Wednesday, January 01, 2014

50 Films I'd Save

When asked to rank my 50 favorite films of all time, I thought it would be an impossible task. A top 500 list would be more feasible. But then I made it easy by simply imagining I could save only 50 films -- that whatever I chose would be the only ones I could ever watch again. That cleared things up pretty fast. Ranking them in order also became fairly easy when approached this way.

It's worth noting directors who have multiple entries. Ingmar Bergman gets 7. Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese each get 4. William Friedkin and Quentin Tarantino each get 3. Kathryn Bigelow and David Cronenberg each get 2. That adds up to 33 films right there, leaving only 17 directors with single entries. So it's fair to say I've been hooked by certain visionaries.

1. The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson. 2001, 2002, 2003. I never thought my favorite story could work as a film, let alone as an action blockbuster. But the casting here is flawless (except for Orlando Bloom), the scoring genius, and the setting of New Zealand too good to be true. But it's the emotional core that makes it a miracle. In my (many) theatrical outings I was overwhelmed, moved to tears, and in the final 45 minutes of Return of the King so affected I was shaking. No film, save the next, has ever had that kind of power over me. Tolkien's story is about the long defeat, as he saw it -- the failure of Frodo, the passing of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men -- and Jackson nailed the theme in all the parts that matter.

Scene: "Do you remember the Shire?"

2. The Exorcist, William Friedkin. 1973. This could also be my top choice, so consider it a tie. It never gets old and resonates on many levels, even new ones I've only recently discovered. It's the scariest horror film ever made. It's the strongest crisis-of-faith statement -- more so than even Doubt and Winter Light. It has the gritty feel of an induced documentary, but with artistry owing to Ingmar Bergman. It pulverized me when I first saw it as an 11-year old, and has stayed in my head for years, making me terrified of my own existence. I don't think it's possible to achieve what this film did ever again. But I keep waiting to be proven wrong.

Scene: "The Sow is Mine."

3. Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock. 1958. Whenever I watch Vertigo I feel mesmerized all the way through. It's about a necrophiliac fantasy, some say a reflection of Hitchcock's deepest obsessions, but in any case his most personal film. It's about a man who wants to bang a woman who's dead; it's about a man on fire for a woman who doesn't exist; it's about a man who stole a woman from the very husband who hired him, and the fact that she was really a decoy does nothing to exonerate him since he didn't know this when he began the affair; it's about a man who loses both women, the same woman, twice in exactly the same way. I'm glad that Vertigo dethroned Citizen Kane as the acclaimed best film of all time; it deserves the honor.

Scene: Judy becomes Madeline.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick. 1968. I used to respect this classic from a distance, admiring the aesthetic around the difficulty of "experiencing" it, but in recent years that distance collapsed; now it's my favorite Kubrick film, my favorite outer-space film, and my favorite futuristic film. It plumbs the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid, and grounds this vision in humankind's evolutionary roots. There are genius shots like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age "becoming" the space shuttle in the 21st century. I consider Dr. Bowman's transformation into the Star Child the best open-ended conclusion in cinematic history.

Scene: Hal murders Dr. Poole.

5. Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino. 1994. I've watched this more times than any film to date. I count it among three that educated me profoundly (the others being Blue Velvet and Taxi Driver), showing me that movies could be art as much as entertainment. And sickeningly hilarious. I remember laughing so hard I was choking when I first saw it, scarcely able to believe what the characters were saying and doing. Tarantino is that rare breed of writer-director, like Kubrick, who is in complete command of his material. No one writes dialogue like he can, and in the case of Pulp Fiction every stroke of the pen was inspired.

Scene: "I shot Marvin in the face."

6. Cries and Whispers, Ingmar Bergman. 1973. Some days I call The Seventh Seal my favorite Bergman film, but I'm going on record with Cries and Whispers. Perhaps it's because of the similarities with The Exorcist -- clock imagery, house atmosphere, bedridden agony, vaginal mutilation, etc. (Both films were robbed of best picture the same year; certainly one of them should have taken it.) It's a horrifying look at pain, about a woman dying of cancer attended to by her dysfunctional sisters. The hurt on display is relentless, with facial contortions, gasps, and screams punctuating every other frame. And the use of the color red is, for my money, the most effective use of color in any film I've seen.

Scene: Agnes' suffering.

