Thursday, March 31, 2016

Top 50 movies recap

So that's the close to my all-time top 50 movies. So that they're easy to locate, here's a link to each one, in order:


For fun I counted up my stats and this was how the movies broke out by decade:

1920's: 1
1930's: 1
1940's: 4
1950's: 7
1960's: 4
1970's: 9
1980's: 5
1990's: 8
2000's: 9
2010's: 2

By country
USA: 34
England: 6
Japan: 2
Australia: 1
France: 1
Germany: 1
Iran: 1
Ireland: 1
Mexico: 1
Spain: 1
Sweden: 1

Overall, that's 8 languages over 11 countries, and a silent movie. I'm so happy to have done this series of entries and publish my top 50 movies with some written appreciations. I'd like to thank Clint at Guy with a Movie Blog for joining me in this series! We've got one more list coming up next week as far as we've planned, but both being list makers it's highly possible we'll do some more joint lists in the future. Thanks for reading!

Top 50 movies: 1-5

1. Big Night
Year: 1996
Country: USA
Language: English/Italian
Director: Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott

This piece is a bit long, slightly edited from the piece I did for, but seeing as it's the #1 choice, I think it's justified.

Although a critical hit at the time, even ending up in Roger Ebert’s top 10 of the year and winning a decent number of non-Oscar awards, Big Night was still under-seen and now seems to mostly be talked about only by those with a passion for food.

But Stanley Tucci, acting as lead actor/director/writer/producer of the project, said he never set out to make a “food movie.” He set out to make a movie about the struggle between art and commerce. He was acting in movies he didn’t care about while complaining about the lack of great scripts and movies out there. So he decided to take his career in his own hands and make a movie for which he truly had passion (he's said he brought on his friend Campbell Scott as co-director because he was going to need a voice of reason in a position of power, so that the whole thing wasn't just run by fiery Italians like himself).

What he made is a study about all the important things in life and about having your priorities in order. It’s a movie about family, about love, relationships, business, the struggle of an immigrant with both the language and culture, the good times and the bad times and everything in between. It’s a movie about life.

The story is that of Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci). They run a failing restaurant, the Paradise, in the 1950s. Primo acts as the perfectionist chef and Seco the sous chef/front of house/manager. On a night where there are only two paying customers in the restaurant, Primo and Seco argue over a woman’s desire for a side of spaghetti with her risotto.

Seco politely tries to tell the woman that because risotto is rice and spaghetti is pasta, both are starches and two starches don’t go together, really. Quickly he relents, wanting to keep his only customers happy, even though the woman also has the audacity to want meatballs with her spaghetti (spaghetti and meatballs being an American dish, as the meat and the pasta would be separate courses in the dinner of an Italian).

“Why?” says Primo when Seco comes back to place the order for the spaghetti. “But they’re both starches! Maybe, I make a mashed potato for another side! No, I go talk to her, this woman is a criminal.” Eventually, he throws his hands in the air and says, “No, she’s a philistine. She no understand anyway.” When they later sit and talk about the night and Primo’s desire to serve people only real authentic Italian food, he says “If we give the people time, they will learn.” Secondo, knowing how little money they have, counters “We’re a restaurant, not a fucking school.”

This is contrasted against the restaurant down the street run by the charming Pascal (Ian Holm). Pascal’s place is packed every night, and when Seco goes to visit him, on nearly every single table he sees a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, along with happy customers. Seco goes to Pascal to ask for money, but Pascal counters with an offer to have his friend who’s coming into town, jazz star Louis Prima and his band, come dine at the Paradise. The ensuing publicity from a big star eating there will make people want to come eat at the restaurant and so business will boom. That sets in motion the story leading up to the big night of the title. Seco must manage his relationship with Phyllis (Minnie Driver), while he’s cheating on her with Pascal’s wife Gabriella (Isabella Rosselini). Primo, meanwhile, must cook the meal of his life while awkwardly getting something going with Ann (Allison Janney), the flower lady in town.

Primo and Secondo bicker and fight like all brothers do, but with the feeling coming through that no matter what happens they still love each other and blood is thicker than water. Pascal at one point essentially lays out the theme of the movie, as he tells Seco, “The customer don’t wanna look down at his plate and think ‘what the fuck is this?’ He wants to look down and see ‘It’s steak? I like steak!’ See, first you give them what they want, then you can give them what you want.” Seco understands this subtle pandering to the consumer, but Primo will have none of it. His food is his art, and like all gifted artists, his art is his soul. He can’t and won’t compromise that just to make money.

This is a fascinating exploration of any art, no matter the medium, as there is always that balance between art and commerce. When it comes to movies there aren’t always artists who can achieve that balance. Some, like Hitchcock, found it. But during most of his lifetime he was thought of as little more than a popcorn filmmaker, making movies that didn’t really have any depth and were only popular with the audience because they were easily digestible fluff. Not until the French Cahiers du Cinema critics, mainly led by Francois Truffaut, began championing Hitch’s work in the '50s and '60s did he really get reevaluated and deemed a great artist in addition to his commercial success.

It’s why you so rarely see the top movies on critic’s lists and around awards season being the same movies that are topping the box office. The critics want to support the art because they’re disconnected from the financial side. The studios want a big hit because they’re the ones ponying up the money to make the movie, so if it’s a critical hit, great, but they really want the cash. There’s justification for both sides, and that’s where the struggle comes in. Primo isn’t wrong for wanting to make the food he wants to make, but Pascal isn’t wrong, either, in his giving people what they want and being a successful businessman.

