[Top 100 movies list part 2 of 4]
075. King of New York
My favorite description of King of New York was always that it’s a western. Even though it’s really not, it owes a lot more to Warner Bros gangster pictures and De Palma’s Scarface (it learns a lot of the lessons of Scarface that most of the 90s spent forgetting). Bad Lieutenant is supposed to be Abel Ferrara’s classic but having seen it recently it feels really damn hollow. King of New York on the other hand has a fairly flat delivery hiding an urge to create a Leone-level epic. Sure it’s not a western, but it plays as a massive battle between human wills delivered in a genre structure, just like Once Upon A Time In The West (and Once Upon A Time In America, it must be said, although King of New York does a better job at it). Christopher Walken’s last real performance as a lead before he became patron saint of jacked up line readings, this movie really shows what we lost because Walken’s mercurial performance is so captivating and restrained compared to what he’d become. Still, he can tear it up when he feels like it, and does (“Wow, I musta been away too long cuz… my feelings are dead”, “I heard that”). Walken plays Frank White, King of New York as pragmatic and smart, occasionally giddy, and hiding the fact that he’s a lot more lonely than he lets on. Frank has honest hopes and dreams beyond getting paid and killing his enemies too, which makes his downfall a lot sadder.
Ferrara’s style here is the opposite end of Michael Mann’s 80s aesthetic but you can see Miami Vice in both of them – Abel’s almost punk rock in comparison, not documentary but relatively raw. Ferrara’s interested in non-movie star faces, the film is entirely cast with people who grab your attention – pretty isn’t a priority, charisma is. He doesn’t mess around with action either, it’s never telegraphed and always surprising. King of New York is ultimately a gangster movie that steps away from good and evil, that’s why it’s not really given the due I think it deserve. Frank White does what he thinks is right, he’s just a businessman. He gets killed because some other guy thinks what he’s doing is wrong. Neither of them seem like the kind of guys who are right about anything. Walken isn’t the flamboyant gangster with fucked morals or the old man who wants out because of guilt. That’s why King of New York is something special. It recognizes that good and evil are just words, and that actions are as hard to read as Walken is.
074. Blow Out
Blow Out has this great undercurrent of autobiography to it, with De Palma and his friends’ time working on horror movies, and the knowledge that what he was doing wasn’t too far removed from slasher movies to begin with. Between 1980 and 1983, De Palma was on a hot streak – Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Scarface are all masterpieces in their own way. Dressed to Kill is definitely the apex of De Palma’s Hitchcock pastiche style; Scarface is a diamond-hard representation of his excesses while sticking to the more conservative end of his stylization; but Blow Out is the one of the three that feels the most personal and on top of that, has the most to say. All of the Movie Brats have films on this list (they would have to, really), and De Palma was certainly not a worldbuilder like Lucas, an innovative populist like Speilberg, passionate artist like Scorsese, or master craftsman like Coppola – De Palma was certainly the most gifted stylist, the most playful, and the one willing to place himself against the greatest directors (Lucas and Coppola would steal from Kurosawa quietly, De Palma would rip off Orson Welles’ most famous shot in the middle of a musical number and do it in splitscreen to prove a point). All 5 of them made personal films, certainly, and De Palma has (rightly or wrongly) gotten the worst reputation of style-over-substance. I don’t agree, but very rarely does the same accusation get leveled against Scorsese.
De Palma’s greatest sin in a lot of people’s eyes has been the fakeout, even moreso than the Hitchcock obsession, and Blow Out starts off with one of the more believable ones of his career – you get the feeling that his position is if he puts you through the scene, you live through it, it doesn’t matter if it “matters” or not. Blow Out starts out with a pov serial killer scene from a fictional slasher movie, and De Palma shows that he loves this kind of thing even as he mocks it. The sequence seems to reference Halloween and Suspiria, showing that De Palma recognizes that the new horror guys are in the same lineage of Hitchcock fan that he is, and that what he does isn’t miles away from making slasher movies anyhow. That distinction from churn-em-out “tits and blood” flicks and Dressed to Kill is intent and perception, two things De Palma already spends a lot of his cinematic time thinking about. The autobiographical aspects of this film are what makes it sing – even “Murder A La Mod”, De Palma’s first short film, plays on the tv in Dennis Franz’s hotel room.
Blow Out is De Palma’s tribute to Antonioni’s Blow Up, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Coppola’s The Conversation, and both plotwise and with direct visual references it tips its hand towards all three films, but De Palma actually funnels his instincts into making Blow Out something distinct from those films. While he does his traditional Hitchcock riff, here the suspense builds are first used as parody then for fakeout, then for real, exposing you to the same kind of scene again and again until it becomes really affecting. Sure, De Palma was always great at making his films look great, but here it shows how he could make you care using the same technique. I’m going to get into this a little more further down the line, but while De Palma took Hitchcock’s technique, he also improved greatly on what could be done with it. Ripping off Psycho is all well and good, and improving on it is admirable, but Hitchcock never wanted to do anything more than manipulate. The end of that you do the art for you, not for them.
