[top 100 movies list part 5]
Michael Mann’s magnum opus of isolated tough guy bullshit. It’s too long, no one likes that Pacino wins in the end, the plot is a little too complicated – all of it is true. None of it matters, this is the definitive cops and robbers movie for me. Its Michael Mann, doing what he does best. There are times where I might say Miami Vice is better, and maybe it is a movie that feels more like Michael Mann. But the acting is better here, the direction more formal. The actors – Deniro and Pacino yeah, but also the whole supporting cast – are on their game. Mann’s whole thing is codes of honor, psychology, trying to maintain a lovelife while being a singular hardass. Mann is smarter than John Woo, and a lot more interested about getting inside his characters heads, but his themes are the same. Mann isn’t interested in telling either, so the insight into Neil and Vincent is given to the audience in brief moments, forcing us to watch Deniro think, watch Pacino cope. The moment the two of them are in the restaurant together is the hinge point – taking place directly at the middle of the film, afterwards it’s a chase, and seeing how willing this guy is to catch the other. Seeing how willing this guy is to obey his own rules. Heat is philosophical in a very clear way – Neil McCauly believes in one thing and lives by it, and gets killed after he breaks it. It’s not about morality, the way nearly every cops and robbers story is – Neil and Vincent are on a collision course and neither of them is a moral figure, so the plot comes down to that – that one break against his code. Even at 2:40, Mann hasn’t been this concise again, probably hasn’t even tried.
John Landis, man. Not on this list – Trading Places, Coming to America, Animal House, Three Amigos. All of which probably should be, at least Trading Places. Blues Brothers is an adaptation of snl sketch,which if this were a sane universe would make it unwatchable. This is not a sane universe, so Blue Brothers is kind of a masterpiece. Landis is a rare director who’s mostly worked on comedies but still knows how to direct a movie visually – at least in my estimation Landis is the same kind of director as Billy Wilder and the Coen Brothers. Comedies, the past 40 years or so have taught us, aren’t meant to be treated as real movies, and visually even the best comedies are ugly as shit. The Blues Brothers is defiant in its tone – crazy-ass car chase movie, action elements, musical , comedy. Its also kind of a movie about god, and kind of a movie about the greatness (and the history) of black American music made by white people… I wish I had thought of this earlier in the list but The Blues Brothers isn’t very far away from O Brother Where Art Thou? is it? O Brother is the “better” movie, certainly, but The Blues Brothers is so heartfelt a loveletter to soul, blues, funk and gospel, starring the icons of American music. Landis as a storyteller is willing to go large – if that means the greatest orgy of car crashes in the history of film history, then that’s what he does. If that means a Ray Charles dance number with hundreds of people, moreso.
(Sidenote – Carrie Fisher is permanently burned into my brain with the assault rifle in the tunnel. I wish girls would go to comic cons dressed in sweaters, brown boots, and red jeans).
Elwood and Jake, they see James Brown and God tells them they’ve got to play music, and for the rest of the movie, no matter how much mayhem they cause they cannot be stopped. The Blues Brothers has a different message than O Brother, Landis and Aykroyd (who back in the day could write really well too) seem to say that being two white guys isn’t a problem as long as their intentions are in the right place, and God is on their side. The idea is that the only straight thing these guys know how to do is play music, because its the only thing they love.
028. Evil Dead 2
Evil Dead 2 is the greatest sequel ever made. It is kind of a remake of the original so I know its not necessarily thought of as such but other great sequels – Godfather 2 isn’t as funny, Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have as good an ending, and Sanjuro has absolutely no chainsaw scenes. A great sequel should not be beholden to the original, and Evil Dead 2 isn’t – the first one is too serious after you see 2.
Evil Dead 2 is like a parallel universe version of Raising Arizona, with Raimi and the Coen Bros working close together and clearly influencing one another. Raimi is willing to get super-gimmicky with his camerwork at any moment, and the film plays as a combination of Tex Avery cartoon, 3 Stooges routine, 50s throw-in-the-kitchen-sink horror and 80s gore crapshoot. Raimi does things just because they are funny – like every object in the house spontaneously coming to life to laugh at Bruce Campbell falling over. Raimi knows not to ruin the joke either, its only ever funny to the audience (the biggest problem with horror comedies). Evil Dead 2 has moments that are legitimately terrifying, and unexpected (Ash transforming) next to moments that make you laugh to the point of tears (the guys head getting dragged into the basement turning into a fountain of blood). Raimi knows his shorthand too – the workshed sequences are how-tos of inventory/armory scenes, weird-ass library sound effects and changing lenses is used to indicate the passing of one universe into the next, claymation/weird povs/sleight of hand – Raimi was the Michel Gondry of his day, but a far more competent storyteller (of course, Raimi can and has made completely captivating work from completely uninteresting material). Bruce Campbell can’t be undersold here either – the best scenes in the movie are him fighting with his own hand, making that believable is a superhuman act – you never doubt that he’s a real person (which isn’t something you can say about his later performances).
