Friday, December 3, 2010

Film Fan #151-175

#151. Zoolander (2001)
This is Ben Stiller’s Austin Powers, simply put, plus a really good movie for Owen Wilson. Blue Steel!

#152. Adaptation (2002)
Twisty-turny Nicholas Cage tour-de-force, portraying both Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother, who are trying to figure out how to make The Orchid Thief, a piece of nonfiction, into compelling fiction. One of my favorite Meryl Streep movies, too, before everyone started to believe too much of the hype, which kind of soured me on her in later years. The way to ruin a good actor is to start casting them, instead of their performances. That’s not as difficult to understand as it seems…

#153. The Break-Up (2006)
Superior relationship drama featuring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston playing their iconic roles to best possible effect. Turns out they’re romantic losers, and it’s not a completely bad thing. Stick around for “Rainbow Connection” in the credits!

#154. In Bruges (2008)
Colin Farrell takes his Phone Booth and Cassandra’s Dream performances to their logical end, as a hitman cracking up after a botched job, with Brendan Gleeson attempting to help him past the trauma. Ralph Fiennes has a delicious supporting role as the man who gleefully seeks to make sure everything turns out as it should.

#155. The Majestic (2001)
Anytime a modern filmmaker attempts something that calls to mind the hallowed grounds of Hollywood past, critics take the automatic stance that it’s going to suck. That’s what doomed this Jim Carrey project, from director Frank Darabont, who had already made two exceptional prison dramas (The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile), this time taking his impeccable eye for casting for a completely wistful vision of a man on an equally unlikely path toward redemption. “Too much like Capra.” Or, captivating.

#156. Shrek (2001)
The computer animated movie that exploded the myth of what animated movies are supposed to do, by completely turning the old tropes on their head. Excellent voice casting with Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow. None of the sequels make the list, but not because they aren’t worth watching. The second and fourth are of note.

#157. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
The best part of this Potter is the epic duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore, which is one of the best in cinema lore, no matter the context. This is exactly why the Hogwarts headmaster had to go.

#158. Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
If history takes a backseat to high drama, then I could think of worse fates than to play second fiddle to Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, and Geoffrey Rush.

#159. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Combine Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and a jazzy John Williams, and you got pure cinematic dynamite. The story of Frank Abagnale is pretty fascinating, too.

#160. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Ron Howard walks Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Ed Harris through an amazing true story about the human spirit. It pays to lose yourself in its magic.

#161. I Am Legend (2007)
Will Smith in perhaps the purest presentation of his undeniable skills as a one man show, as seemingly the last man on a planet that has been overrun with zombies.

#162. The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Natalie Portman and Scarlet Johansson spar as sisters caught under the gaze of Eric Bana, with Jim Sturges (star of Across the Universe and 21) playing a supporting role as their brother. Nobody wins, but it’s a lot of beautiful misery.

#163. World Trade Center (2006)
Oliver Stone guides Nicholas Cage, Michael Shannon, and others through the harrowing experiences of 9/11 with a transcendent feel throughout.

#164. The Perfect Storm (2000)
George Clooney, Mark Walberg, William Fichtner, Diane Lane, and others recreate a peculiar form of heroism, the courage to own up to your own mistakes, and try and make the best of it.

#165. Black Hawk Down (2001)
I was originally drawn to this one because of a personal connection, but Ridley Scott’s version of the battlezone of Mogadishu and his stellar casting (some of his stars weren’t even stars yet; Eric Bana and Tom Hardy appear, for instance, before anyone really knew who they were, which was still true for Hardy years later, at least until this year’s Inception, in fact) serve to create a true sense of the chaos of war. Josh Hartnett’s one real starring role, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.

#166. W. (2008)
Oliver Stone takes Josh Brolin, who was just starting to gain a film presence (after too many years), appearing in numerous movies clustered in their release dates, and retells the famous moments of George Bush’s life, leaving the ultimate conclusions up to the viewer. It was bravely stupid for many critics; me, I just saw Stone doing his visionary thing again.

#167. Stick It (2006)
Sometimes, an attitude can make a movie, and this one’s all about attitude, with Missy Peregrym displaying a distinct lead appeal (something nobody else seems to have noticed), with an assist from Jeff Bridges.

