[top 100 movies list part 3]
80s/90s action is like punk rock (and yes, I tend to think of a lot of things in terms of punk rock). It’s good to think of Die Hard as The Stooges and Lethal Weapon as the Velvet Underground (or Ramones/Sex Pistols, still works). Both of which are amazing and invented the universe, but honestly couldn’t be blamed for the racks and racks of shit that followed in their wake, copying directly the approach but missing the subtlety. Die Hard is a movie where shit blows up and guys get shot constantly. But for a movie where terrorists take over a building and a cop takes them all down one by one in the biggest, most dramatic way possible… it’s almost austere. For all the Under Seiges in the world that followed, Die Hard has a clarity of vision and economy that its excesses hide. At its core, Die Hard is built around a guy who is completely in over his head. He talks shit (largely to himself) because if he doesn’t he’s going to have a nervous breakdown. He spends most of the film trying stop bleeding. Terry Gilliam once said that for all the shit getting blown up in Die Hard, that he was floored by Willis on the phone to his kids, crying and picking glass out of his feet. Like I said, almost austere. This isn’t the pause-catchphrase-shoot-guys film that it gave birth to, its a gauntlet that leaves John McClaine barely able to stand. Die Hard is the flipside of McTiernan’s other perfect action movie, Predator. Instead of it being a loveletter to huge badass guys being huge and badass, its nothing but endurance and ingenuity keeping this guy alive. That may not mean much in the wake of all its imitators, but its something.
049. The Jerk
The Jerk is Steve Martin’s film, wholly and completely. It is the only film of its kind – predecessor of the un-self-aware-manchild films of Will Ferrel and Adam McKay, predecessor of heartstring tugging comedy of internalized-pain of Wes Anderson. The Jerk is stupid and broad as hell, a lot its best jokes are about people yelling and sight gags. The Jerk is a beautiful work of tenderness where Steve Martin is vulnerable and sweet enough to make you cry. Its everything, it shitty and perfect. It’s life.
My feelings about Steve Martin are far too wrapped up and personal, the guy is really one of my heroes. He’s made a lot of crap, he’s done questionable things, but no matter what he’s the smartest person ever to do stupid things, and defined so much about what I think is funny that writing about him in the way he deserves is almost impossible.
048. For A Few Dollars More
“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”
For a Few Dollars More is Ennio Morricone’s greatest score, possibly ever. While there is a lot of talk about the way Leone used score and sound in Once Upon A Time In the West, it isn’t as ingenious as the combination of music box, organ, and symphonics that he uses for Indio’s quick draw with his hostage, or the damaged chimes that play during Indio’s drug-induced flashback.
Weirdly, of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars trilogy”, this is the one I’ve seen the most. While Fistful and Good, Bad have been remade into templates for classic stories, For a Few Dollars More isn’t as referenced nearly as much. It’s the weirdest of the three -Manco (the Man With No Name who actually always has a name) isn’t the protagonist. Instead he’s the third lead to Lee Van Cleef’s Col. Mortimer and El Indio, the wild card in between two men on a collision course. Eastwood is best in this out of the three films, even though he’s simply there to cause trouble for the other two. The progression between the films is interesting, with Leone interested in complicating things geometrically. It’s never as simple as Eastwood and Van Cleef just going hard and killing everyone.In the end Manco isn’t a moral arbiter so much as a guy effecting balance. He won’t kill Indio, but he’ll make sure that Mortimer is in the position to.
Leone’s Dollars trilogy could be seen as unconnected events – these characters aren’t fixed but each filling roles dependent on the situation. Maybe that’s why The Man With No Name isn’t ever called by the same name, because he is a different person each time, just as Van Cleef’s two characters are not the same film to film.
Leone as a filmmaker doesn’t get his due, and likely never will. I can praise Kurosawa and Kubrick for their narrative brevity up and down, but Leone is almost telepathic in what he decides to show and what he doesn’t. Everything is kept to a minimum, his characters only speak when absolutely necessary, and Leone only shows any specific shot to communicate.
