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.

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