Because it explores some real themes, it took a little bit for Big Night to sink in as my favorite movie. I mean, I loved it immediately. It’s funny, touching, wonderfully acted and has a real creative brain behind it. But it’s low key, not showy, and so I found myself continuing to think about it and revisit it and think about it some more. So if you watch it and aren’t bowled over, don’t be too quick to judge. I’ve always found that the best movies, and art in general, get better the more you see them. And a hidden gem like Big Night deserves to be seen by more people.

2. The Godfather
Year: 1972
Country: USA/Italy
Language: English/Italian
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Yet another one that didn't hit me on first viewing. I'm not quite sure what it is about some movies, but many of the greats tend to grow on me. I don't remember when I first saw The Godfather, like Star Wars it seems like I have always seen it. But it didn't become on of my favorite movies until years later, when its combination of amazing photography, mesmerizing acting, and flawless script catapulted it to the favorites like. I read the book while I was in the 8th or 9th grade, and had been disappointed when revisiting the movie, since it didn't go into the entrancing detail that the book went into. Over time, I realized that what Coppola and author Mario Puzo did when writing the script was to pare away the fat from the book and focus simply on the Corleone mafia family as the balance of power shifts through the generations. In fact, I had to read the book to find out some of the motivations for things that I didn't understand in the movie. As it turns out, the motivations for every action are there in the movie, we've simply not been conditioned to watch movies as densely constructed as this. However, even if you're not concerned with the intricacies of why everything happens, you can still be enthralled with the overall story, or at least with this incredible assembly of actors, all doing some of the best work of their careers.

There's no reason to relay the plot, or the famous quotes, or the things that have become part of pop culture since the movie's release. But one thing I find continuously fascinating is that honestly there aren't many "good" people in the movie. Coppola keeps things completely contained within the world of the mafia. Really only Diane Keaton's Kay is a good person, but she's not our protagonist. Somehow, storytellers have always been able to get us to identify with the less desirable members of our society. Vito, Sonny, Michael, Tom, and even Fredo are perpetuating the evil cycle of crime that the Corleone family is a member of. No matter that these aren't people we would necessarily want to know in real life, we worry for Vito's safety, Sonny temper, Fredo's weakness, Michael's descent, and the future of the family. I never fail to be saddened by the final shot of the movie, as Michael finalizes himself and his family in the position of power in the mob world.

Of course, you could praise everything from Gordon Willis's influential photography (for which the master somehow didn't even get nominated for an Oscar) to the flawless production and costume design, Nino Rota's famous score, everything. It's one of the most thoroughly well made movies I've ever seen. But none of that would make The Godfather as esteemed as it is if it wasn't so layered, powerful, and damn entertaining to watch. There's a reason so many people consider it the best movie ever made. I have to watch it every once in a while and I never fail to love it even more than I did the last time.

3. Vertigo
Year: 1958
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

There's honestly not that much to say about Vertigo that hasn't already been said on an analytical level. So I'll just talk a bit about my reactions to the movie upon watching it. The first time I watched it, I'd only recently seen Psycho, which had quickly become my favorite from Hitchcock, and was going through a bit of a phase, one in which I watched Notorious, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest (again) as well. While watching it, I was taken in by its hypnotic pacing and sumptuous photography, as well as one of the most disturbing performances ever given by a huge movie star. Jimmy Stewart was like the All-American movie everyman. He'd been a beacon of every day nobility and charm on screen for many years, even temporarily retiring to fly in WWII. So to see him play Scottie Ferguson with the kind of subtle delusional mania that he does was both surprising in his choice of role (and Hitch's choice to cast) as well as frightening in the intensity of performance. Stewart's performance is one of the all-time greats, an incredibly bold statement from a guy whom I'd thought of as a persona rather than the talented actor he obviously was.

The almost trance-like sequences early in the movie as Scottie follows and ultimately falls in love with Kim Novak's Madeleine, gives way to the startling descent into madness that Scotty experiences in the final section. Hitchcock's presentation of this is somehow still infused with his trademark tension, while never feeling contrived for suspense. He gets us wired through building our central character and following him as he falls in love first with a woman, and then with an idea. We don't need planes flying at us, or scenes of murder in the shower to ratchet up our involvement with this movie..

Unfairly criticized upon its initial release as too long and too slow moving, Vertigo failed miserably at the box office, and ended the great working relationship that Hitchcock had with Stewart. Stewart was blamed by Hitchcock for the movies initial failure (calling him too old for the part); even if he later conceded that Vertigo was one of his best movies. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most personal movie, as Scotty’s obsession with molding a woman is just a more severe form of Hitchcock’s obsession with molding his actresses. It is a hypnotic, dreamlike, beautiful, and nightmarish movie that should be cherished as the crowning achievement of Hitchcock’s career.

4. Dark City
Year: 1998
Country: Australia
Language: English
Director: 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 us 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 someone mentions that the occupants of the title city "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, and even reused a few of Dark City's sets on its Sydney 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."