Blow Out is an artist literally turning his own personal failure, his guilt, his most private demon, into worthless trash that will be consumed and thrown away. De Palma knew the deal when he signed up.
073. After Hours
After Hours is kind of an odd man out in the Scorsese canon, along with The Color of Money its wedged in between King of Comedy and Last Temptation of Christ which were both clearly more personal projects. After Hours doesn’t feel like Scorsese at all, does it? But it doesn’t feel like a movie made for money the way The Color of Money does. After Hours is a kind of dream/nightmare film, a moebius loop of bad shit raining on Griffen Dunne. None of Scorsese’s actors are in it, it doesn’t really follow his usual themes, he doesn’t go crazy with the music or use many of his standard camera trademarks.
Of course it’s fucking amazing. Scorsese movies aren’t usually funny, like the kind of funny where a man gets constantly punished by the universe for absolutely no reason other than leaving his box funny. On the dvd extras Griffin Dunne, who co-wrote the film, says that Tim Burton originally was signed on to direct and stepped down when he heard that Scorsese was interested. Tim Burton has made quite a few questionable calls in his career, but even he could see that giving a script like this to someone that talented was the right move. A dark, almost disturbing manic comedy by the guy who did Raging Bull… After Hours is too damn good for it to be anyone but Scorsese who directed it.
The second and last animated film on this list. This used to be my favorite film, and I would watch it religiously. Its been diminished by reading the book, diminished by not being 13 anymore, diminished by hearing that (apocryphally) Jordorowsky gave him the ending, diminished by time. But it is still gorgeous. And it is still mind blowing. And it is still better constructed than nearly every science fiction film ever made – even Blade Runner which the comic borrowed from greatly. Akira is an unparalleled execution, even among animation, there aren’t many films that have both the scale and the detail that it does. Its angry and psychedelic, and while the comic is one of the most brilliant stories I’ve ever read it does not have the immediacy that seeing the bike headlights strobe or watching the hospital walls bubble around Tetsuo, or the missile stopping in front of Tetsuo’s face. The original dub of Akira is burnt into my brain, and no manner of distance can change that. That the movie still stuns is what makes it special.
Its out of chance that Ronin and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been stuck alongside each other on this list, but both films are high points for playwrites in film. Ronin is David Mamet’s greatest work for me, featuring some of the tersest dialog ever in an action movie. You wonder if Mamet saw the metaphor in the title, that the new masterless samurai is the post-cold-war intelligence agent, and decided to carry that silent gaurded tone of the classic samurai films into this story. Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Stellen Skarsgard all bring to their performances that kind of reticence and control.
Ronin, of course, sticks next to Bullit and The French Connection as the greatest car chase in all of film history, even surpassing them. John Frankenheimer had a long career, and you can feel all of it in this film. This is the ultimate in 90s action, building on political greyness and the opportunity to push the form – there are a lot of these movies, not all of them good. De Palma’s Mission Impossible, John Woo’s Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2; decent, sometimes surprisingly smart, sometimes technically stunning. Phillip Noyce’s territory, not made in the schools of Tarantino or Bruckheimer. Ronin was a chance for everyone involved – the amazing cast, Mamet, and Frankenheimer – to make something that transcended the spot they were working in.
Frankenheimer knew that filming the best car chase wasn’t the kind of act to leave to the kind of hacks they hire for Bond films, that The French Connection is a great movie with a great car chase in it. Frankenheimer, who almost singelhandedly invented the political thriller, and did a the lions share of perfecting the psychological thriller – but who also had shot Grand Prix and the journeyman-like French Connection II- was working at making a great action movie. A politically complex (and gray as concrete), intelligent action movie, but an action movie nonetheless. Shit gets blown up here, cars go fast. These characters don’t really talk and when they do its kept short. While the Bourne films have tried to follow in Frankenheimers footsteps, the only character-based car chase that came out of the past decade was Tarantino’s Death Proof, and that wasn’t really in the running with Ronin’s movie-long adrenaline and gas pedal toggle. Thats not even going into the De Niro operates on himself scene, or Skarsgard at the playground. Everything is the chase, and the chase is ceaseless.
“The only thing is that the map the map the map the map is not the territory.”
070. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Is this normally recognized as a comedy? Because most conventional comedies aren’t in the same building as this. You don’t need to know much about fiction, or theater, or Shakespeare, or Hamlet or any of the other things this film is actually about to appreciate what it is at its core. Which is to say – it’s about Tim Roth and Gary Oldman arguing, for about two hours, and then dying at the end of it. The appeal is that two guys arguing, if performed and written well enough, can transmit any number of complex ideas. And yes, of course, there are some very complex ideas in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a film about the human condition – that life has no understandable drive or narrative, and that like fiction sometimes some things just happen. It is delivered by way of a smart guy and a dumb guy having some of the greatest arguments in any comedy. All wordplay, all conflict, all of life is simplified down into “Oh you pretend to be him, and I ask you questions.”
Oldman wanders around confused and distracted, Roth spends all his time reasoning and analyzing to no avail. While both eventually come to soulful philosophizing neither learns anything. While the high minded aspect and general pretentiousness of the idea of playing in Shakespeare’s back pages would usually be a stumbling block, the writing is so good that you can get lost in it. “Words words, they’re all we have to go on.” isn’t just a great line its a mission statement.
069. Escape From New York
John Carpenter is a utilitarian filmmaker. He’s also one of the few directors who can claim to be a full-on auteur, writing, directing, producing, and scoring his films, essentially shaping all the significant aspects of his work personally. “Utilitarian” isn’t an insult, its his greatest asset, Carpenter is a director who works best when he’s pressing against low budgets because of his aesthetic. Carpenters characters are quiet, reticent. His heroes and villains operate on unspoken rules, morality is a vestigial urge that will get you killed rather than a compass for decision making.
Snake Plissken is an encapsulation Carpenter’s take on the tough guy – Kurt Russel is clearly doing an interpretation of Clint Eastwood for most of his performance, and Snake is a great representation of the reticent western hero. Escape from New York is one of the major inspirations for cyberpunk (“You flew the Gulfire over Leningrad”), but it’s delivered directly in the same manner as noir and westerns. Carpenter saw the inherent critique of Leone’s westerns but deepens it with the undercurrent of cold war paranoia. The good guys vs bad guys of the cold war, us vs them, is clearly the failure in this fictional world. America has lost the moral high ground completely and Plissken is a representative of that. Throughout the plot its shown he can take care of himself, even if he’s too arrogant, but his very presence leads to everyone he meets to act even more impulsive and his presence ultimately gets everyone killed. Plissken has no moral high ground. In the end Plissken barely walks away alive, and is faced with the absolute uncaring nature of the thing he’s just (unwillingly) saved for another day, he does the only moral act he commits throughout the whole film. He takes his country out at the legs.
Carpenter saw that the only place for the western to go was back against itself. “Revisionist” westerns never got this concise.
068.This Is Spinal Tap
On a list where I damn well better argue that some of these movies are worth a damn, Spinal Tap is a bona fide classic of english language filmmaking. Invented at least two genres, etc, etc. Christopher Guest’s greatest achievement (I just watched A MightyWind recently and while its a lot of fun, it gets tedious). Spinal Tap is the rare musical parody that has actual good songs. Guest is a truly amazing actor/improviser, and all the actors are forced to get funnier whenever he’s in a scene with him – McKean has chops, certainly but the rest of them are playing catch up. The mockumentary, while invented by Woody Allen with Zelig, really became a complete object with this film and has since become something reprehensible.
But, that’s nitpicking isn’t it?
067. Mystery Train
Mystery Train is the best of Jarmusch’s first chunk of his career. This, Stranger Than Paradise, Night on Earth, and Down By Law are all good and incredibly loose. Jarmusch has an aesthetic, a very specific one, but his first group of films are so loose that they feel more “indie” than his current string of single-protagonist variations. Mystery Train is the ultimate refinement of that, playing like a down version of Short Cuts where stories intertwine. But unlike Short Cuts, Mystery Train doesn’t feel frantic and forced. Everything in Mystery Train seems to happen whenever they want to happen. Jarmusch gets great performances out of his huge cast, but of course most of this film is improvised. Early Jarmusch films are slow and engaging, but only Mystery Train attains that kind of “hang out film” cache where you can just leave it on and enjoy it engage when you feel like it and do something else when you don’t.
PS: Steve Buscemi plays an awesome drunk.
066. Dawn of the Dead
George Romero’s first shot in Dawn of the Dead is of its protagonist waking from a nightmare into a worse one. Romero’s always been great at metaphor – but his movies are generally direct and to the point. People are fucking bastards, monster, and are worse than the faceless hordes after them. But Dawn of the Dead adds a layer with the opening shot and maintains that throughout – there is no waking up from this, he says. The nightmare is real. Crazies and Night of the Living Dead are both a lot of fun, but this is the only time Romero ever got into minds as well as guts. As Jamie Hewlett once said, the scariest thing about zombies is that they move slow but always win – in Dawn’s world people have no function, they are worthless consumers suddenly thrown into a world where they don’t have the skills to survive, even those trained to do so. In the Night/Dawn/Day trilogy, its made clear that humanity will not survive very long because the chew themselves up from the inside. While the last two Dead films say different, young Romero had more teeth. He knew that post-apocalyptic survival is a fantasy, and that our time in a world of disaster is brief, eaten from within.