George Lucas originally wanted to shoot THX-1338 in industrial factories in japan, which should tell you a lot of things about THX-1138 and a lot about George Lucas.
Co-written by Lucas and bona fide sound design genius Walter Murch, THX is proof that George Lucas wasn’t just a guy who had one good idea and coasted on it for the rest of his life. Watching THX-1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars shows that Lucas was a profound visual artist – owing something to Kurosawa certainly but wholly his own voice. THX is the best of those three films, but all of them are of a whole sensibility – Lucas’ films are overridden by sound. In American Graffiti its songs, in Star Wars its John Williams’ amazing score (Luke staring at the sunsets? that whole thing is score), and THX is a cacophony of recorded voices and electronic sounds, all taking place on top of Lalo Schiffrn’s score. All voices sound distorted and processed (a trick Lucas reused for the X-Wings in Star Wars). Lucas shoots THX as if the soundtrack was dictating it – shooting tv screens so as not to get the images but the distortions themselves on camera.
Lucas and Murch are working on real science fiction here – not just that, this is science fiction shot using real locations, just like Alphaville. THX is shot in California nuclear power stations, supercomputer terminals, and BART tunnels in the process of being built. The plot of THX isn’t far off of the plot of Brave New World – there’s a lot more being said than Huxley’s novel had. THX-1138 as a story is concerned with a society that has been mechanized to the point of no longer needing humans. People buy objects to throw them away, perform tasks only to look in on each other – Humanity has outgrown its use for anything but maintaining the machine society that surrounds it. People don’t learn. People don’t breed. People don’t even masturbate. God is a recording you speak to occasionally. Love is a chemical imbalance. There is no difference between romance and friendship, it is any human relationship – it’s considered a problem because it hinders efficiency. There is no hostility in this world, there is only one way of living life. In the end the only reason that THX gets away is because it would cost too much to keep pursuing him.
Visually – well its gorgeous, the chase that climaxes the film is the best work of Lucas’ entire career (including producing Spielberg) – Steven Boone did a shot-by-shot analysis of it, going pretty in-depth about how the way he shoots cars moving is an event. The stakes of the chase sequence are built with sound and lighting, and especially framing.
The most shocking moment in the whole film is not a set or a special effect, its a stuntman flying off his motorcycle at the camera and getting wedged between the bike and the car. Its a real moment, with real mortal danger for the person who performed it. Actually in the re-release of the film Lucas did screw with the shot a little (in the background), showing how much his priorities have changed in the 30 years since its been made. But even still – there was a time where Lucas could make you feel something for another human being, and no matter how much digital jazz he’ll throw up on it (the THX recut is pretty restrained actually but still) can change that.
026. The Limey
Weirdly, this is the only Soderbergh film I put on this list. Which is odd, but I made this list thinking about the movies I responded to most rather than actually going through and adding films by director the way I probably should have. Soderbergh is someone I’d go to immediately as one of my favorite directors – Schizopolis, Out of Sight, and Oceans 12 are all brilliant films that I can talk about for days, and like his peers the Coen Bros even his worst (most commercial or zero budget boring) films are all worth spending time thinking about. Soderbergh understood that body of work means everything and that the more you do the more chance you have of stumbling on genius. The Limey is the one Soderbergh film that I go to immediately – it is a movie I outright love.
In his book, Getting Away With It, Soderbergh barely talks about himself as anything but a weird ego-obsessed asshole and makes Richard Lester the book’s real subject. In passing he talks about some of the films he was making at the time. On the last page he drops that he wanted the Limey to be like “Alan Renais making Get Carter”. Which is almost a platonic ideal for a movie like this – an elliptically edited psychological take on the oldschool british gangster film.
Soerbergh places the culture of Performance and Get Carter against its American LA counterpart – the english made genre pictures and refined them, the Americans made genre pictures into message films and then couldn’t stay on-message. Peter Fonda is the definitive example of that, sun-burnt hippy turned rich asshole, rock and roll hanger on sell out doing drug deals to stave off boredom.