047. High Anxiety
Whats better than High Anxiety? A parody of Alfred Hitchcock that it actually transcends every one of Hitchcocks films. Mel Brooks got that you could play suspense for laughs too, but rather than rely on recognition for his jokes like most parody, High Anxiety is funny even if you’ve never seen Spellbound or Psycho. Harvey Korman is a genius at playing slimy, stupid,and nervous all at once. Dick Van Patten, Ron Carey and Chloris Leachman all shine. Mel Brooks is probably best as his own leading man, certainly as good as Gene Wilder. Also, Madeline Kahn is still a comedic superhuman who can make rattling off exposition funny. Not many things are as funny as her playing with the teddy bear while she’s on the phone, especially where she out of nowhere chucks it over her shoulder. Also “that kid gets no tip”.
046. Lethal Weapon
Every year for Christmas eve I marathon every movie written by Shane Black. Partially because he likes to set movies at Christmas, partially because its supposed to be a day of observance and I observe Shane Black to be the best screenwriter of all time. While he’s not particularly prolific, Shane Black codified a genre singlehandedly with Lethal Weapon. While there are buddy cop movies that exist before Lethal Weapon, the formula is stamped “Shane Black” as its remade constantly, even by Black himself. Lethal Weapon isn’t a better film than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (not in any sense), and it’s not as mean-spirited or action-intuitive as The Last Boy Scout. I just think that of all of Shane Black’s films, this is his defining work. Richard Donner isn’t a master auteur or anything but he’s a rock-solid storyteller, a craftsman who started in television (see also John Frankenheimer) ,which can’t be said of anyone who’s ever directed one of Black’s scripts (including Black himself).
Mel Gibson, like Tom Cruise, is actually really gifted at playing weirdos and got into his head that he was a leading man. Gibson’s legitimately gone here, and the way he drifts from genial buddy cop to wide-eyed sociopath describing this one amazing killshot he had in Laos when he’s nineteen. Danny Glover’s great, Gary Busey’s scary, but Gibson is captivating as hell. Equal parts tv junkie, burnt-out ptsd psycho, and deeply lonely burnt out ptsd psycho. 20 years of jackassery doesn’t make this performance any less captivating.
One of my favorite things that is unique to Shane Black’s scripts is how often the tough guy action shit only complicates the situation. Almost every time a gun is fired in the first 2/3 of Lethal Weapon’s runtime it just exasturbates problems and ensures that the characters are unprepared for later problems. If Riggs doesn’t shoot the guy at the pool, no one ever gets kidnapped. Black likes to write movies about gunfights and guys who talk shit, but he’s also one of the few writers who understood how to do that and be self-reflexive. Lethal Weapon is like Die Hard, a universe of explosions and bad one liners coming from a small, character driven place.
045. Hard Boiled
Chow Yun Fat is the the Fred Astaire of ending motherfucker. The opening, where Fat is covered in flour looking exactly like a ghost for a few brief seconds before he point-blank shoots a gangster in the face. At this point Chow Yun Fat as the specter of death was a foregone conclusion. He shoots guys, that what he does.
Hard Boiled is Woo pulling out all the stops, staging a massive gunfight in a hospital, doing his best Argento impression in the library, making sure Chow Yun Fat is holding a baby throughout the climax for maximum drama (and so the kid can piss out the fire on Chow’s pants), shooting like Peckinpah and Hitchcock had an insane lovechild. This isn’t a restrained affair by a long shot. This is reckless abandon personified by
Hard Boiled is a melodramatic gunfight movie, where a cop keeps running into his deep cover partner – but Woo’s greatest achievement was always that he committed to the melodrama, it was honest about it. Hard Boiled isn’t as good as The Killer is, but its Woo’s definitive statement on manhood. Two men who do what they do, Chow Yun Fat openly pushed to the edge, Tony Leung losing it internally. They hate each other, only to find out their on the same side. But the two of them aren’t the definitive moment – it’s when the one-eyed assassin and Tony Leung stop to allow innocent bystanders to pass. In a film where ruthless bloodshed is a constant the second of moral code dictating the bad guy’s decision, something that could be called honorable. The bad guy at the end of the film even makes Woo’s argument again – that the good guys and bad guys are completely equal, and the only thing separating them is a willingness to be more ruthless. That’s morality in action.
044. Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy
There is no comedy as sweet as the Jerk, but there certainly is a comedy that is stupid. Anchorman is the Sistine Chapel of stupid, its the goddamn bible of stupid. Everyone is funny. EVERYONE. More quotable than Caddyshack, I know every line. Featuring performances that none of these actors no matter how funny they are will never top. As much as I love all these guys, the real hero of the piece is probably Christina Applegate, who breaks normal woman-in-these-movies convention and plays for keeps. She’s the not the girlfriend, she’s an actual active character with some of the best jokes in the film (“Jazz flute is for little fairy boys”, smacking Ron in the legs with the tv antenna stem). Anchorman also features the greatest left-turn ever made in a normal, non-Monty Python comedy, where suddenly for ten minutes you’re watching The Warriors. NO COMMERCIALS, NO MERCY.