Groundhog Day is an amazing film but its also a film that only works because of its leading man. Bill Murray is everything in this film – terrifyingly vicious, heartbreakingly sad, psychotic, happy, heartbreakingly sad. This film does not work without Bill Murray, none of the other performances go anywhere other than caricature, the direction tries for Capra but doesn’t quite make it, the story is maybe a little too sentimental, Andie MacDowell is atrocious and shitty and should be removed from the history books. So Groundhog Day lives and dies on Bill Murray, who I consider one of the great actors of all time, even though “he only plays versions of himself”. Thats a criticism often given by people who don’t understand what a good actor does. This is every moment in life, trapped in a constant loop, being stuck in one place temporally, replacing time for emotions. Groundhog Day is about being trapped in one place emotionally and living every day exactly the same way, and it illustrates this by inverting that completely.
Mchael Mann’s most measured work, maybe. At least until the very end of the film when shit jumps off, Manhunter is a movie in the school of clean. Everything is clean, direct, palettes match, shots are composed with precision, and apparently with minimal ease. After Heat, Michael Mann’s style has shifted away from this precision after something else. He’s an artist proudly after something new. The thing is, Manhunter (and Thief and Heat) is such great classicist filmmaking that you can see why people think it’s a shame that Mann abandoned this style for his next (the next being the more interesting of the two to me).
Manhunter sees Mann working visual metaphor as hard as he can and to maximum effect (see here), but the technique hides others – the way Mann switches to handheld whenever he wants to get into Will Graham’s head is something I didn’t notice until my most recent viewing. Manhunter is a great film to simply look at the way Michael Mann’s visual style overtakes the story. Thief is more character study, Miami Vice is a more passionate unfolding of his style, Collateral is more honest, Heat hits harder. Manhunter is Mann at his smartest, most aware.
And when the shit jumps off, he shows that he knows how to take his own precision apart in as few moves as possible.
063. Repo Man
Alex Cox’s Repo Man is, without a doubt, the most punk rock science fiction film ever.
Here’s a nasty little piece of satire, aware of Pynchon and Burroughs (“paging Dr. Benway”) and Mad Magazine. The weirdness that Tracy Walter talks about in the film, those things are clearly at the forefront of Cox’s mind as he worked on this story – the screwed up details of real life intruding on the fictional world – Chariots of Fire, televangelists, scientology, ufo cults, time travel, the CIA being staffed mostly with mormons, the neutron bomb, the lingering of punk rock long after it had died. Repo Man is like a monstrous hybrid of Jim Jarmusch and John Carpenter’s aesthetics – the stakes are low, the plot is minimal, the feel is loose, but there is a simmering tension to every scene. Carpenter and Jarmusch never seemed to be as angry as Cox is here. Repo Man is an LA film the way Long Goodbye and Point Blank are, the way Pulp Fiction is. There is this strange sun-sick scuzz to Repo Man, partially due to the way they shot it and partially because the score is half reverbed-to-death surf guitar and Carpenter clanging pulse, and the rest of the film is punk as hell. Repo Man drifts, scene to scene, events happen whenever. Sometimes Cox cuts to the same characters talking, creating a hazy quality, an untethered feeling to the scenes we’re watching. The character monologues, particularly Harry Dean Stanton’s, impart so much character and so many ideas that they stand up against any great piece of scifi writing you want to hold it against. If science fiction is the fiction of ideas, maybe Repo Man isn’t science fiction – Repo Man is a film made entirely in the language of tone. The scraped-out, zero budget, speed-sick, punk rock, scifi of this moment, right now.
062. High and Low
You ever notice how David Fincher loves Kurosawa’s non-Samurai pictures? Benjamin Button cops from Ikiru and I Live in Fear, Seven lifts from Stray Dog, and Zodiac plays like an extra-drawn-out and less adventurous version of High and Low. Sure, Fincher has voice and style all his own, but no one ever points out that he references Kurosawa on the regular when his peers get called on for every frame slightly resembling something else. Anyway High and Low is one of Kurosawa’s great successful experiments – the first half is a one-room drama carried by Toshiro Mifune, the second half is an ensemble cat-and-mouse between cops and kidnapper, terminating in one of Kurosawa’s most gorgeously filmed sequences playing out in a wall of mirrors.
