Thursday, March 31, 2016

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.

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