7. The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman. 1957. Bergman's most famous film sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it's the knight's journey around the game's intervals, through a land struck by plague and religious fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God's mysteries, that drive the story. There's so much entertainment here -- bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off -- that the theological side helpings make it the most balanced art-house film I know. The final Dance of Death is oddly comforting for its nihilism, and a tune I could move to when I reach my end.

Scene: Apocalyptic procession.

8. The Shining, Stanley Kubrick. 1980. This is the only horror film that's come close to pulverizing me on the same level as The Exorcist, and it's far scarier than the book. The book is good on its own right, but Stephen King was misguided in making a faithful version for TV. The Shining is the best example (granted there are many) of "what works in a book doesn't on screen", and Kubrick's artistic license was pure genius. He took the skeleton of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a unique tone that doesn't let you tell yourself things are going to be okay. The result may be more minimalist than what King intended, but it's sure as hell more effective, and that's what any true horror artist aims for.

Scene: "Okay, let's talk."

9. Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch. 1992. It has an awful reputation, and I used to regard it as one of Lynch's mediocre efforts until I got a full distance from the TV series. You have to watch it this way. If you take it in conjunction with the show, or if you expect in any way a "Twin Peaks" movie, you will be let down. The TV show was about mystery intrigue and small town dynamics. Fire Walk With Me is an intensely personal film, and a horror picture -- the best horror film of the '90s, mind you -- that stands completely on its own terms. The scoring is brilliant, it's shot beautifully, and there are scenes more savage, terrifying, and heartbreaking than I've seen anywhere else. This is Lynch's best film, appreciated by few.

Scene: The Bang Bang Bar, The Pink Room.

10. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick. 2011. Like Space Odyssey this is a picture-perfect film showing humanity dwarfed by celestial mysteries. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. But grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it's its conceptual opposite), rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. Every frame depends on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. It ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss. I'm turned by new surprises each time I watch The Tree of Life.

Scene: Birth of the universe.

11. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley. 2008. My favorite stage-play based film is a parable that refuses certainty about anything. We never find out for sure if the priest molested his altar boy, though things point alarmingly in that direction. But then we get smacked with a mother who thinks that isn't so bad. The dialogue sequences between her and Sister Aloysius are harrowing, as she insists through tears that Father Flynn is a good refuge for her son, who is gay and beaten for it at home by an abusive father. That scene is so upsetting (see below), and entertains a hard idea in a world which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. Doubt is a perfect film in every way; the performances are first rate, and every line of dialogue earns its keep.

Scene: "Let him have my son."

12. 12 Angry Men, William Friedkin. 1997. Another dialogue-driven favorite of mine, and this remake is superior to the '50s classic. This time the jury has four Afro-Americans, and better acting by all involved, to make the film more relevant. Mykelti Williamson steals the show as racist juror #10, now a Muslim whose burning contempt for Hispanics and nasty put-downs draw the ire of the other black jurors. George C. Scott is as good as his predecessor Lee J. Cobb, as the unyielding juror #3, and ditto for Jack Lemmon, who replaces Henry Fonda as moral crusader juror #8. Then there is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the shrewd intellectual antagonist, juror #4, who has always been my secret hero of 12 Angry Men. Hot tempers and shouting matches have never been more primal.

Scene: No good ones on youtube, but Juror #10's hate speech would be my scene of choice.

13. Hard Candy, David Slade. 2006. This film is so many things: a dialogue drama, revenge thriller, enacted domination fantasy, and morality puzzle. I see a different film every time I watch it, and in the sum of those viewing experiences certain faults become strengths. The first time it was a Lolita set-up which turned into castration revenge. On second viewing I knew what was coming, and since Hayley was faking the castration her torture seemed a cop-out, and Jeff's suicide silly and unbelievable. But on third and later viewings I saw an enacted domination fantasy: a man's guilt-ridden wet-dream of being tormented by a 14-year old fantasy figure, and ending in his "noble" agreement to kill himself. Hard Candy works brilliantly for me on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy.

Scene: Jeff meets Hayley.

14. Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick. 1999. Whenever I hear people criticize "boring slow-paced art films", this is my first line of defense to get them reformed. It's slower than molasses but thrilling in every frame, and I'm not just talking about the orgy. Of course, this is Kubrick we're talking about, and he did the same thing in Space Odyssey, but I'm amazed how hooked I am by long camera takes of, say, Tom Cruise wandering streets. And even those who sneer at artistry can't fail to be impressed by the Christmas-seasoned atmosphere, which marries a perfect aesthetic to lustful themes both real and imagined. But yes, the orgy is fabulous too, like every other weird thing that happens to Dr. Bill on his night out, from professions of love next to a patient's corpse, to an underage girl's seductive airs at a costume shop.