5. Throne of Blood
Year: 1957
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa was a huge fan of Shakespeare (as am I), but often found him to be "too wordy". So his adaptations of Shakespeare's work are never directly from the text. His first, and best, is his adaptation of MacBeth, 1957's Throne of Blood. Like Ran, his adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa transplants the action to feudal Japan. It stars Toshiro Mifune in the MacBeth role, here called Washizu. The movie is dripping with atmosphere, it's almost oppressively foreboding. The 3 witches from the opening of the play are replaced with a single spirit here, and it's much creepier than any interpretation I've ever seen. They somehow altered the actors voice to give it a ghoulish deepness, with an almost metallic tone to it. It's very effective when combined with the eerie score and nightmarish foggy forest setting. Mifune is a good deal more subtle in his performance here, there are some over-the-top outbursts, but mostly he internalizes Washizu's struggle. It's a brilliant performance, although arguably not even one of his two best.

The most famous sequence of the movie is the finale, where instead of dying in a duel, Washizu perishes in a hail of arrows in a scene that might be my favorite from any Kurosawa movie (I'm not giving anything away, it's an adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy, of course the protagonist dies). Washizu is able to dodge many of the arrows, some only inches from his head, but he's not able to dodge them all. Someone once told Toshiro Mifune that his acting in the sequence was terrific, that he actually seemed scared. Mifune replied that he was terrified, that Kurosawa had people shooting real arrows only 2 feet or so from his face. He said he was not really acting at all. Whatever he was doing, it works. And the culmination of the scene is an image burned into the brains of many a film fan.

The macabre atmosphere, terrific performances, unforgettable finale, and that damn spirit just draw me to this movie in a more magnetic way than almost any other movie. It's the master work of my favorite filmmaker.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Westerns

Sticking to my "1 director, 1 film" rule, that's why you don't see classics I love like Stagecoach, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, or Red River, because those directors have other entries to the list. Also, I don't feel like No Country for Old Men is a western. It's often classified as such, and if I thought it was it'd be in the top 5, but I don't think it is. As always, don't forget to check out Clint's list on his blog.

1. Unforgiven

Not surprising to see Clint Eastwood's masterpiece atop this list, as I recently put it as my all-time #16 movie. If you wanna read that piece again, it's right here.

2. Rio Bravo

Another that was on my all-time movies list, Rio Bravo came in at #25. You can read about it here.

3. The Searchers

Usually thought of as THE western and one of the greatest movies ever made, The Searchers only comes in at #3 on the list because the older I get the more I dislike the unsuccessful comic relief as well as the B-story of Martin and his bride and all that. Those are the things that Roger Ebert said "This second strand is without interest, and those who value The Searchers filter it out, patiently waiting for a return to the main story line." But the more I watch the movie the harder it is to filter that stuff out because it simply doesn't work, and is put in contrast to the main storyline, which is the greatest and most iconic in western history. The movie contains John Wayne's best performance, as the racist Ethan Edwards. He's powerful and mysterious and unlikeable. A great character and great work to prove that Wayne was a terrific actor when in the right circumstances. It's also John Ford's most beautiful movie, utilizing Utah's Monument Valley in gorgeous color. So, its A story is the best western ever made, but the B story brings it down overall as just my #3.

4. Shane

Shane is a pretty perfect movie. It was a favorite of mine as a kid and was one I was happy to find I loved even more as an adult. It's kind of standard western stuff, but done so well you don't care that it's nothing new. Even in 1953 it was nothing new. It contains tremendous acting from the entire cast, especially Alan Ladd as the title character, and famously Jack Palance as the villain's right hand man/hired killer. It's a wonderful movie to look at, it deservedly won an Oscar for its cinematography. I'm not really sure what more I can say other than that it's a perfect movie and is a tribute to how much I love the western genre that it's only #4 on this list.

5. Dances with Wolves

Unfortunately, Dances with Wolves' reputation (especially among movie buffs) has been damaged over the years because it beat Goodfellas for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. While I personally would've also given both of those awards to Scorsese, that doesn't mean that Dances with Wolves isn't a worthy choice. Although at its core it is still the "white man, savior of the Native people" storyline, it's done with more care and nuance than others of that kind (Avatar, The Last Samurai, etc.). We hear a lot of the Native's language (Lakota and Pawnee), and the movie takes great pains to show us the slowly evolving relationship between Kevin Costner's Lt. Dunbar and the Sioux, led by Graham Greene's Kicking Bird. We see them exchanging words, slowly learning each others language, and forging bonds that help both of them as the white man is encroaching on the Native's lands and lives. A big beautiful epic, it's the kind of movie (especially alongside Costner's terrific Open Range) that makes you wish the filmmaker would make more westerns.

6. Jauja

Since I just wrote about Jauja recently when I saw it, I won't put too much here, other than to say that I can't think of a western that provokes the kind of thought in me that this one did. Of course, it also has an extended scene of a man masturbating in a pool of water, and none of the other movies on this last have that either, but it's the provocation of thought that I enjoy the most about it.