#168. 300 (2007)
Oh, and attitude is all over this, too, like the super-macho version of Black Hawk Down, with Gerard Butler finally finding his perfect role, after years of searching (seriously; you can see past efforts like Timeline and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life for evidence).

#169. Ratatouille (2007)
Lots of people would try and make the arguments with The Incredibles or Wall-E, but here’s where Pixar finally broke free of the formula, the only time, really, when it allowed a gimmick to truly transcend itself, looking past the rat chef and allowing food critic Peter O’Toole to deliver its true message: good things are easier to find than you think, but great things are rare indeed.

#170. The Illusionist (2006)
Edward Norton finally breaks free from his usual persona, but not his favorite gimmick, still pulling the wool over Rufus Sewell’s eyes, with admiration from Jessica Biel and Paul Giamatti.

#171. The Constant Gardener (2005)
Ralph Fiennes tries to improve his life by chasing the ideals of his late wife, Rachel Weisz. It ain’t easy, and Danny Huston doesn’t make it easier, but that’s the world for you.

#172. The Hurt Locker (2009)
This one just won the Best Picture Oscar, so I don’t have to make too strong a case for it, so I’ll just say how much I love that Jeremy Renner finally found some wide acclaim. Also, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, Anthony Mackie, and Evangeline Lilly rock supporting roles.

#173. The 25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee makes one of the earliest and most thought-provoking reactions to 9/11, with Edward Norton struggling to reconcile his life before heading off to jail. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rosario Dawson are among an excellent supporting cast.

#174. Nixon (1995)
Oliver Stone and Anthony Hopkins tackle one of the giant of 20th century politics, and end up figuring out he’s not just there to push around.

#175. Moon (2009)
Sam Rockwell found his perfect starring role, playing opposite himself as an astronaut trying to figure out how to make good with his assignment. Plus, years after audiences grew tired of him, Kevin Spacey figures out how to sneak his way back to the big screen. As a robot’s voice!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Film Fan #101-150

#101. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Farces were a big thing in the early days of Hollywood. Unfortunately, I don’t really have much experience with them, whether they be Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or the Marx Brothers. I’ve seen Stooges! But for my money, this is my kind of farce, starring George Clooney, the man who ended up defying conventions because he had no other choice (anytime he attempts to fit them, the critics hate it, even though he was born for them, too; the man is probably the consummate film star), and under the direction of the famed Coen Brothers, with whom I have precious little experience. It seems appropriate. Anyway, this one is a treasure all the way around.

#102. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Talk about a crime: this was a cult favorite in the making for years, until it was actually made. But I cannot emphasize how much I adore it, from the perfect casting to the exquisite sense of how Douglas Adams worked best.

#103. Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan’s first pass at the Dark Knight is a riveting character study, which is appropriate to the director, but it lacks a sense of surprise, other than the awesome twist revolving around Liam Neeson, so I’ve struggled a good deal with my exact level of appreciation for it. Tom Wilkinson is another standout in the cast.

#104. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The popcorn blockbuster, in the years before it was perfected by Hollywood, in one of its purest forms, the best of the Terminator films; just a rollicking series of set pieces, with some good performances and standout casting choices, and a good sense of scale.

#105. Toy Story (1995)
The first Pixar flick is also the first Pixar flick on the list, in every sense the most pure experience of the studio’s sense of modern animation magic, an irreverent (but, as with every Pixar experience, always bordering a little too close to total reverence) look at the inner life of toys, with Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in some of their defining roles, which is saying something, because both are known better for others.

#106. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
This second hundred of the list is a walkthrough of films that could have and at one time or another actually did make the top hundred in previous editions. This is the first Harry Potter to make this version, and has been my favorite since its original release, the first of the series to reach true maturity, and real transcendence, which is what the whole experiment of this series of films based on books that were still being released at the time was all about. Harry doesn’t ask for anything that happens to him, and it’s never more true than when he’s drafted into the Tri-Wizard Tournament, where he competes against, among others, a pre-Twilight Robert Pattinson, whose death still manages to elicit the most emotional moment in the films to date. Also Michael Gambon’s breakout movie as Dumbledore. Oh, and Ralph Fiennes debuts as Voldemort. It’s been hard to rank any of these films while they’re still being made, since this is the longest continuous, single-story movie saga ever. There’s the constant sense that the best is yet to come, and that a lot of the momentum points forward. That the one in the middle has done it best, but that others since have managed to maintain a lot of the momentum, might suggest that in the future, Harry will permanently crack the top hundred, along with other favorite series.