Scene: The reality of the orgy ritual.

15. Blue Velvet, David Lynch. 1986. This nightmare of perversions is what started me on a new avenue in life. I saw it as a college freshman, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, it was an epiphany. Films would no longer be "just movies" for me; I saw that they had the capacity to illuminate, stun, delight, and horrify in lasting transcendent ways. Blue Velvet makes artistry out of sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy; yet around all the suffocating depravity is also worked a stunning beauty, particularly in the relationship between the Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern characters. It's impossible to exaggerate its impact on me.

Scene: In Dreams.

16. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch. 2001. If Blue Velvet threw me into a new world of cinema I could barely begin to define, Mulholland Drive reinforced the magic 15 years later, at the time Peter Jackson was giving magic a new name. It's about frustrated wish-fulfillment: Diane is the reality, Betty the dream; the first comes last, and makes devastating sense of the second; this reinvented figure is loved by everyone, a naive Hollywood star, and she gets off super lesbo sex with the woman who in life barely returns her affections. This manner in which people from Diane's life fill their dream-roles is a brilliant recontextualization of a go-nowhere actress drowning in criminal guilt, and it's one of the most intimate experiences I get out of any film.

Scene: Llorando.

17. Rope, Alfred Hitchcock. 1948. I say that Pulp Fiction is the film I've seen the most times, and I believe that to be true. But Rope could make a liar of me at any time. Everything about this film is tailored to my tastes: it's dialogue-driven, occurring in real time; it builds tension at a slow pace, in the claustrophobic setting of a rich apartment; the characters are demented, or at least off-kilter; the subject is morbid. Two college students have killed a classmate just for killing sake, as they consider themselves morally superior and above the law. They then host a dinner party to celebrate their act, and to make it stimulating hide the corpse in an antique chest which they serve food on. It's Hitchcock's most undervalued film, and I'm thoroughly addicted to it.

Scene: "Strangulation Day".

18. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan. 2008. I generally despise superhero films, so I love it when the genre is either upended to make fun of itself or overhauled to take itself seriously for a change. James Gunn's Super is an example of the former, making us laugh at deranged "heroes" who take pipe wrenches to people who cut in line at the movies; in such satire, heroes are losers and hardly better than those they go against. Christopher Nolan destroys our optimism in the other way, through a would-be liberator like Batman who can only escalate terror as he tries fighting it. Heath Ledger is so good as the nihilistic Joker that I saw this in the theater four times. It's too bad the other films in Nolan's trilogy weren't nearly as impressive.

Scene: Joker crashes the party.

19. United 93, Paul Greengrass. 2006. I said that no films have had held me in their power like The Lord of the Rings and The Exorcist, but this one has come close. I felt entirely helpless watching it, against expectations. It's a skillfully directed and respectfully made film with not a single exploitive frame. It makes you think about 9/11 for the right reasons, and is mercifully devoid of hindsight politics. Interesting is that Ben Sliney agreed to play himself; to this day I can't fathom how he got slammed with 9/11 his first day on the job as the FAA's National Operation Manager.

Scene: South Tower hit.

20. Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese. 1976. The third pivotal turning point in my cinematic education was Scorsese's masterpiece, which I saw in the mid-'90s. Blue Velvet was the bomb that opened my eyes. Pulp Fiction showed me there are no rules. Taxi Driver was the introspective gem, in many ways the quintessential film of the '70s, which was of course the Golden Age of Hollywood before it burned out. It taps into paranoia, alienation, and psychopathic "benevolence" in a sprawling first-person character study, and showed me how deep a filmmaker could go inside someone without becoming self-indulgent about it.

Scene: What a 44 Magnum pistol can do.

21. Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro. 2006. This is how fairy tales were before Disney polluted them: unnerving, with as much horror as fantasy. Here an 11-year old girl retreats into her imagination to escape the brutalities of fascist Spain, but it's never clear whether the labyrinth is truly imaginary. At some points it seems obvious that Ofelia is imagining things as a child would: her stepfather can't see the faun she's talking to; her "fairie" friends are really grasshoppers; etc. On the other hand, Ofelia could not have escaped the locked attic, but she did, and so her chalk door must have really opened a magic portal. Her murder at the hands of her stepfather is stunning, and her after-world "reward" as bittersweet as the Grey Havens.