7. Jeremiah Johnson

Sydney Pollack's epic mountain man tale Jeremiah Johnson wouldn't work as well without the tremendous lead performance from Robert Redford and the stunning landscapes of Redford's adopted home state of Utah. We don't know anything about Jeremiah's backstory other than the opening narration telling us he wanted to be a mountain man, trapping and hunting bear, beaver, elk, and whatever else he can sell for profit while not having to live in the hustle and bustle of the city. But Redford tells us a lot in his performance, shows us in very little dialog that Jeremiah simply wasn't a modern man. He needed to be with nature, to be alone, to work and live off the land and all it provides. Pollack shows us many sides of Utah's land, the snowy mountains, the desert basins, the green forests. It's a wonderful movie to look at and really gives a sense visually of time passing, and land being traversed. There's action, love, humor, and a wonderful lead performance. It's an epic that is just shy of 2 hours, proving again that "epic" doesn't mean "ass bustingly long running time".
8. Hombre

Paul Newman has long been one of my favorite actors, and I prefer this greatly to his more famous western starring role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. While I like that movie, I like it less as I get older. Hombre, on the other hand, adapted from the novel by the great Elmore Leonard (both my favorite crime writer AND favorite western writer, and maybe my favorite writer period if it weren't for those Shakespeare and Dickens guys) Newman gets to be all of his cool, smarter than everyone else, badass self in Martin Ritt's masterpiece. Adding accents like racism into the standard western mythology, as Paul Newman's John Russell was raised by Indians and the rest of the group on the stagecoach he travels on don't trust him and don't even want him sitting in the car, but on top with the driver. Like many of these movies there's not a ton of surprise story wise, bandits and money and standoffs and all that. But it's expertly made and acted by all involved. And when you've seen so many examples of a certain genre (western and noir being my 2 favorite genres) you start to really appreciate when the tropes of that genre are handled so wonderfully and successfully from a dramatic standpoint. Hombre is a great example of that.

9. 3:10 to Yuma

Another adapted from Elmore Leonard, most people prefer the 1957 original with Van Heflin and Glenn Ford, but for me I liked the 2007 James Mangold take just a bit more. While Russell Crowe can't compete with Glenn Ford's great performance as villain Ben Wade, I like Christian Bale's performance more than Van Heflin's. And the movie as a whole, while messier and not as concise as the original, motivates Ben Wade's ultimate decision in getting on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. It makes sense here in a way that it doesn't in the original. It was also the first time that Christian Bale really clicked with me. I like him in general, but he doesn't move me emotionally as an actor. Yet his desperation in trying to provide for his family in this movie really did hit my heart. It's too long, it definitely has a couple of things I would've cut out, reducing the runtime by 10-15 minutes or so, but it's totally fine like it is as well.

I also love that the train is late! I remember watching the original and thinking "Oh man, wouldn't it be a great dramatic development if the train was late?" But then it wasn't and everything turned out fine and it started raining or whatever (I hate the ending to the original). Then, this movie knew how to ratchet up the tension just by making the train not quite arrive at 3:10.

10. Lonesome Dove

I almost didn't include Lonesome Dove, since it's a miniseries and not a movie, but I couldn't not have it on my list. It's a big, sprawling, character driven, star studded, epic series. Led by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones doing some of the best work of their great careers. It's pretty standard western genre stuff, honestly, but done so well that it doesn't really matter. It's long, of course, so kinda hard to enjoy all 6 1/2 hours in one sitting, but worth breaking up over a couple of viewings, like how it originally aired. I haven't read the novel by Larry McMurtry, but this adaptation surely does it proud.

Some honorable mentions for:

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Meek's Cutoff

The Wild Bunch


Dead Man

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Top 50 movies: 6-10

6. Taxi Driver
Year: 1976
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was a very important and influential movie in my development as a cinephile. I first watched it when I was about 16, I think, and I thought it was okay. I liked it, but definitely didn't love it and wondered why it could possibly have the all-time great reputation that it had. Over the years, Travis Bickle's lonely descent into violent madness has haunted me and begged for re-watch after re-watch. Robert De Niro gives one of his many extraordinary performances, and working with Scorsese for the second of eight times the pair give us one of the great character portraits ever committed to celluloid. It's the story of Travis Bickle, a lonely insomniac Vietnam vet who drives around NYC when he can't sleep until he figures he might as well get paid for it by being a cabbie. Seeing the grimy, drug riddled, dangerous streets of pre-Guiliani NYC, Travis calls himself "God's lonely man" who thinks thoughts like "some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets."

We follow Travis on his journey to becoming that rain to wash scum off the streets, but before we get there he meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker, and Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12-year-old prostitute. He eventually takes it upon himself to be the savior of these two women, the fact that neither seems to want saving being irrelevant to Travis. The most disturbing thing about the finale of Taxi Driver is that after Travis kills a bunch of low life creeps, he's hailed in the media as a hero trying to clean up the city, while we who've been with him know that he was simply a ticking time bomb who went off, it just happened to be directed at these people (don't buy from anyone that everything after the shootout is a dream, that's bullshit). Travis saves his news clippings, and a letter from Iris's parents, but the final scene plays a strange noise as Travis looks in his rearview mirror at Betsy. To me this has always been the sound of the time bomb starting to tick down again.

It's a hauntingly lonely and disturbing movie that I can't shake for days each time I watch it, in the best possible way, and in a way that few movie have ever affected me.

7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Year: 1977
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Steven Spielberg

The concept of "first contact" (the first interactions between mankind and an alien race) has long been one of the most fascinating to me. Many movies and books have revolved around the topic, in an infinite number of ways, and my favorite movie dealing with it is Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like he often does, Spielberg picked just the right leading man for the job here, as Richard Dreyfuss is not exactly your regular everyman. He gives off that quality, but has a sarcastic intelligence, and sometimes anger, that makes him feel even more relateable. As he says at one point in the movie, he didn't ask for "this" to happen to him (to have contact with aliens). He's not even really sure what happened, or why, or what it means, or where he goes from here. He loses everything in his life to find the answer to those questions.