#107. The Proposition (2005)
A good year continues, with Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, and Danny Huston leading an Australian western that cuts to the emotional bone with a saga of justice that spares very little. Exquisite.

#108. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Daniel Handler’s clever books about some really hard-luck orphans takes a backseat to Jim Carrey unleashing some of his most inspired character acting, in a number of iterations. If this one wasn’t successful enough to bring about, oh, twelve sequels (it’s okay, since this one already squeezed a lot of them together, so there wouldn’t really have been so many), it was enough to just sit back and enjoy this one.

#109. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley Scott sets out to prove that Gladiator was no fluke, bringing his historical focus to the bloody mess of the Crusades, with a more complicated story revolving around Orlando Bloom (another guy attempting to win some much-deserved acclaim) and his quest for redemption, both for a wife who committed suicide and a father (Liam Neeson, naturally) who helped point the way. An embarrassment of riches in casting includes an unlikely turn by Edward Norton.

#110. Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince (2009)
The next Harry is the one that got to put the spotlight squarely on Michael Gambon, who here gets to outclass Ian McKellen (this one gets to explore all the depth Tolkien left out of his Lord of the Rings, which Peter Jackson also overlooked, flattening even what McKellen did in Fellowship of the Ring for the next two in that epic), while Tom Felton stirs horribly as Draco Malfoy and Alan Rickman gets some of his best material as Snape.

#111. Cradle Will Rock (1999)
An incredible ensemble piece, with a lot of great performances, including Bill Murray and Hank Azaria, revolving around the Great Depression and a bunch of artists and performers attempting to make the best of it.

#112. The New World (2005)
Colin Farrell in one of his standout performances, mostly holding it in, but occasionally unleashing some of his latent Alexander incredulity, in this Terrence Malick version of Pocahontas and John Smith, incredibly lush, and packed with supporting roles.

#113. The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine spin real magic out of a deadly rivalry that exposes the extent, and limits, of ego. This time, it’s really about Jackman, however, in perhaps his career performance.

#114. The Princess Bride (1987)
Disney has cornered the market for modern fairy tales, except for this adaptation of the William Golding book, spinning Cary Elwes into a modern Errol Flynn, with Robin Wright an enchanting prize, and a host of character actors rounding out an iconic fable.

#115. Lady in the Water (2006)
Speaking of fables, here’s one from M. Night Shyamalan, supposedly from the point of his career where he’d become completely irrelevant, but really when he started doing some of his most interesting work. Paul Giamatti had one of his last leading roles in that sudden hotstreak that finally won him so much deserving acclaim as a man caught in an incredible bedtime story come to life.

#116. Back to the Future (1985)
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd gain immortality as a pair of unlikely time-travelers who actually make an unforgettable trip to the past.

#117. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Russell Crowe and Christian Bale match macho wits in this version of an enduring western fable about a family man drafted into escorting a notorious outlaw to prison.

#118. Braveheart (1995)
Mel Gibson, as it later turned out, had this one chance to step into history, and he made the most of it, defining warrior poets for the ages.

#119. Jackie Brown (1997)
Quentin Tarantino understand pure acting magic better than anyone, how it can literally shape movies. Here’s his most unexpected outing, matching a pair of has-beens (Pam Grier and Robert Forster) in career-defining performances, with supporting work from, among others, Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro, neither of whom have appeared in any other film from the director. That’s a dirty shame. But there’s also Samuel L. Jackson, probably in a better all-around appearance than Pulp Fiction.

#120. Daredevil (2003)
As far as Marvel movies go, most people prefer X-Men or Spider-man or Iron Man, but here’s where I get my jollies. Ben Affleck has everything to do to keep up with Jennifer Garner, taking her Alias appeal to a whole new level, while Michael Clarke Duncan tries to keep up with Colin Farrell as the opposition.

#121. Terminator: Salvation (2009)
Christian Bale, Anton Yelchin, and Moon Bloodgood all play second-fiddle to Sam Worthington, exploding onto the screen in his first major role, months before Avatar, a film he actually stars in, but lacking the same impact.