The Limey is edited like memory, flashes of moments and trails of voiceover – moments cutting back and forth, previewing and playing again – lingering on faces, brief glimpses of memories and lives we don’t get to see. You want to talk about lone man shit, it’s there but, Limey is about how its made – and how it’s edited and shot and scored – all bring you into Wilson’s head. Wilson just wants to do the right thing by his daughter because he fucked up so bad – nothing he can do to fix it because she’s dead now. Wilson on the plane, at the end, and really through the whole film, is sure that he did the right thing but he can’t be sure and he’s just left with himself and his memories – some of her, brief snatches, but mostly its just him and what he did.
The whole film is a memory of his daughter, the problem is that he can remember what he did because of her better than he can remember her. Carter didn’t have to deal with life after avenging his brother, because he knew he was going to die. Wilson has to keep living.
025. Apocalypse Now
“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. Its is Vietnam. Its what it was really like it was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too many - too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane” - Francis Ford Coppola at the screening of Apocalypse Now at the Cannes film festival.
Francis Ford Coppola wrote a huge check when he said that, saying that the movie he just made could encompass the entirety of a war. Its the height of director hubris, to think that a film is more than a movie. But Coppola, after one of the longest and most arduous shoots in film history – shot in the Philippines in the middle of a typhoon, dealing with actor freakouts, heart attacks, heavy drug use – you only have to watch the documentary Hearts of Darkness to see that Coppola began to hate his script and rewrite constantly. Apocalypse Now is a debacle in creation and execution – but the thing is that every problem just made the film better. From the beginning, of George Lucas turning down Milius’ script to work on Star Wars on down to Walter Murch’s utter horror at finding out that the film had no voice over, no matter what happened the result was a better film. Coppola drew direct inspiration from Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now is the rare Hollywood film that is in not, as Herzog would say, “cowardly”. The stress and chaos of making the film permeates the film – this is a story of extremes that pushed the people that made it to extremes, this is not a movie shot on sound stages, and these actors aren’t calling back memories of their dead pets from childhood. There’s something more to this than real experiences and real sets, though.
Coppola was channeling something – this isn’t a well made film it is a masterful one. He had the hand of god – some of it has to be the editing and the acting, but this film is a testament for the amount of control a director would have to have to create something like this. Huge iconic moments like Duvall tearing his way through warzones, yeah. But small moments too – Brando hiding his eyes from the camera for his whole introductory monologue until he locks eyes with it “You’re an errand by sent by grocery clerks”. The man scream-scatting in pain at the bridge, actually the whole bridge sequence gets under your skin – that’s truly scary, guys shooting at nothing on the edge of the country, not being able to see anything and having no commanding officer. My favorite moment is the light changing almost imperceptibly as Chef says “I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul couldn’t make it to heaven, but now… fuuuuck. I don’t care where it goes as long as it’s not here” after they see Kurtz’s compound for the first time.
Apocalypse Now does the impossible – it is a story, that’s it. But Coppola’s intent to make such a large statement not only carries over it has so much to say about the push toward savagery – the hypocrisy of encouraging and denying that nature in the same moment. There is no sane response, there is only what happened. “There is no way to tell his story without also telling my own”.
024. Enter the Dragon
The plot is straight out of a James Bond movie, the second lead is an insufferable ass, the third lead dies off camera, it’s a little too dumbed-down for western audiences, the amazing finale is stolen from Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. All of these are true. None of them matter. Bruce Lee made few films, but none of them come close to being as cohesive a whole as Enter The Dragon. Bruce Lee was an auteur, in the sense that his films were written and directed by other people but could not exist without his presence. He is the only voice you hear in Enter the Dragon, his insane physical prowess in every fight scene (even the ones he’s not in are choreographed by him and the film is populated with his students). Enter The Dragon is Bruce Lee demonstrating as much of his philosophy as he could as well, and it is as thematically airtight as the Welles film it bites from. The opening dialog of the film, about destroying the image of evil that masks its true intention plays with Lee smashing his way through an endless mirror scene. While there are better martial arts movies, maybe better people that do it (Jackie Chan certainly is a better movie star) – but the most captivating presence to ever do this will always be Bruce Lee. The most profound voice will always be Bruce Lee’s. The most all-encompassing wreckage, Bruce Lee.
Poetry is for people who haven’t seen this man kick a man ten feet through the air.