I loved the movie when seeing it as a kid, but watching as an adult, I wonder why. It's actually not a very fast paced movie, with much of the time being spent watching Dreyfuss think and try to figure out what he's going to do, or with French UFO scientist Claude Lacombe (legendary director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter (Bob Balaban) as they go on a similar chase for knowing the unknown. But I bet the seeds for my fascination in first contact were sown when I saw the powerful final section of this movie, where the Mothership shows up and we finally make our contact. It's a transcendent piece of filmmaking, awe inspiring and impressive on both a technical and storytelling level, the special effects are so prominent but always serve to better the story. I also love that we see the aliens, but they never speak nor directly communicate, and watching the original theatrical cut, we don't see inside their ships nor do we ever understand what they want. There's something I always liked about that.

A side note that I enjoy: what communication we do get from the aliens is done through music, and eventually through computers playing musical sequences in a repeated pattern. When on the show Inside the Actors Studio, it was pointed out to Spielberg that the aliens communicate through computers and music, while Spielberg's mother was a music teacher and his father a computer scientist. He was happily appreciative of that being pointed out to him, as it was coincidence and had never occurred to him until then.

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Year: 1968
Country: England
Language: English
Director: Stanley Kubrick

I am not generally a fan of Stanley Kubrick's. He has a cold directorial approach (with the great Paths of Glory being the exception that proves the rule) that just turns me off as a viewer. On occasion an approach like that works, such as when it lends an undercurrent of dread to The Shining, since we seem to be emotionally detached from the poor, doomed family and are helpless to do anything but watch the tragedy unfold. Other times it doesn't, like when we get nothing out of the oil painting-like compositions that make up Barry Lyndon, just an emotionless beauty. One of the other times that Kubrick's approach works is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where being kept at a distance makes us care more about some of the doomed characters, because we can feel that they're in some sort of danger and they can't, while also allowing us the intellectual stimulation of the grand story that Kubrick is telling us.

However, that story wasn't readily apparent on first viewing. In fact, I couldn't even finish the movie on first or second viewing. I struggled through the detachment while watching the "Dawn of Man" opening sequence. On third viewing, as I'd really prepared myself for something much slower than I was used to at the time, I found myself contemplating the simple yet ambitious story (the evolution of technology, how we use it, how it affects us in our own evolution) while letting the images wash over me. I was less concerned about waiting for something to happen, and allowed my mind to work on the ideas slowly being revealed to me. I could continue talking about this movie for hours and hours and hours (and wrote a paper on it in college), but I'll conclude this little mini-overview of my thoughts by saying that awe is a feeling I rarely have while watching a movie. Only two movies really come to mind that fill me with awe (the other one, of course, you just read about above), but the final section of this movie (after the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence, which is useful to show us traveling to another dimension and seeing things we've never thought about seeing in our own world, but goes on long after the point has been made) gives me goose bumps every time I watch it. It's the only movie on my list that I didn't take to immediately, but 2001 is most certainly one of the best movies ever made.

9. Casablanca
Year: 1942
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Michael Curtiz

A movie it took me a while to come around to, I only watched Casablanca for the first time maybe 10 years after I'd become a movie buff. And I don't think I can find a flaw in the world's most famous B-movie. Not intended as one of the big studio productions, Casablanca simply came together in the happiest of accidents and became one of the most beloved movies ever made. It took me a long time to see it, but as soon as it was over I wasn't asking myself what the big deal was, I was kicking myself for waiting so damn long to see one of the greatest movies ever made and the best movie of the 1940's.

I have to detail my personal favorite scene in the movie and the reason why Humphrey Bogart was one of our greatest stars. After seeing Ilsa again, and hearing "As Time Goes By" for the first time in years, Rick sits drinking alone after closing the bar. Sam comes in and starts playing piano, Rick gives his "of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine" speech, but then asks Sam what he's playing. Sam says it's something of his own, and Rick lashes out at him to "stop it! You know what I wanna hear. If she can stand to hear it, I can!" and the look of complete devastation on Bogie's face should've won him an Oscar.

10. Our Hospitality
Year: 1923
Country: USA
Language: silent, with English title cards
Director: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone

My favorite movie from my favorite comedic mind, I loved Our Hospitality before I even saw it, just based on the premise. City slicker Willie McKay (Keaton), on his way to take over his family's Southern mansion, befriends pretty Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton's real-life wife at the time), who invites him to dinner at her family home. Upon meeting Canfield's father and brothers, Keaton learns that he is the last surviving member of a family with whom the Canfield kin have been feuding so long nobody remembers why it started. The brothers are all for killing Keaton on the spot, but dad Canfield (Joe Roberts) insists that the rules of Southern hospitality be observed: so long as Keaton is a guest in the house, he will not be harmed. Overhearing this conversation, Keaton decides to just not leave, and spends a good section of the movie figuring out ways to stay in their home.

This would be a terrific movie to show people who wouldn't normally go the movie nerd route of watching silent movies. It was funny in 1923, and it's funny now. Keaton's unbelievable stunt work is a marvel to behold. Sometimes you're so thrilled by Keaton's stunts you don't actually realize how hilarious he is. He's so deadpan that he never brings the attention to being funny, so I occasionally get caught up in the breathtaking work he does without comedy. After all, this was long before the days of CGI. That really is Keaton, really dangling from a rope, really nearly drowning under a waterfall. The stunt nearly drowned Keaton when he tried filming at a real waterfall (he made a prop waterfall instead to finish the scene). It's amazing from a technical perspective, if you're into that kinda thing (which, of course, I am), but if you just want to look at the surface and spend 75 minutes laughing your ass off, it's good for that too. Both are reasons why it's one of my top movies of all time.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Supporting Actress Performance

Here's my list, and don't forget to check out Clint's Supporting Actress list too. Next week, into my all-time top 10 we go!