#122. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
What I like about this one, more than the increasingly zany Jack Sparrow, in the expanded sense of storytelling, with an opening that makes no bones about how pirates were really treated, no matter all the adventures going on with the main cast. A fitting…segue to the upcoming four-quel.

#123. The Aviator (2004)
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio return! This time they attempt to explore the psychoses of Howard Hughes, the man who obscured his own legacy by succumbing to obsessive compulsive behaviors, which this film in its best moments foreshadows.

#124. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
Eric Bana had an exceptional year in 2009, and this was, technically speaking, his only starring performance, as a man who flits through time, while the love of his life, Rachel McAdams, struggles to accept her role as his anchor. Powerfully compelling, but was mostly overlooked by critics and audiences.

#125. Children of Men (2006)
Such a defining role that Clive Owen himself later parodied it (Shoot ‘em Up), with Michael Caine and Julianne Moore offering support in a story that explores a world driven to utter desperation, and falling apart at the seams.

#126. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Daniel Radcliffe’s best film to date is the first one that asked him to carry the story himself, based on what still remains my favorite book of the series. David Thewlis and Gary Oldman offer support, but clearly it’s all about Harry this time around, with the young wizard now old enough to begin grasping the terrible mess he’s inherited.

#127. The 13th Warrior (1999)
Antonio Banderas in one of the last starring performances from his brief foray as a Hollywood leading man, an atmospheric version of Michael Crichton’s riff on Beowulf.

#128. Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington unleashes a fiery persona in this ultimate portrait of police corruption, with Ethan Hawke pulling in one of his typical roles as an overwhelmed observer just trying to keep up. Alas, an impossible task.

#129. Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Here’s perhaps another instance of my overall ignorance perhaps being an asset; where critics saw just another unremarkable Woody Allen excursion, perhaps weary from all the other Woody Allen excursions they’ve taken (and that’s pretty much all I read in every review I’ve come across during my lifetime and/or movie going experience), I saw brilliance. Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor struggle with impossible decisions, made worse by a demanding Tom Wilkinson, and the tangled web they weave together feels like nothing else I’ve seen from Allen.

#130. Lethal Weapon (1987)
Mel Gibson erred when he entered Hollywood when his first role cast him as a sort of descendent of Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront, a man desperate to escape a past that has done him no favors. That’s what this one really is for me. Gibson essentially follows the same past for the rest of his career to date, and like Brando, the public has grown less and less kind.

#131. Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005)
Robert Rodriquez at his most focused, following the pulp noir curves of Miller with a stellar cast, including Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Jessica Alba. Benecio Del Toro steals Clive Owen’s segment with a completely atypical gonzo vibe, during a sequence directed by Quentin Tarantino.

#132. Phone Booth (2003)
Colin Farrell often does a lot of jumping around in his films, in whatever sense he needs to, but here he’s stuck in the eponymous public service, which is now even more antiquated than when the film was released. Forest Whitaker and Kiefer Sutherland serve as ample support, but it’s really Farrell, performing a variation on the kind of performance that would win him back critical acclaim with In Bruges after several rough years, that must be seen.

#133. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Marlon Brando dominates this one for me, a sheer force of will, portraying a desperate man in a bad spot of love and little sense of how to handle it. One of the ways to identify someone as great at what they do is to have a hard time picturing anyone else doing it the same way. That’s kind of acting Brando exhibits here, what he did throughout his career.

#134. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Will Ferrell had done a few films by this point (Old School, Elf, Anchorman) that were popular favorites, but it wasn’t until this one where I found the movie star version of the Saturday Night Live standout that I could call my own, where he completely loses himself in a role without it feeling like a sketch, probably because he’s got a lot of help around him, including Sasha Baron Cohen as a rival on the racetrack.

#135. Grindhouse (2007)
Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino, filmmaking brothers, collaborate in this combo pack of b-movies: Planet Hell, with Rose McGowan and Josh Brolin, among others, under Rodriquez, and Death Proof, raging with a powerful female cast and Kurt Russell under Tarantino. The fake trailers that got most of the attention (and an actual spin-off this year) are icing on the cake. The films themselves are terrific.

#136. Desperado (1995)
Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek are the hottest outlaws since Bonnie & Clyde in Robert Rodriquez’s best original film, itself a quasi-remake of his breakout pre-Hollywood debut.