Scene: Ofelia's death.

22. Alien, Ridley Scott. 1979. Explanation is hardly needed for this one. It remains the scariest sci-fic film ever made. Kubrick's Space Odyssey showed space travel to be an awe-inspiring wonder; Scott showed the underside with claustrophobia, isolation, and invincible savagery. I never cease to be amazed at those who insist that James Cameron's sequel is superior. Aliens is just Alien on steroids, not even a fifth as scary, a cheap blockbuster involving military personnel whose job to die defending others. In the perfect original we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded in space, hunted and devoured one by one, between nerve-wracking pauses.

Scene: Chestburster.

23. Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman. 1982. This is what I consider pure storytelling: ghosts and magical surrealism, a boy's gifted imagination, and Dickens-like tragedy under an abusive stepfather. But it's the androgynous figure of Ismael I'm endlessly fascinated by, and still have a hard time nailing down. He's so dangerous that Isak keeps him locked up; when he channels Alexander's wish to murder his stepfather, he erotically caresses the boy; he could even stand for Islam, implying that pagan Christianity (Alexander) needs the lethal power of Islam (Ismael), aided by Judaism (Isak), to break the power of orthodox Christianity (his stepfather the bishop). This is a five-hour epic that I wish lasted ten.

Scene: Alexander and Ismael (the Fire).

24. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Peter Greenaway. 1989. Albert Spica is the most vile and despicable character represented on this list, the kind of person you can't believe the Lord-His-God doesn't strike dead. He presides over a banquet in a restaurant every night, eating and acting like a hog, demeaning his wife, the cook, customers, and even his thug colleagues. It's a gross obscene display, but for all the repugnance this film is dazzling eye-candy. Every room of the restaurant is saturated in arresting color (red dining room, green kitchen, white bathrooms), and the characters' clothes change color accordingly as they walk from one place to the next. The final act of forced cannibalism is perhaps the sweetest poetic justice I've ever seen.

Scene: The restaurant.

25. The Divide, Xavier Gens. 2012. I'm pleased to say that of my 50 picks, only three are Rotten Tomatoes. Fire Walk With Me (#9) was simply misunderstood, and Crash's (#46) pornography blinded critics to a perfect film. But there's no excuse at all for The Divide's poor reception. It's the best Lord of the Flies-themed film I've ever seen, period. The performances are brilliant. Nine people are trapped in the basement of a high-rise apartment complex after a nuclear bombing, and despite their initial solidarity, cabin fever and base instincts quickly take over. There's torture, rape, sex slavery, and overblown lunacy... Even I am deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

Scene: Mickey's fingers.

26. Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino. 2009. For the longest time I thought Pulp Fiction was Tarantino's first and last masterpiece. Then came this ripper. Please note that I'm no friend of cartoon villains, especially in brutal historical periods, so it's all the more an indication of Tarantino's genius that he can use caricature to great effect. Especially in the character of Landa, a brilliantly conceived Nazi I could watch all day. As for the Jewish Basterds, they're a ludicrous wish-fulfillment fantasy that entertain as they self-indict. The film forces us to see ourselves as Nazis as we cheer the Basterds on for their inhumanities, in the same way Hitler applauds the on-screen carnage of his propagandist film.

Scene: Bar shootout.

27. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino. 2012. Ditto for everything I said above: this film does to American slavery what the Basterds did to Nazism; they're equal favorites of mine. I honestly don't know whose performance I revere more, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom -- or in Jackson's own words, "the most deplorable negro in cinematic history". The brutal realistic violence done to slaves is run parallel with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that Tarantino has tamed to near perfection.

Scene: Arrival at Candyland.

28. Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock. 1955. In which endless suspense is wrung out of a spying busybody, banal loneliness, bickering, pointless existence -- and finally a murder plot. I love how voyeurism is indicted through the nurse's accusations, and my favorite scenes involve the early sparring between her and James Stewart's character, and then Stewart and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly), as they razz each other over their relationship. Stewart's acting is effortless as always, and he gets not one but two terrific "shut up" lines, whilst Kelly railroads him for his diseased peeping Tom behavior, until finally convinced there's something truly nasty going on across the street. I don't call this blog The Busybody for nothing.

Scene: Caught spying.