1. Margaret Hamilton - The Wizard of Oz

The greatest villain in movies is also my pick for the best supporting actress performance. While not a performance of great depth or development of character, Margaret Hamilton's turn as the Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most deservedly iconic and memorable performances in the history of cinema. Essentially her entire performance has been absorbed into the cultural lexicon, yet I feel like the work of the actress gets overshadowed. Maybe it's being behind the green makeup and the black robes and hat, but whatever the reason, I'm here to give Hamilton the due she deserves as the best supporting actress performance ever.

2. Michelle Williams - Brokeback Mountain

Michelle Williams has gone from teen soap opera Dawson's Creek, to being one of the handful of best actors working today. To me her work in Brokeback Mountain is the epitome of her career (though her continued collaborations with writer/director Kelly Reichardt show her as one of the best lead actresses as well). As Alma, a woman who loses her husband Ennis to another man, Williams is devastating. I've always felt that Ennis really did love her, and it wasn't a marriage to hide his homosexual relationship, making the emotions much more complex. Williams shows us her love for Heath Ledger's Ennis, while also not quite fully understanding him, but knowing more about the inner Ennis than maybe even he does. It's terrific work that probably should've netted her an Oscar, but didn't.

3. Meiko Harada - Ran

Although Kurosawa's Ran is his adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, Meiko Harada's Lady Kaede is much closer to a psychopathic take on Lady MacBeth. Her cold blooded behind the scenes scheming is one of the most memorable aspects of this masterpiece of a movie. Her death scene (I just told you it's essentially based on 2 Shakespearean tragedies, it's not spoilers to say that she dies) in the movie is one of the most shocking and expertly choreographed scenes I've ever witnessed. One of the great underrated villains in the movie, if you've seen it, you know how she could be so high on my list.

4. Kelly Macdonald - No Country for Old Men

I know I'd seen the great Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald in other movies before, but the time she really ingrained herself in my memory is as the East Texas housewife Carla Jean Moss. Her accent is flawless, her chemistry with husband Llewellyn (Josh Brolin) is funny and occasionally touching, and the wordless scene of her pulling up to the motel and seeing Tommy Lee Jones's Sheriff Bell is astounding. That scene alone should've won her a host of awards, but I think the movie as a whole, as well as Javier Bardem's villainous turn, stole her thunder. Hopefully here's some of it back.

5. Samantha Morton - Sweet and Lowdown

The first time I, and most folks, saw the great Samantha Morton was in her mute performance as Hattie in Woody Allen's underseen Sweet and Lowdown. She's innocent and completely in love with Sean Penn's Emmet, who treats her terribly. Emmet goes through multiple women in the movie, but it's not hard to see at the end that he should've gone with Hattie. Her wordless devotion to him, and being able to feel her love radiating off of her, is really how Morton elevates the role. She's gone on to do great work in movies like Minority Report, In America, Synecdoche, New York and others, but her defining performance, to me, is still Hattie.

6. Julia Stiles - Hamlet

Probably the least seen performance on my list, Julia Stiles blew me away in her take on Ophelia in this modern set version of Hamlet. She and her Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) have great chemistry, and you can feel a past connection between them. But what puts this performance over the top into true greatness is the demise of Ophelia. Most actresses tend to play the role as kind of having a psychotic break, becoming just a "crazy Ophelia" once she is betrayed by Hamlet. Stiles, on the other hand, plays her as heartbroken beyond repair. Ophelia falls into a deep, dark, depression from which she won't be able to recover. That part of Ophelia was one that never quite connected to me (despite the play being possibly my favorite piece of art) until I saw Stiles perform it. She added a new and emotionally believable take to the character.

7. Penelope Cruz - Vicky Christina Barcelona

A performance that didn't quite live up to the hype the first time I watched the movie. Cruz had already gone along and won a slew of awards before I caught up to this movie. I thought she was fine, but not the great performance people were touting it as. I went back later and watched the movie a few times (not to revisit Cruz, but simply because I loved the movie) and it was on these subsequent viewings that Cruz's fiery work really resonated with me. The way she and Javier Bardem fought and talked and just were together through multiple languages (English, Spanish, body) really got me. I'm glad I revisited it, and looking now I realize that she's the only one on my list to have won the Oscar for her great work. Wholly deserved.

8. Elizabeth Pena - Lone Star

Sadly, we just lost Pena about a year and a half ago. She was always one of those actresses that would inject so much life and depth to any project she worked on, no matter the quality of the rest of the movie. So when a project like John Sayles's novelic Lone Star came along, she helped elevate a great movie into all-time great status. The chemistry she has with co-star Chris Cooper is one of those that feels so layered you forget that they're not real people. There's history and so many things said and unsaid, love and passion and everything else, and you root for and love these people. Makes you wish that actresses of Pena's caliber got more and better work, work deserving of their talents. I guess instead we just have to keep championing the times that all the universal forces align to give us things like Lone Star.