Kurosawa and Kubrick are probably the two names I most associate with the term “director”. They are the guys who figured out the most of what could be done with this artform and most if not all of the other directors work well within the boundaries of space they established. Both directors had long careers, adapted works, wrote originals, experimented with structure, drew actors out into their best performances, etc. The big difference is that Kubrick spent his entire career examining the horrors of the human condition with an accusing and honest eye. Kurosawa did much the same, looking at everything people were capable of. Kurosawa was the consummate humanist, he was truly accepting of people as fallible even in their worst, most savage moments. Kurosawa loved people, and you could tell.
Which is why High and Low is the best of Kurosawa’s modern-set films. Not because of the obvious trust Kurosawa had in his skills to pull off a film as precarious as High and Low (no small feat delivering a film from 3 different perspectives that is also formally split in halves), but because High and Low is about the inherent emotional flaws of these two people – this rich executive with a soul and this guilt-wracked criminal. Both men are destroyed, entirely by their own human failings, both good and bad – these choices are what keep them from being savage creatures but also keep them from happiness. In Kurosawa’s best films – and make no mistake, High and Low is close to being the best – he believes that man’s fault lies within, alongside his summit. Kurosawa feels for both men, and while he is caring for both, he is unsparing in their depiction. Maybe better than the samurai epics, High and Low is Kurosawa’s definitive statement of human society – we are like this, he says, but there is still good in the worst of us.
061. Straw Dogs
Peckinpah’s greatest achievement. While the Wild Bunch is the go-to for Peckinpah’s statement violence, he never got as explicit as Straw Dogs. Straw Dogs, like Clockwork Orange, like Taxi Driver, is a definitive statement on sex and violence in film by an artist trafficked in both. Straw Dogs is more concerned than Taxi and Clockwork, even showing a man of ideas being pushed to the point where the only reaction is violence. David Sumner spends 3/4 of the film allowing things, and his wife mentions how he left the United States because he was a conscientious objector to not just the war but the anti-war movement. Peckinpah’s argument then, is that violence is part of everyone, no matter how they see themselves. No one can predict how they will react when faced with true violence, true violation of their personal sanctity.
Peckinpah’s answer to his obsession with violence is that life will force you to become violent if you are not prepared to do so. You can’t say he’s not persuasive. While many directors, some of them greats, have taken a liking to Peckinpah’s sensual eye for violent acts – not one has ever come to such a conclusion. That’s a shame, really, because few if any great action directors have ever forced themselves to really make any call at all.
060. Mean Streets
I love De Niro, in case you haven’t caught on. He’s definitely the actor who appears most on this list, more than Bill Murray, and about half those times are films he made with Scorsese. He’s an amazing powerhouse, with stuff like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver in him, but I always liked films where he worked against the charisma he’s innately got. The smaller the role, it seems, the less important the character, the better a job he does. Johnny Boy is De Niro at his most violent and unpredictable, with the least to do in any of the films on this list. He’s amazing, and he really doesn’t have much to do. He’s just a fucking psychopath who wanders into the story occasionally.
Mean Streets is the film that Wes Anderson took everything from – his captions, his use of slo-mo, his whip-pans, the way he directs performances, and of course the music (dear god, “Be My Baby” and “Jumpin Jack Flash” belong to Scorsese forever) – Mean Streets was clearly his film school. Scorsese could shred with technique, even as he was making personal films, and Mean Streets is the movie where he showed off his chops the most until Goodfellas.
Like Scorsese himself says at the start of the film – “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” The bitter problems of Mean Streets are the themes of Scorsese’s whole career – the conflict of religion and lifestyle, friendship and loyalty, kicking ass technically while trying not to be the kind of filmmaker his friends were. Scorsese wanted to direct like Cassavettes but was too good. He found a bastard hybrid strain only he could make. Mean Streets is alchemy of style, turning still raw talent into a cohesive voice.
059. The Fortune Cookie
When it comes to films with novelistic structure, or inventive structure at all, you normally don’t go to comedies – comedy with very few exceptions is the realm of chaos. Even the most precise and intelligent comic minds (Steve Martin, Albert Brooks) spend a lot of their time creating the illusion of chaos. The Fortune Cookie by Billy Wilder is, in comparison, a clockwork mechanism years ahead of its time, a film made in the 50s that sits next to films like Raising Arizona and Rushmore easily. The scenes are divided and numbered into chapters, Walter Matthau plays his role so restrained that half of his jokes feel more like time-released depth charges than one-liners. Jack Lemmon plays against his type and is the broad comedian of the pair. Jokes are called back to in a way not alien to Arrested Development – this is at once a modern movie and a stone “THEY DON’T MAKE EM LIKE THIS ANYMORE” classic. Billy Wilder’s other comedic masterpiece, The Apartment is a little more dated and a little more heartbreaking, but to be honest it’s just not as straight good as The Fortune Cookie is. Two jerks scam an insurance company in a long con, one for the money and the other for a woman. There are movies that are funny for the amount of jokes told, or the extremity, or a million reasons. But there aren’t many comedies that seem to be effortless and flawless at once.