043. The Professional
Jean Reno playing the two assassin cousins in this and La Femme Nikita, he was really never as good ever again. He’s really good in Niita as a scary murdering technician, but he’s even better here as manchild assassin. Leon isn’t really an adult, he’s hinted at being ex-military but he lives like a monk, has someone else take care of his money. He goes to the movies. He does sit-ups. He drinks milk. He waters his rubber plant. He kills for the mob. He is illiterate. Of course, he has an affair with a 13 year old girl – psychologically if not physically. The two of them, Leon and Matilda, are emotional equals. Leon is like Le Samourai, only a lifetime of being told what to do has left him barely functioning as a human being. He’s not so much a traditional ancient warrior with a code as a young man’s conception of what that is. The difference is the shit gets messy, and “No women no kids” is not a workable position to go through life with.
Luc Besson is the only one who got John Woo’s aesthetic right. He understood that its not about the way you shoot the gunfights, it’s about tone and iconography. Besson doesn’t shoot a film like Woo, he shoots like Terry Gilliam. The Professional is full of clichés, but Besson isn’t interested about clichés, he’s interested about emotional payoff. So a villain that rants about Beethoven as he kills children is as unnerving as the first time you saw Clockwork Orange, the killer that sleeps sitting up. What matters is character design – Leon is those glasses, that hat, that profile; Matilda is that haircut, that jacket, the choker, the stuffed rabbit; Stansfield is that suit, those headphones, the pill cracking between his teeth. Of course Besson made The Fifth Element, the greatest comic book movie of all time – he understands that how characters look is as important as how they act. Blood always runs down Leon’s thumb the same way no matter what the scene is, its’ like an artists stylistic choice, like the way Moebius draws rocks.
The Professional pulls the same trick as Badlands, really – by being just a little transgressive it gets away with being far more openly emotional. And emotionally manipulative. It is Gary Oldman’s movie, though. Heath Ledger won an Oscar for Gary Olman’s performance here (in a movie with Gary Oldman). What make The Professional special is that while it plays with our heartstrings, it introduces a villain that is truly unpredictable. Evil is easy, the manic poeticism and drug-fueled chaos that Oldman is tossing out here isn’t.
The 30 min plus Leon-kills-a-building-full-of-cops is an epic setpiece, but it only works so well because of the way Besson sets up the film’s rules. Leon sleeps in the bed with Mathilda. They don’t have sex, but thats enough that the rules are broken – Besson even shoots Mathilda differently, going from hinting at Lolita to straight objectification. It lasts for about two minutes, but you feel something has changed. The siege, death-skree ending is reminiscent of Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II – but so much sadder because you can tell that it’s all going to go wrong. Breaking the rules only ends one way, in death.
A lot of people I respect think that Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s greatest achievement. I don’t know if I agree – right now I’d say that’s Inglourious, but it’s too new to really say that for sure. Jackie Brown is odd as hell – Tarantino’s third film, made when he was still pretty young (and Tarantino is someone who’s said no one should make a movie as an old man). It’s a film about getting old – both in plot and in theme. Samuel L Jackson talking for Tarantino, ranting about how people want to be like The Killer. Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Robert DeNiro – they’re in here as characters in their forties and fifties caught up in young people’s shit. But as actors, they’re in the same position. They’re too old to still be doing the same work and it’s getting hard on them – Sam Jackson is the only lead here that didn’t have a significant career in the 70s (Sid Haig!). When Sam Jackson says to DeNiro “What the fuck happened to you man, your ass used to be beautiful?” he’s talking to the man who played Travis Bickle too. Tarantino thinks directors shouldn’t get old, because they make films, as he said “like they can’t get it up anymore”. I don’t know how he feels about actors – clearly he likes to put people in his films with storied career that haven’t made anything decent in decades. Tarantino understands film and film history, his films are usually about it, and he loves actors. Jackie Brown lacks the immediacy of nearly everything else Tarantino’s done but it has as much if not more to say, about real things like getting too old to do the same stupid shit. People like it because it’s not reference piled upon reference, but it’s as aware of film as Kill Bill and Death Proof are, just maybe not as blatant.
