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.

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