058. The Exorcist
Ranked no. 1 in horror films made by non-horror directors for me. The Exorcist is so scary because it feels so real. It isn’t nearly as documentary-style as Friedkin’s French Connection was, but Exorcist feels real. It feels like this was a real event, something few if any horror movies have ever done. The Exorcist is a fantasy, a fiction, but it is complete in its versimilutude. You don’t feel a dramatic structure at work. You don’t see camera tricks or acting tics, you don’t see special effects. You don’t feel a director’s hand, even though it is a film made entirely in Friedkin’s voice. This isn’t a movie that would work for anyone else, it needs to be Friedkin, it needs to be these actors, and set in this time period.
Like The Shining, which is its opposite number, The Exorcist is full of the unexplained. Hanging moments, strange details that never get picked up on again, silhouettes cut into shadows for seconds at a time. Things like “You’re gonna die up there”. The big stuff – the iconography of the stairs and the floating body and Pazuzu and the head spin – thats simple. The stuff that nags forever is when the demon voice shouts “DO YOU KNOW WHAT SHE DID? YOUR CUNTING DAUGHTER?” to her mother, implying that this was not a random occurrence. This is a moment thats never called back to or explained, and it hangs on in your mind, forcing you to ask questions. Horror movies for the most part traffic in imagery to haunt the viewer – very few make you linger on ideas.
Ran is on this list and the Godfather isn’t. More to the point, Ran is on this list and Throne of Blood isn’t. Because Ran does the same job as both of those films and does it better.
Ram isn’t the kind of film a young man makes – certainly you can see David Leans influence in this work, but Lean never directed a sequence nearly as sad and beautiful as the clouds eclipsing the sun as Hidetora’s castle is raided, hails of arrows and metal stained with blood. The music Kurosawa uses turn what could be a dramatic tension-filled event into a seasick inevitability. Hidetora’s banishment, the look on Tatsuya Nakadai’s face – as he descends the steps and his castle burns - is of a man completely broken.
056. Inglourious Basterds
I’ve had a draft on my computer of an essay about Inglourious Basterds since the day it came out. I’ve been trying to write something significant about it for months and months. The piece is called “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and I’ve been stuck on it forever. The main point of it was basically that Tarantino has hit that point in his career where he’s able to mainline his own influence to greater and greater heights, and the final line of the film is his own equivalent of Kubrick putting the 2001 score in the record store in A Clockwork Orange. It didn’t work.
Inglourious Basterds is hard to reduce – there is the historical approach. the film approach, the spot-the-reference, description of the performances, its all hard to sum up. This is yet another film I’m low-balling because it is so recent, likely it should be far higher. I am enamored with this film, which manages to blend both Tarantino’s stlyes – it is both an amazing film and a work of incredibly complex film criticism. You see, we could talk about how parts one and two this movie are Spagetti-westerns with the iconography of World War II, part 3 is done as French New Wave; part four is straight-up crime/spy; and part four is 70-90s mainstream american cinema (specifically De Palma, Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, and Spielberg). That last bit is important, but we’ll come back to that. We could talk about how Tarantino has made a film as an actor’s showcase with… something like 16 scenes in a 2.5 hour movie? Thats insane, that in the days of micro-cuts and fragmented moments, this is a movie with so few scenes, built out of long monologues set in a handful of languages. We could talk about how flawlessly every actor portrays their role with the exception of Eli Roth (and who ruins perhaps the greatest Leone-style introduction ever committed to film by opening his mouth) – Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbinder, Brad Pitt, Til Schwieger, and of course Christoph Waltz are all given material so good that its amazing they don’t screw it up the way Roth does.
But as I said, like Kill Bill and Death Proof, Inglourious is film criticism and one of the harshest kind. David Mamet once compared films like Schindler’s List to pornography, saying that reliving that atrocity again and again in such vivid detail was more damaging than the earlier war films ever were. He said he refused to watch it. Tarantino obviously agreed with him but not entirely, turning the entire concept on its head and providing legitimate World War 2 pornography/fantasy. The multiple references to spaghetti westerns and mentions of the Wizard of Oz are not by accident. This is not history, not in anything beyond concept. Sure film – ART – destroys the nazis in the end, just as it did historically. Jews destroying the nazis through film is exactly the story that Spielberg told, only in metaphor. Here it actually happens, here is real pornography, jewish soldiers pumping bullets into Hitler’s face as women and children burn to death and a ghostly image announcing itself as the face of the jews laughs. This is all a film of this war was ever meant to be, all it should ever be – a workout of all the real guilt and real demons, in as spectacular a fashion possible. Film isn’t a documentary, Tarantino says, and if you want to relive this, over and over and over again… why not do it right? Just this once.