29. Juno, Jason Reitman. 2007. The genre of light comedy is normally anathema to me. But Juno is so arresting and honest in its simplicity, and its characters so endearing, that it works just right. It's also genius for fooling the pro-life crowd into thinking it endorses their agenda. Even if you know nothing about scriptwriter Diablo Cody (a pro-choice feminist) and actress Ellen Page (also a pro-choice liberal who participates in films she believes in), the film clearly establishes a girl's choice to have her baby without glorifying teen pregnancy, and that she would be supported by her friends and family regardless of her choice. It takes choice for granted, assumes hard-won rights, and doesn't need to preach. I've watched this many, many times.

Scene: Prom fight.

30. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, 2012. Last year was a sanctimonious one for critics. Spike Lee leveled ridiculous complaints about Django Unchained's supposed racial insensitivity (the repeated use of the n-word), while others pounced on Zero Dark Thirty's supposed apologetics for waterboarding and similar torture procedures used by the CIA in the days following 9/11. It's no accident that these were the two best films of the year, and thankfully they were well received on whole. Bigelow isn't a political propagandist in any case, and her expose of the hunt for Bin Laden is her best film to date, finer and more disciplined than even The Hurt Locker.

Scene: Bin Laden's Courier.

31. The Faith Trilogy, Ingmar Bergman. 1961, 1962, 1963. I'm cheating here, since each of the three films stand on their own. If I took them individually, Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light would place lower, and The Silence much higher; this slot feels about right for treating them as a whole. Bergman was obsessed with the riddle of God's silence, and each film escalates the issue: from the spiritual frustration suggesting God as sinister, to the anger questioning his existence, to finally accepting there are no answers (though the ongoing search for answers remains important). These were the first Bergman films I saw, and Harriet Andersson quickly became my favorite female Bergman actor, Gunnar Bjornstrand my favorite male; I like the way Glass Darkly and Winter Light complement each other in other ways, one by the intense character interactions of incest and psychological breakdown, the other more by explicit theology. The Silence is the unnerving masterpiece.

Scenes: The spider god, words that kill, hotel of the grotesque.

32. Sunshine, Danny Boyle. 2007. I can't say enough about this film. It flew under the radar when released, and it's still largely unheard of. It's set in a future where the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun's fire. Captain Kaneda's death is a powerful sacrifice, and from that early point the mission becomes one calamity after the next; more crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and they even contemplate murdering the one of them "least fit" in order to save oxygen. On top of all this, there is the terrifying subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. Underrated is an understatement for Sunshine.

Scene: Captain Kaneda's death.

33. Videodrome, David Cronenberg. 1983. If there was ever a film that merits the cliche "like nothing you've seen before", this is it. The idea is that watching videos can somehow physically change and corrupt you, and involves everything from torture porn to sadomasochism to mind control, all weaved through the body horrors of flesh guns, male "vagina" slots that play VHS tapes, and cruel metamorphosis. There is a snuff-film franchise, and a plot to broadcast a signal to millions of viewers, which will create a "new flesh" -- the merging of human consciousness with a media stream of sexualized violence. This is one of those films that can make you high without drugs, like Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Scene: "Long live the new flesh."

34. Shame, Ingmar Bergman. 1968. I went through a period of watching every war film I could get my hands on. Most were Oliver Stone films -- annoying, politically self-righteous screeds. Others were scarce improvements. Not until I found Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick would I get what I was looking for. Yet as much as I revere Paths of Glory and The Thin Red Line, they don't quite make this cut. Only one war film does: Bergman's Shame. It has no axes to grind (Stone), no politics (Kubrick), no cosmic "messages" (Malick) -- nothing to interfere with the close-up intimacies of a married couple who are are uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, and humiliated beyond endurance. The exodus into a sea of corpses will haunt me forever.

Scene: Nothing much available on youtube.

35. Hour of the Wolf, Ingmar Bergman. 1968. This one has surface similarities with Shame, besides being tied at the same place on this list. They were released the same year; they star Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a married couple on an island; they involve the character played by Max crumbling under extreme pressure. But in Hour of the Wolf the pressure is interior rather than exterior -- inner demons, personal alienation, homosexual guilt, necrophilia, and the intensified blurring of reality and fantasy. We're never sure if we're seeing Johan's demons, or those shared by Johan and Alma together, or some combination with reality. We're also not sure if Bergman lost his goddamn mind when he made this film.