#137. Fight Club (1999)
Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, two actors who avoid convention at every possible term, one out of necessity, the other because it amuses him, share the highpoint of their impulses, one struggling to understand what’s going on (the reverse of what Norton usually does), the other seemingly in total control (the opposite of what Pitt normally experiences). What I’m saying is, don’t just watch this for the twists and conceits, but for the actors who drive it.

#138. Smokin’ Aces (2007)
Joe Carnahan is a directing ace that has worked sparingly, best known for Narc but better seen with this one, a riveting and madcap ensemble piece that centers around Jeremy Piven and Ryan Reynolds, both displaying more depth than they typically get to. You can also catch Chris Pine and Ben Affleck, among others, going against type.

#139. Titanic (1997)
I still remember all the fuss about how this was going to blow up in James Cameron’s face, the extravagant expense of it, which was all going to go to waste. Well, we all know how that actually turned out. Thing is, I didn’t see it until years later. Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are every bit as captivating as the mass audiences made them seem. I also enjoyed Billy Zane, for the record.

#140. (500) Days of Summer (2009)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in one of my personal favorite romances, one that was doomed to fail from the start. I shared Levitt’s heartbreak, but couldn’t find myself capable of despising Zooey, who is just too adorable and captivating. Plus, technically she made it pretty clear that it was going to end that way (okay, maybe not exactly that way) right from the start. Anyway, inventive and fun and incredibly moving.

#141. We Are Marshall (2007)
Matthew McConnaughey is technically the star, but the love of football, plus Matthew Fox and Anthony Mackie, that’s what’s really worth it here. After Lost, Fox got a chance to become a movie star, and this has been his best effort to date.

#142. Marie Antoinette (2005)
Sophia Coppola is better known for other movies, but this one’s my favorite, with a typically captivating Kirsten Dunst as a monarch who would recognize our times quite nicely, inhabiting the gray areas we seldom appreciate about life, someone who didn’t even luck into a posh life, but who suffered through it, with a little extravagance thrown in to make it bearable. Really, the story about bad timing, all the way around, so Coppola’s decision to use a lot of modern touches fits right in.

#143. The Happening (2008)
M. Night Shyamalan does the post-9/11 film that seems to be about anything but 9/11, but the effects are all there, from the bodies falling from tall buildings to a world that suddenly doesn’t make any sense, no matter how hard Mark Walberg and Zooey Deschanel fight with all their reasoning. They do what they can to survive, whatever works. Seldom is so little pretense used to such great effect. Ah, but isn’t that Shyamalan directing?

#144. The Doors (1991)
Only Oliver Stone, it seems, is capable of piecing together a tapestry that includes the Vietnam War, JFK, and Jim Morrison. Val Kilmer was born to play the eccentric, elevated, and altogether unknowable mind of the Lizard King, whose descent is seen as his attempt to connect with a past he barely understood.

#145. Elizabethtown (2005)
Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, and Cameron Crowe weave this enchanting vision of a life (Bloom’s, technically), spinning out of control in a way that presaged the Great Recession, an existential crisis set to great music.

#146. Across the Universe (2007)
Speaking of great music, here’s the Beatles, cleverly interpreted for new audiences, great performances and expert staging all the way around, from the obvious to the transcendent.

#147. Finding Nemo (2003)
Pixar has attempted just about every new permutation of Toy Story possible, but the most natural effort was the one that transposed the bond of boy and sheriff doll (and/or space ranger) with that of father and son, who happen to be clown fish, with oceans of personalities covering the space of toy boxes.

#148. There’s Something About Mary (1998)
Cameron Diaz (Mary) and Ben Stiller (in his perfect showcase) explore a modern kind of romance (strangely, it’s a lot more pathetic than you might care to admit), with a lot of zaniness and quirky music thrown into the mix.

#149. Match Point (2005)
Woody Allen in the recent film critics actually loved, featuring Jonathan Rhys Myers in an unlikely romantic quest for Scarlett Johansson, a meditation on the vagaries of fate that unfolds like a poem.