Okay, let’s get contentious. I think De Palma is a better director than Alfred Hitchcock. There are a lot of Hitchcock references on this list (Gilliam, De Palma, Argento, Landis, Brooks, Fincher, Spielberg, and Woo for just the blatant ones), but Hitchcock is suspiciously absent. I enjoy Hitchcocks films – more his color film for me than the black and white ones – but it’s very hard for me to enjoy his movies the way I enjoy the rest of these 100. Psycho is inescapable and has one of the great visceral moments in film history (watch the man falling back on the stairs and not have your stomach drop out as if you’re falling), Rear Window and Rope are rare experimental successes by a commercial filmmaker, North By Northwest is a fantastic romp (even if it pales in comparison to the superior Charade), and Notorious is almost Welles-ian in its completely perfect classical approach, The Birds is a masterpiece of audience manipulation, and Vertigo is a deeply personal and messed up movie that still functions as a thriller itself. Hitchcock is interesting and fun to watch but with the exception of Notorious and Vertigo, very few of his films feel great to me the way that something like Rashamon does.
De Palma is not the master that Hitchcock was, not at all. De Palma is hit-or-miss, stumbling between hysterical genius and pure trash, souping up a terrible script with genius directing or tanking a great story by being barely coherent. De Palma is artist chasing after his muse, and sometimes that muse results in something as quietly stunning as Blow-Out, other times not so much. De Palma committed the great sin of stealing from Hitchcock openly, calling himself a master perhaps when he didn’t deserve it. But thats what great artists do, they steal. The post-Hitchcock style that De Palma employed in Dressed to Kill, Obsession, and Body Double is the platonic ideal of artful stealing. They are films Hitchcock would not or could not make with his own in that particular style. Which isn’t to say that De Palma is only Hitchcock, Sisters starts off with a shout-out to Michael Powell’s legendary career-ender Peeping Tom, a film that outdid Hitchcock at his own psychosexual suspense game.
De Palma’s most personal film is Blow Out but its not his best – I’d say that Sisters is. Sisters is defiantly the work of a young man completely sure of his abilities – and like Dressed to Kill, this is a film using Hitchcock’s techniques on subject matter that Hitchcock would never cover. Sure, a woman in a deep sexual relationship with her psychiatrist covering up a murder would be a great Hitchcock film. But the added dimensions – deformity, corruption, race, insanity, homosexuality, pedophilia, and permanent psychological damage as an effect of these things. A black man is killed, the cops don’t want to look into it because there is no body and the killing is reported by a (possibly lesbian) reporter who’s written some mean things about cops, the psychiatrist has been sleeping with his underaged siamese twin patients covers it up. Hitchcock would never have delved into any of these elements, partially because of the times and partially because he really wasn’t interested in a lot of this stuff. De Palma’s world is not a place where there are easy maguffins – the entire structure of Sisters is Psycho with bits of Spellbound and Rear Window thrown in for flavor – De Palma gets you on the side of the villain by making it look like they’re covering up for the real murderer, only to reveal that they did it all along, thinking they were another person. In Psycho its Anthony Perkins, in Sisters its Margot Kidder showing chops unlike any other performance she’s ever done (was she ever this good in a movie ever again?).
To completely ruin and paraphrase something John Landis once said about 70s horror – With Hitchcock, you feel safe because you’re in the hands of a master, with De Palma you’re in the hands of a pervert. De Palma’s splitcreen technique is wholly his (two 180 shots of the same action), the strange silent-movie black and white nightmare sequence, the morbid fake tv spot, the Rear Window tribute, the hand sliding up Danielle’s leg to reveal a disfiguring scar on her hip, the seasick fisheye POV of “there was no body because there was no murder”. Placing the audience in the reporter’s place and then having the psychiatrist convince her that she is the evil dead siamese twin, rather than putting the audience on the villain’s side like Psycho you are placed inside their head. The nightmare silent movie reel blurs Danielle and Grace’s memories together – the two of them blurring into one.
The ending of Sisters is a lot like Blow Out – ending with only tenuous resolution, leaving its surviving characters haunted by unspeakable evil. Hitchcock’s films don’t linger, they don’t raise questions. All Sisters does is raise questions.
- Sean Witzke August 2010