Scene: Necrophiliac weirdness.

36. Eraserhead, David Lynch. 1977. This nightmare is about many things, from a commentary on reproductive mores, consequences of unplanned sex, fear of parenthood, industrial pollution, even a mysterious Old Testament text which Lynch refuses to come clean about. My bet is on chapter 3 of Job, arguably the most existentially spiritual book of the bible. I'm not surprised that Stanley Kubrick forced his actors on The Shining to watch it. Like the haunted hotel picture, Eraserhead traps us in a unique dreadful atmosphere. It's for my money the best use of the black-and-white medium in any film.

Scene: Death of tadpole baby.

37. Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese. 1990. It's funny how The Godfather films haven't aged well for me. Back in the '90s I'm sure I would have included them on a list like this. Even after seeing Goodfellas, I thought both were masterpieces tackling their subject matter from different angles. Conceptually, I even like what Coppola was doing more than Scorsese. Michael Corleone is a tragic figure, and he and his family are mostly sympathetic characters. In Goodfellas, gangsters are unmitigated scumbags. But that's the point: Scorsese removed the honor which seems over-romanticized when you watch the Corleone family too much. It was time for the eye-opening reality of organized crime. I mean seriously, watch the clip below, and it's clear why Scorsese rules over Coppola.

Scene: Tommy and Spider.

38. Casino, Martin Scorsese. 1994. Can anyone judge this film without worshiping the one above? The standard line is that Goodfellas is a work of art, and Casino a good film that walks in the other's shadow. This is wrong; both are masterpieces. That Joe Pesci is the same homicidal maniac in both doesn't affect this conclusion. Had Casino been made first, everyone would be calling it the masterpiece, and in a way I think it does more. It's as much about place as character, like the Godfather films capturing an era in a mob-runned city (Las Vegas) before the law got control. It has a more epic feel, and I even like the characters slightly better. It's ultimately a tie though, when you get down to it.

Scene: F-bombs in the desert.

39. The Departed, Martin Scorsese. 2006. Yet another film you can get lynched for daring to float on the same plane as Goodfellas. But again, I'm doing exactly that, and as with Casino this film works even stronger in some ways. It shows gangsters infiltrating the highest levels of law enforcement, and cops doing vice-versa. The mole theme of losing one's identity works wonderfully, and The Departed frankly has the highest re-watch value of Scorsese's gangster trilogy. It's constantly hilarious and endlessly violent; it throws curve-balls you never see coming. Even its liability works for rather than against -- the appallingly phony Boston accents (aside from Damon and Wahlberg, who are from Boston), which I can't help think were put on deliberately.

Scene: Elevator carnage.

40. Seven, David Fincher. 1995. I remember a point in my life when I thought The Silence of the Lambs couldn't possibly be topped in the serial-killer genre. Now I can't remember the last time I watched it. The is the one that never gets old. It feeds my fascination with the seven deadly sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante's Inferno, though admittedly all this would have failed if not for the sickening way John Doe gets his victory in the end. Everything about this film is perfect: the atmosphere, scoring (the prologue's Nine Inch Nails song, and the library scene's Air on the G-String in particular), and casting. Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Kevin Spacey fill their roles as if born to play them.

Scene: The box.

41. Conan the Barbarian, John Milius. 1982. This is a very special film for me, and one of only three fantasy entries on this list. It was my first R-rated experience and did a wonder on my pre-teen sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex -- especially Conan's coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm -- and a deluge of blood and gore, I was utterly stupefied. Conan threw me into a world of lust and brutality I was so unprepared for at age 12, high adventure where thieves rob the temples of evil priests, rescue their victims, battle giant snakes, and stumble on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons. It also spoiled me rotten, as the '80s decade afterwards unleashed a deluge of cheesy, PG-rated fantasy.

Scene: Thulsa Doom beheads Conan's mother.

42. The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock. 1963. My favorite post-apocalyptic films are The Divide (#25) and The Road (#49). This is my favorite apocalyptic film. It's nihilistic to the core, unapologetic about nature's savagery, and like the great horror films rarely seen anymore has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before unleashing the terror. And what a terror -- even by today's standards, the bird attack sequences are convincing. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren't going to turn out okay, and he's probably right. We never learn why the birds have turned on humanity, and, like the reason for Regan McNeil's demonic possession, we don't need or want to know.

Scene: Crows on the playground.