Without a doubt, Scorsese’s masterpiece. Which makes it a total masterpiece, because even Scorsese’s worst – Kundun, New York New York, Shutter Island, Bringing Out The Dead – are captivating works where moments of genius flash in between the crap. Taxi Driver is a as good as a character study gets. Its as good as american filmmaking gets – even down to the little, probably accidental things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the marquee immediately before the “All the animals come out at night” chunk of monologue, or how Albert Brooks dials back his own comedy chops to be “guy-at-the-office funny”, or Peter Boyle’s honest “I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about”. Taxi Driver is the most passionate of the great-directors-make-movies-about-violence trilogy next to the guttural Straw Dogs and the cerebral A Clockwork Orange. Scorsese put everything he had into placing you in this man’s mindset, never telling you anything other than what Travis is thinking – even when Travis is saying something different. The slow burn of the plot, which builds Travis’ ambivalence at the beginning about race, about women, about disgust with this city, and about violence into decisive action. Scorsese gives himself my favorite monologue in film history – the “that you should see” speech – everything after that point grows like a cancer.
Travis Bickle doesn’t sleep, he spends all his free time watching pornography, he has trouble talking to women. He gets his job because he doesn’t sleep. Travis was in the marines. Travis takes pills. Travis does pushups. Travis blows the date and loses it at Betsy’s workplace. Travis buys a gun. Travis fixates on a 13 year old prostitute. Travis isn’t comfortable around black people. Travis kills a black man in a convenience store robbery. Travis tries to give the 13 year old prostitute money to get out of the city. Travis gets inches away from killing a presidential candidate. Travis keeps a journal. Travis talks to himself. Travis massacres a pimp and his partners. Travis tries to kill himself and fails.
Travis Bickle is a year older than me. When I watch Taxi Driver that’s all I can think about.
Now here’s where you know that this list is bullshit – Jaws isn’t at no.1. Which is a lie really, because Jaws is, in any rational form of objectivity – up there neck and neck with Citizen Kane as the best movie ever made. Citizen Kane is made on sheer talent and pure anger. Jaws isn’t like that. Jaws’ story recalls another classic, Casablanca. Where nothing went right, it was being constantly rewritten, and the final film is drastically different than what they had originally planned on creating. Jaws is a lot more fun than Citizen Kane is. It’s a lot more impressive too. Jaws is better than Casablanca, Stalker, Godfather, Yojimbo – name a movie, it’s better. The reason it’s not at number one is because other movies are closer to me personally but real talk not a single one from 1-21 is as good a film as Jaws is.
Hooper, Brody, and Quint on the boat.
Thats all that needs to be said.
021. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Life Aquatic is about Bill Murray, and Jacques Cousteau, and David Bowie. Its Buckaroo Banzai 20 years later. The Life Aquatic is about getting old, being once-great and living with the fact that you’re just not the same person you were when you were at your best. It’s about divorce and recrimination and fame. It’s about dicking around for funding when you’ve done this for decades. It’s about drawing diagrams when you were a kid, studying biology, giving everything a name and everyone a uniform, about wanting to travel the world and do amazing things, to be an explorer. About growing up to do that shit for money and finding out it’s no fun (people who draw that shit start making movies, find out that no one cares unless you can make them care. Life Aquatic is meta in a really simple way – that being accused of making dioramas of films, Wes Anderson wanted to make a movie that was both exactly that (there is literally a full-sized set cut in half of the entire ship) and response to exactly how that accusation is bullshit. Wes Anderson is hard for me, as all his films can switch to be my favorite in relation to whenever the last time it was I watched them. When I made this list (and I did make this weeks ago and I’m trying hard to stick to it), Life Aquatic wasn’t the favorite of his works – I don’t know if I agree with that now. I love this film, I love the weird ways that Anderson plays to and against his own style (“Search and Destroy”, motherfucker), I love the way its shot, the performances (every actor here is someone I love – Owen Wilson most of all, needs to get back to being great in movies), the dialog, the coexistence of the mundane this-is-how-we-make-the-sausages of filmmaking buts up against the globe-spanning adventurer team, the meandering pace to the thing.
The helicopter crash is one of the best sequences I’ve ever seen in a film, and Wes Anderson will probably never have another scene that hurts that much to watch… the way he mixes flashes and anachronistic shots with realistic pov is the only way it could work, its a sequence only Anderson could direct.
Its Moby Dick with a better ending. Moby Dick never made me cry.
- Sean Witzke August 2010