9. Frances McDormand - Almost Famous

Though co-star Kate Hudson got most of the awards love, I think Frances McDormand gave the best performance in Almost Famous, one of my very favorite movies. As the caring, bohemian-ish, but strict mother to two kids who rebel in their own ways, McDormand radiates equal parts love and worry. Whether we see her starting to break down while she's teaching her college classes, or when she gets the rowdy rock star Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) to revert to saying "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am" when she has him on the phone, McDormand commands every scene. So Kate Hudson has the charming role and performance, it's McDormand that has the greater depth and the better performance.

10. Robin Wright - Nine Lives

Only one scene, only one shot, and Robin Wright went from "that lady that was Princess Buttercup and Forrest Gump's Jenny" to "she's one of our best actresses" in my mind. Though she wouldn't really start getting her due until House of Cards, it was all here that Wright really got me. Nine Lives is a movie made up of 9 shorts, all a single take. It's a great movie, but the early section with Robin Wright and Jason Isaacs as two former lovers is the highlight. They run into each other in a grocery store after many years since they were together. Both married, she's pregnant. They make small talk and go their separate ways, but he comes back to tell her he still thinks about her. The two actors are astounding in the piece, trying to put on their happy faces so that the other doesn't see how much they still care. Both of them unsure whether they want to say what they're feeling, or just leave it at the pleasantries. They love their spouses, but hint at things that happened in the past, old connections and old wounds that they'd both love to tend to. "We're still 'Damian and Diana'. And we always will be." he says. Wright is amazing in the piece, both with the dialog and in communicating wordlessly. The best work from one of our best actresses.

Honorable mentions for:

Laura Linney - Kinsey

Angela Lansbury - The Manchurian Candidate

Jean Hagen - Singin' in the Rain

Janet Leigh - Psycho

Marisa Tomei - Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Lisandro Alonso is a filmmaker I'd never heard of before diving into his 2014 film Jauja. But it's obvious to me that he's a director of great talent and one to watch and look forward to in the years to come. Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen as Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen (though I don't think he's ever referred to by name, only as Captain) in 1880's Argentina, leading an engineering project as well as working with soldiers on the eradication of the local native people. In tow is his young teen daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who is in love with one of the young soldiers in the group, and lusted after by one of the older soldiers. Inge and the young soldier, Corto, run off together one morning. When the Captain awakens to find his daughter gone, he sets out after her, alone. This is pretty much the extent of the story in Jauja.

We are told in the opening titles that Jauja is an El Dorado-like fabled earthly paradise that many looked for, but that they always "got lost along the way." Lost could certainly fit the description of the characters, as Inge doesn't really know where she's going with Corto, and the Captain doesn't really know where he's going in looking for Inge. Lost could also describe the experience of many viewers to the approach Alonso takes. The movie is very slow moving, few if any close ups, long takes, with beautifully filmed landscapes that made me feel often that it was like Hou Hsiao-Hsien had made a western about a man looking for his daughter. But in the last third, things take an odd, and fascinating turn down the rabbit hole of surrealism, leaving many viewers lost as to what it all means, or maybe what even actually happens. Perhaps that's the "getting lost along the way" that we're told up front happens with Jauja.

In the lead role, Viggo Mortensen gives one of his best performances. Speaking both Danish and Spanish, Mortensen has such command over his body language and the way he's presenting himself that although there isn't a ton of dialog in the movie, we're never left wondering where the Captain is emotionally. It's terrific work from one of our best actors, who we haven't seen enough of lately. It's also remarkable to think of how many languages Mortensen has now spoken on screen. By my tally he's now spoken English, Spanish, Danish, French, Russian, and the fictional language of Elvish. Online trivia says he speaks bits of Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish, but I don't think he's spoken them on screen, to my knowledge.

I really loved this movie a lot. I was fascinated by the long takes and deliberate pacing. The cinematography and the land it's filming are both gorgeous to look at. Mortensen draws us in with his sensitivity, inner strength, and love for his daughter. And I found myself on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next. We know from the opening shot that Inge wants a dog, so when the Captain runs across one in his quest and he follows, where is the dog leading him? When he gets where the dog led him, where is he? Who is this Danish speaking old woman in the middle of the Argentinian desert? How is she who we think she is? In Norse mythology Hell is presided over by a woman and her dog. Is this Hell? Is the Captain searching through Purgatory, unaccepting of returning to see the woman? What kind of western ever gets us to ask these kinds of questions? One of the greatest, that's what kind.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Top 50 movies: 11-15

11. Children of Men
Year: 2006
Country: England
Language: English
Director: Alfonso Cuaron

I have rarely been as emotionally impacted while watching a movie as I was sitting in the theater watching Children of Men. After the cut to black, I simple sat there for a few minutes, unable to say anything but "wow." Director/writer/editor Alfonso Cuaron uses the central concept (human infertility leading to the downfall of society, as there's no future generations to act on behalf of, only to find a pregnant woman for the first time in 18 years) as the basis to tell a powerful story of action, love, and hope rarely touched in cinema. The almost oppressive grimness of the frighteningly realistic future setting is offset with the optimism brought about by the prospect of a future generation.

Children of Men has become somewhat famous for its single-shot sequences, including an assault on a car that lasts for more than 4 minutes, and a shot during a chaotic battle that lasts for around 7 1/2 minutes. The thing that many people don't know about these shots are that they aren't really a single shot, but a couple of shots stitched together through the aid of computers (though I believe the car attack actually IS a single shot). Some detractors have taken this as a negative, as though the only point of single-shot sequences is an exercise in technique. The single-shot sequences, whether actually a single unaided shot or not, work as a single take, not allowing the audience the chance to distance itself through an edit. We can't get away from the action, because the camera isn't getting away from the action, making the movie all the more tense and exciting.

With Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron continues his fight to give us extraordinary images. He has the audacity to be poetic in an almost Herzog-ian way such as in the scene where soldiers all stand around dumbfounded at the sound and sight of the baby Theo is escorting out of a building. Some people, even in the midst of the fighting and destruction going on around them reach out to the baby as the first sign of hope in nearly 20 years. The soldiers, many of whom are probably too young to even remember seeing a baby in their lifetimes, look on at the young child in a paralyzing shock. It's a tremendously moving sequence, and again, Cuaron's use of music (an opera) is very reminiscent of Herzog. Cuaron has given us some wonderful images in his previous movies, but nothing he'd ever done in the past prepared me for the power and poeticism of his work here. Although his follow-up film, Gravity, is the one that gained him an Oscar for Best Director, his masterpiece, and one of THE masterpieces, is this film.

12. Pulp Fiction
Year: 1994
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction hit the moviegoing public like a lightning bolt in 1994. Its 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) and others.

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!

13. Pan's Labyrinth
Year: 2006
Country: Mexico/Spain
Language: Spanish
Director: Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro had always had bits of greatness in him, from his vampire tale Cronos, the comic book adaptation Hellboy, or his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. But he had never melded his extraordinary talents as a visual stylist with some storytelling craft as well as he did with his 2006 masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth. He wrote a simple story about a young girl escaping from her hellish life into a fantasy world that may not be any less brutal, but he tells it with an elegance and assurance that he’d only hinted at before. The effortless flow of the story makes the simplicity all the easier to enjoy, with the only character who isn’t really a defined good guy or bad guy being the Faun who opens up this alternate world to our young heroine.

Movies with children as the lead characters can often get bogged down in “cute” moments from the young actors who fail to give much in the way of a real acting performance. Pan’s Labyrinth is not one of those movies. Top among the movie’s many pleasures is the central performance from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. The rest of the cast is littered with wonderful performances as well, but Ofelia is our guide and the actor needed to be something truly special. Baquero is most certainly that. The film’s detractors often point to the simplistic nature of the movie as a negative, usually pointed at Sergi Lopez’s villainous Captain Vidal as the biggest offender. So what? So he’s obviously the bad guy, and he’s a really, really bad guy. Do we denigrate The Adventures of Robin Hood because Claude Rains is so wonderfully hissable, or the Harry Potter movies because Voldemort is one-sidedly evil? No, we enjoy the obstacle for our heroes to overcome. And the movies are better for it.

The feeling that often stays with me after watching Pan's Labyrinth is one of a beautiful melancholy. The Javier Navarrete score is gorgeously haunting, and fits the movie perfectly. The rich cinematography from Guillermo Navarro, as well as Del Toro’s compositional brilliance in staging shots and sequences that flow effortlessly, leaves us with some stunning images. And one of my very favorite movies ever made.

14. Dead Man Walking
Year: 1995
Country: USA
Language: English
Director: 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. Tim 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 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 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.

15. Rififi
Year: 1955
Country: France
Language: French
Director: Jules Dassin

The best movie from the considerable cinema history of France, is this heist thriller that was actually directed by a French speaking American (who plays an Italian safe cracker in the movie), Jules Dassin. I'll admit that I don't know nearly as much about French cinema as I should. However, I have little doubt that Rififi is the greatest French film ever made. It set the archetype for all future heist movies, but doesn't feel at all cheapened by its imitators (Inception, Ocean's 11, Heat, and innumerable others). If anything, the imitators feel cheapened in my mind because Rififi shows them how it's supposed to be done.

The heist of the jewelry store is by far the most famous sequence in the movie. It's a wordless, music less 32-minute tour de force by Dassin. It's unquestionably one of the handful of greatest sequences to ever reach my eyes. These men are professionals at what they do, have thoroughly and methodically prepared for this heist, and communicate with one another almost telepathically. Even after disabling the sound sensitive alarm system, there's no reason for these guys to make any noise while they're working, so they don't. Apparently composer Georges Auric scored the entire 32-minute sequence even though Dassin told him he didn't want music over it. Auric assured him that he'd need it if there was to be a half hour of the movie without dialog. When Dassin screened for him both versions of the sequence, Auric told him "It's wrong, the music. Take it out". If ever there was a piece of film I was going to show someone to illustrate that you don't have to have dialog to tell a story, it'd be this sequence.

The thing about jewel heists though is that things aren't always over after the job is pulled. The guys can't screw anything up by flaunting their new wealth, which would draw the eye of both the police, and maybe other money hungry criminals (bringing to mind the same dilemma Scorsese would memorably use 35 years later in Goodfellas).

My favorite performance in the movie was actually from Dassin as Cesar the safecracker. His final scene in the movie is another masterpiece of directing, but it's also an extraordinary performance from a guy who had recently been nearly bankrupt due to being put on the Hollywood Blacklist in the late 1940's. Dassin tried several times to get other projects going, even outside of the US, but was not able to get anything done until a French producer told him he was the only man who could make Rififi. Rififi was a huge hit upon its release and restored Dassin to both artistic and financial good standing (the producer couldn't afford to offer him a decent upfront salary, so Dassin was given a percentage of the profits contract). Dassin won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the movie was widely hailed as one of the great film noirs ever made. Its reputation has only grown in the ensuing 60+ years, and with good reason.