43. Killer Joe, William Friedkin. 2012. Friedkin has been a lot like Tarantino. He took the world by storm in his early years, lost his mojo somewhere along the way, then made a raging comeback. Bug was one such comeback (it almost made this list), and Killer Joe an even better one. The Tarantino parallels continue, as I get filthy sick laughing at things in this film which are far from funny. It's about white trash culture, hiring a hit man to kill your mother, loaning out your sister for sex, and everything careens out of control an outrageous climax: a forced blowjob with a chicken leg (it's already become legendary) and a pulverizing "last supper".

Scene: The chicken-bone scene.

44. Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick. 1975. Whenever I'm asked for a historical film that really immerses you in the time period, this one comes first to mind. Kubrick evokes the Enlightenment era with incredible ease, the irony being that there seems precious little enlightening about this world of primitive warfare, ugly duels, brawls, and dishonest gambling. In any case, after three hours I find that I've near forgotten myself and the values I hold. Furthermore, the common complaint that Kubrick lacks life and emotion is disproven by Barry Lyndon. The scene with Barry weeping over the bed of his crippled son has me doing the same, even if I loathe him by this point in the story.

Scene: The duel.

45. Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche. 2013. It's sad that the film has gained notoriety for graphic lesbian sex scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself and seeing herself in wildly adolescent terms. The real theme is the all-encompassing power of love, which can be wonderful and then destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. Long after the painful break up, Emma is able to forgive, and Adele obtain at least some measure of closure, knowing this was a once in a lifetime experience. It's a rare example of a film that's long to begin with, but I wish could be twice as long.

Scene: Homophobic bullying.

46. Crash, David Cronenberg. 1996. Who would come up with a fetish of being sexually aroused by car crashes? Cronenberg of course. I would probably call Crash the most artistic NC-17 film I've seen. It's not sensational, just the opposite in fact, incredibly subdued and polished. The cold blue look works wonders in this regard, and dialogue seems to be spoken through a dream-like filter. The parallel of surrendering to an automobile wreck and giving oneself up to a sex partner sounds too crazy to take seriously, but it works in context, and approaches the artistic nihilism of Ingmar Bergman.

Scene: Car fetishes.

47. Sawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman. 1953. Anne and Albert are unquestionably my favorite cinematic couple. They hurt each other, despise each other, cheat on each other, yet persist in loving each other, trapped in a harsh career of a traveling circus. I've reached the point where I've stopped calling Sawdust and Tinsel underrated, as it seems to have undergone reassessment by enough Bergman scholars in recent years. I catch new and hidden meanings each time I see it. It's a cruel parable of sexual power and degradation, in which the humiliating worlds of the circus and theater collide.

Scene: Anne's confession.

48. The Grey, Joe Carnahan. 2012. First things first: wolves are outrageously misrepresented in this film. In reality the poor things are wimps, so you need to suspend disbelief and just pretend this film takes place on an alternate Earth where wolves evolved with nasty temperaments more akin to grizzly bears. The distortion makes it feel more of a horror picture, which in many ways it is. But it's a survivalist film that has the honesty to kill off the entire cast, one by one, as they flee a crash that's left them stranded in the Alaskan wilderness.

Scene: "Live and die on this day."

49. The Road, John Hillcoat. 2009. I often say, with considerably strained patience, that literal adaptations of novels don't work; that's why we need talented directors and scriptwriters who can "crack the code" of the book and make it work on screen. Once in a blue moon, however, the novel is the film. Like The Road. The post-apocalyptic setting is bleak as you'd expect from Cormac McCarthy, with lone innocents fleeing marauding cannibals across a desolate world. The ending panders too much to those preferring tidy closure -- the one part of the book I would have changed -- but that's a small quibble on my part.

Scene: "Take off your clothes."

50. Near Dark, Kathryn Bigelow. 1987. I could spend days unpacking this beast. It's one of my favorite horror films, but not very scary, since we're made to identify with the vampires who have a grand old time terrorizing and feeding off humanity. It's a love story reminiscent of the romance in Let the Right One In, and while the latter is more critically acclaimed, I'll take Caleb and Mae over Oskar and Eli any day. Noteworthy is the cast (three of the vampires) recycled from Aliens; James Cameron was Bigelow's husband at the time, and she made the far better movie. Just as her award-winning Hurt Locker was vastly superior to the trashy Avatar. Some things never change.

Scene: Bar Feast.


Post a Comment

<< Home