#150. The Avengers (1998)
Here’s a movie that most people don’t even remember, and even if they did, they would still dismiss. Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery star in this update of a TV show that oozes effortless British cool, and doesn’t need much more than that. Like A Series of Unfortunate Events, could have resulted in a lot of sequels, but is as enjoyable now on its own as ever.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Film Fan #76-100

#76. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
A Star Trek that definitely suffers from being a Star Trek (but then, a lot of it does), especially coming in between a film that really pleased the fans (The Wrath of Khan) and another that really pleased audiences (The Voyage Home). The trick is, this one’s probably better; even though it comes between them and doesn’t therefore have, technically speaking, a complete story, it makes for a more complete film experience, clocking in with an endless series of fearless events, from Spock’s dad telling Kirk, of all people, to man up, to McCoy having some of his best scenes ever, channeling, of course, Spock. In fact, Spock’s everywhere, more than ever, including behind the camera, but most of all at the emotional ending, when he finally, technically speaking, returns.

#77. A Few Good Men (1992)
Coming in at the start of the modern obsession of procedural dramas, at least on television (speaking of which, JAG still owes this film a thank-you), with an appropriate cinema-size cast, headlined by Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore (right before her career flared up and then basically died). But it’s Nicholson who really steals the show, with a single scene. You know which one.

#78. Taxi Driver (1976)
Scorsese and De Niro in their first immortal pairing, which I would term their On the Waterfront, not so much a portrait of a deranged individual, but a tapestry of modern angst, as vocalized by Peter Boyle in an unfairly unsung performance.

#79. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
This has been my favorite of the Indy films for a long time, since it’s the most strictly adventurous (and probably the one that inspired the young Dan Brown), and happens to co-star Sean Connery in one of his most fun performances.

#80. Return to Oz (1985)
Like a lot of kids, I grew up with The Wizard of Oz, but I also discovered the original L. Frank Baum book, which had a completely different feel, a lot less reverent but more real in its total immersive experience. I knew about this film for a long time, but only recently had a chance to see it. Sure enough, it’s a lot more accurate to the spirit of Baum’s fiction than Judy Garland singing about rainbows. I’m not knocking a treasured cultural classic, so much as suggesting…this one’s probably better.

#81. Gangs of New York (2002)
Scorsese and his other muse, Leo DiCaprio, in an early collaboration. If they aren’t quite in sync yet, Marty does have the benefit of Daniel Day-Lewis doing that There Will Be Blood bluster the first time around, and that much is absolute magic, with the actor legitimately tearing up the screen with pizzazz and dangerous charisma. There’s also Cameron Diaz in one of her periodic dramatic roles. Like Raging Bull, there’s also some pretty awesome imagery to be savored, even though no one seems to talk about it.

#82. The Phantom Menace (1999)
The first of the prequels is the last of the Star Wars on the list, with Liam Neeson kicking off the rest of his career as probably the definitive Jedi, even if that snotty council never wanted to admit it. George Lucas packs this one with so many details, it’s difficult to catch your bearing, and I think that’s what people notice, more than all that sniping that’s still so popular. Any film that’s awesome enough to dream up Darth Maul can’t possibly be that bad. The dude carries the best ever lightsaber battle. If Errol Flynn had done it, everyone would still be fondly remembering it. And I’m pretty sure Errol Flynn never actually did anything that awesome.

#83. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Oliver Stone has done a lot of Vietnam films (he’s been rumored to be developing even more), but probably none that explored more territory than this one. Clearly, Tom Cruise takes a big gulp of disillusionment, mostly because of personal tragedy and not because of any particular political beliefs (remember all that “Love it or leave it!” talk in the early scenes?), but that’s not really what the movie is about. And that’s what I love about Stone and what I wish more people would realize, that the dude likes to really study his stories before making them.

#84. The Godfather (1972)
This was like a men’s club, the perfect one, but I like to think of it as a study of two, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, around whom the story clearly circles, two generations of Italian Americans struggling to handle the vagaries of fate. It’s probably the only time in cinema history where an epic was possible with little more necessary than a lot of bloody deaths.

#85. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
The last Star Trek in the top hundred is as much about ecological message-making as trying to recapture something that’s been lost, without having the slightest clue how to do it. Seriously, that’s what this one basically boils down to, Kirk stumbling into victory, the most clearly comedic Star Trek film, because it’s really a comedy of errors.

#86. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
What I eventually realized I loved so much about this one is that it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Russell Crowe, a movie that broods big, on the perfect stage, the wide open seas, the only one big enough to capture it.

