain, what's not to love? Gene Kelly is as charming as he can be, Donald O'Connor is like a walking cartoon, Debbie Reynolds is as plucky as anyone has ever been, Jean Hagen is hilarious and hissable, the script is light hearted and fun, it's gorgeously made, and the songs are pretty good too. As usual, the only negative was the big dance number Kelly threw in at the end of the movie, killing the narrative momentum and unnecessarily padding the runtime. Still, when Debbie Reynolds tries running away and Gene Kelly shouts to the audience "stop that girl, that girl running up the aisle. Stop her! That's the girl whose voice you heard and loved tonight. She's the real star of the picture. Kathy Selden!" the way it's staged and filmed is simply as perfect a moment in movie history as has ever existed.

24. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Year: 1973
Country: England
Language: English
Director: Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam

I just wrote about this one in the Top Comedy films list, so I won't bother writing much more. I will just say that it's one of my most viewed movies and yet it still makes me laugh every time.

25. Rio Bravo
Year: 1959
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Howard Hawks

Despite its nearly 2 1/2 hour runtime, Rio Bravo just flies by when I'm watching it. Howard Hawks famously said the secret to a great movie was "3 good scenes and no bad scenes." That's exactly what he gave us over and over again, but Rio Bravo is his masterpiece. John Wayne's best performance is still in The Searchers, but this is his best movie too. But to me, the standout of this movie is Dean Martin. Martin, as the recovering drunk deputy Dude, gives a performance of pain, danger, humor, warmth, and intelligence. He should've had an Oscar for it. Wayne is as good as he always was, and this is one of the few times he had really good writing to work with. Of course, at its core it's a "John Wayne movie" and he carries it like few other stars in Hollywood history could've. Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, and even Ricky Nelson give good supporting work. Even the scenes of Nelson and Martin singing, during the "calm before the storm" section, don't feel shoehorned in. These characters would need to occupy themselves somehow, and this seems a perfectly fine way to pass the times. Hawks liked the movie and Leigh Brackett's script so much he loosely remade it twice, in his last two movies El Dorado and Rio Lobo. Reportedly, when Hawks asked Wayne if he wanted him to send over the script of Rio Lobo for approval, Wayne responded "Why? We've already made the movie twice." But, obviously, Rio Bravo is the crown jewel.