“I’m a slave to appearances” Aldo says. Shortly before he says “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” Clearly, both of those lines are Tarantino talking. He’s right both times.
055. O Brother Where Art Thou?
The first of many Coen Brothers films on this list. I love the Coen Brothers so much, and a lot of that is because of this movie. O Brother is a film that has all the aspects worth loving about the brothers: completely and utterly a film that could only be made by the Coen Bros, possessing their particular individual tone; full of character actors doing their best work; gorgeously shot; made in a genre (this time its a musical); aware of its story’s position in history (this is important); literary allusions; strains of Kubrickian misanthropy; musical universes; ramshackle plot…
The most important aspect of the Coens work, which I love so much specifically about this film, is that they are clearly struggling with the nature of coincidence, history, and the supernatural. Chance can’t explain the chain of events in O Brother, neither can the nature of the mythic Odyssey-translated-to-Americana story. So O Brother in a very roundabout way, is as much a film about the Coen’s relationship with God as A Serious Man is. The conclusion they come down with – that God only acts in the event of an insincere man’s sincere prayer, and even then only maybe. The devil in O Brother is a very real physical character – whether the cop represents the charged-by-divine right vengeance or the legitimate devil doesn’t matter. But evil is present always and God is simply a possibility, available only under the most extreme circumstances. There are many great aspects about this film – from Holly Hunters amazing no-bullshit line readings to Tim Blake Nelson’s utterly sweet and honest performance of a guy dragged by the neck through life – but nothing is as important to me about this film than how the Coens use this subject matter to talk about that.
054. Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski as an artist is someone I can never write off. Sure, he’s a monster. Sure, he has had a life awful enough to almost make up for it, and that life is fully present in work – consistently. In fact, there is an argument that his work is inextricable from him as a person. The artist and the work should be separate entities, but with Polanski its impossible to make that divide. His work is, like so few other great filmmakers, consistently about the commingling of transgression and guilt. Polanski has at least two other stone classics – Chinatown and The Tenant – to his name, either of which could have made this list. Chinatown is a brilliant sprawl of a film that makes a truly disturbing point, that the lead character and the audience are clueless and helpless; The Tenant is a nasty little mindfuck, a recursion loop starring Polanski himself, the kind of film built to linger on in the viewer’s mind worrying about mummies and teeth. Both films are examples of what Polanski is best at, creating parts that overtake the whole without invalidating the whole. The Tenant leaves you thinking about discarded teeth and mummies, both underscoring the destiny/madness themes but existing on their own.
Rosemary’s Baby is much more substantial than those films, without a doubt. Horror isn’t a genre with pre-set expectations in Polanski’s hands its a psychological state. There is an element of the unconscious in all his work, and the true horror in even his most fantastic films is the result of human motivation – greed, guilt and savagery get a lot of play in Polanski’s work. And of course the internal and external are blurred, images are often metaphors instead of being depictions. David Lynch, as much as I love his work, has never been as outright unsettling as Polanski is willing to be.The rape/satanic rite scene is disturbing not just because of the event it’s depicting (which is truly vile), but because Polanski comes so close to the actual act of slipping in and out of a dream, the real blending with uncnscious interpretations – Rosemary’s head spinning becomes the motion of being on the water, the Pope and JFK’s out-of-context appearances, the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, the elevator operator steering the ship - when she screams “THIS IS NO DREAM THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING” she screams it to the audience – like De Palma, Polanski’s always making that same argument – that if we see it, its real and it has happened. Whether its “real” or not doesn’t matter, but this? This happened.
Mia Farrow’s performance is what makes this Polanski’s best, really. While her physical change is impressive – like the movie itself she’s only externalizing internal problems – the hysterical breakdown in Charles Grodin’s office sounds absolutely insane, and Polanski plays that card too. There is insanity, there is unreliability in his characters, even one so tortured and terrorized. Polanski’s best work is about the stresses that the human mind can withstand, and not one of them comes close to being as affecting as this.
053. The Long Goodbye
The only Altman film on the list. I like Altman, I like what Altman tried to do – he tried to make movies on a grand scale, but out of small moments. There’s a lot to respect in that, to like in that. But the Long Goodbye is the only Altman film I love. The Big Lebowski, a film that owes a whole lot to this film, is about how “nothing means anything anymore” (as Todd Alcott says). But The Long Goodbye is a film about how manhood, how right and wrong don’t mean anything anymore. Elliot Gould’s Phillip Marlowe is a man loosely wandering around a permissive world, a world where no matter what he encounters, no matter how fucked up it is, he accepts it. “Its alright with me” is his catch phrase, even as he talks a ton of shit half-mumbled and nodded through. The Long Goodbye is an hour and forty-something minutes of that. Then the final scene, where Marlowe finally gets onto the truth, that his friend murdered his wife, skipped out of town and left him holding the bag – that’s the moment where Marlowe acts. The point that one would assume Altman is making is that some things, they can’t slide. That some things, even in a world where there is no good or evil anymore where men aren’t the fictionalized, Hemingway “men” they were after Hemingway killed himself. That some things, even then, matter. While Marlowe is a worthless piece of shit to whom the world is an alien, incomprehensible place, that he can still perform an act with moral certainty.
Some things just can’t slide.
Magnolia is an amazing work, a unique American epic that shares little to nothing with the conventional dramatic nature of “American Epic” films. Influenced by Robert Altmans sprawling Short Cuts style, but Paul Thomas Anderson is a far better director than Altman ever was. Boogie Nights is massively influenced by Goodfellas, but there was a real voice there that many filmmakers just don’t have. Also, PTA can direct lie a motherfucker – of modern directors he’s the most innately talented, as the opening ten minutes of Magnolia, where he skips through a dozen styles from a COPS-style ridealong to gameshow retrospective to Verhoeven tv cuts to 50s health class documentary to a Malickian scene stopped and replayed with Blake Edwards-style diagramming. Magnolia is a movie about a lot of things but its a movie about a lot of things that real directors don’t get around to talking about very often – it makes drama out of real life rather than the usual romance and violence of most films, like Short Cuts. There is a unification of theme and control that’s not there in Short Cuts, PTA never gets bogged down in minutia the way Short Cuts does, and well – Magnolia doesn’t have Carvers bullshit tone. The cast is almost universally amazing, from the minor – Luis Guzman, Alfred Molina, Ricky Jay; to the major – John C Reilly used to be even better than he is now because he disappears into this character, Melora Waters was stunning in this and disappeared, Tom Cruise’s unhinged weirdness (“I will dropkick those fucking dogs if they come near me”) is something I wish he would play to more, and on and on.
Here’s the thing – Ricky Jay’s opening narration and later appearance in this movie gets to me. Really, there is an implication that the young boy eyewitness is the same character as Ricky Jay later in the film. There is also the implication, that with the omniscient nature of the narration that he is the presence of the divine in the film. Or at least the supernatural. That doesn’t simplify anything it confounds this plot. Magnolia on its whole is an entire film that does what the Coen Bros hint at in their films – that the inexplicable can’t be separated from narrative, because it is a part of our lives
051. Fight Club
“Hows that working out for you?” “What?” “Being clever?” – that’s my whole life right there in those 3 lines.
Fight Club is a difficult movie to talk about. Condemned at the time, reappraised and then badly misinterpreted by most of the people who saw it, given a bad rep by its fans on a regular basis every single place on the internet you can think of. Hell, how many people don’t realize that Fight Club is a comedy?
David Fincher isn’t a writer-director like… almost every other director I’ll tak about in these posts. Fincher is special, someone with a razor-sharp aesthetic eye who doesn’t develop his own material. If you were forced, you could argue that Fincher is a more “pure” director than the rest of these guys. Seven is arguably a perfect movie, featuring at least one perfect scene (the blown-out sunlight flooding the car as Pitt struggles to remember the cops name), but it doesn’t get inside your head the way Fight Club does (I like Seven for the same reasons I like Manhunter but Manhunter breathes more). Fincher has always placed himself with the big names of directing – Capra, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese and Kurosawa references are littered across his filmography. Fight Club has been compared to Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver often, and Fincher puts it right out in front of us, having Tyler Durden imitate Alex Delarge with the dildo on the dresser, Edward Norton calling himself “Travis” in his support group.
Fight Club is hard to talk about because it is a film at odds with its subject matter, Fincher is a lot smarter and more aware of the bullshit crypto-facism that Chuck Pahlahniuk’s book is full of, Fincher is okay with skipping over the details and contradictions to tell you that this isn’t the way to live. Tyler Durden is a wish fulfilment figure who only believes in extremes, but maybe faux-buddhist terrorist theory isn’t a workable solution to going through life. Fight Club, like Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver and The Graduate, is meant to document the climate of the times – to diagnose ambiguity about dead consumerism, homosocial relations, disease, fucked relationships, fear of debt, fear of dying in a car crash, fear of not understanding the way the world works as you slowly die. For all of Tyler Durden’s sloganeering, the most incisive criticisms of the film are unspoken or glanced over in dialog – they’re Finchers own.
Watching Norton kick the shit out of himself over and over again, watching his body get more thin and more pale, listening to Tyler Durden’s post-apocalyptic agrarian fantasies as the film fades to resemble, feeling my stomach drop out as the car crashes – Fight Club is a lot more than its been culturally accepted as.
Ten years on, its just gotten sharper. Culturally prophetic and personally devastating. Cathartic as hell.
- Sean Witzke August 2010