#87. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
No other film has been able to figure out how this particular era represented such a perfect romantic vision of the American outlaw, figuring out that it literally takes a romantic pairing to pull it off, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty doing their iconic star turns to make it work. Gene Hackman has a supporting role, the one that probably made his career.

#88. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Ah, so what I said a little early was technically a lie. I’ve had a rather contentious relationship with this one, but it’s still a pretty memorable experience, especially as concerns the death of Spock, which ironically ties into that whole Kirk-never-really-faced-the-no-win-scenario thing from earlier in the film. First he meets the son who hates him, then he loses his best friend. Khan wasn’t much fun either.

#89. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Since this film, M. Night Shyamalan has been a consistent favorite filmmaker of mine. This list is littered with his movies, which has just consistently failed to wow audiences since. It’s the specific and unexpected pairing of Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment that really makes this one work, rather than the trick ending, which is what everyone else fixates on.

#90. The Fall (2008)
This is a mythic-sized glimpse at one man’s depression, and the unintended efforts of a little girl to make it better. I’ve been talking this one up since originally seeing it, trying to get it more awareness. Still working on it.

#91. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
You’ll begin to see a pattern or two in this list, and here’s at least one of them: this is the most clearly action-oriented entry in the Pirates films, everything that was awesome about the first one legitimately supersized, without becoming a gross parody, because secretly, the story is actually advancing. Jack Sparrow, for instance, is finally forced to confront basic causality, which until now he’s been able to effectively avoid, even when his former shipmates turned into the freakish undead. Bill Nighy represents the next generation of that one, by the way.

#92. Office Space (1999)
A former member of the top ten is one of the most consistently inventive comedies ever filmed, catching the wave when it was popular to point out that the work place really, really hates employees. Hey, whatever happened to that? (Well, see: Burn After Reading and Jim Carrey's Fun with Dick and Jane. They may be on the list later on.)

#93. Superman Returns (2006)
Bryan Singer had the balls to try and directly revive a franchise that had been down and out for twenty years, and to actually make it better than it ever was (funny thing to say, considering that I ranked two of that series ahead of this one, but I swear that, on the whole, this one really is better, just a little less surprising). What makes it work is that Singer presents a complete vision of what Superman means, which was both completely necessary and the exact opposite of what escapist audiences ended up wanting.

#94. Revolution Revisited (1985)
The film Revolution Revisited is an edit of the originally released Revolution, so it’s one of those experiences that was literally only possible outside of the theater, so whatever I have to say about it might not have much to say about what audiences would actually remember. That’s one of the things I love about movies, though, that unlike paintings or books, they can easily slip on new forms, and it doesn’t really matter how little some people want to accept that, other viewers have the opportunity to rediscover them, just as filmmakers can more easily tinker with their films (I appreciate artists who can remain passionate about their projects, especially when there’re so many opportunities to thwart their original visions). Anyway, all this is to say: watch this film. Al Pacino reaches Shakespearean heights in his hushed voiceover as he experiences the downside of excited patriots in the American Revolution. Another one waiting to be rediscovered.

#95. The End of the Affair (1999)
Ralph Fiennes is better known for Schindler’s List and The English Patient, but I think his best film is this lushly imagined romantic tragedy, another study of the vagaries of fate. Yeah, that’s another of my obsessions.

#96. Hollywoodland (2006)
Speaking of those vagaries, here’s Ben Affleck as another Superman, George Reeves, battling his demons, which possibly get the better of him, though other things may have happened. It’s the film that helped me remember that I actually like him, after a few too many performances where he was allowed to feel a little too pleased with himself. Actually, it wasn’t even his films. Sometimes I can get carried away with the way obsessive media spoils thing, too.

#97. Chicago (2002)
My favorite strictly musical musical, with a bang-up cast that nails a batch of really strong songs, and filmmakers who know how to stage them.

#98. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
When I was growing up, there were three kinds of film we watched obsessively: obviously Star Wars was one of them, but the others were Disney and John Wayne. Later, I stopped relying so much on Disney and Wayne for my entertainment, and while Pixar helped worm me back into one, there were precious few new John Wayne films being made, mostly because John Wayne died several years before I was born. Eventually, I started watching some of the classics that I hadn’t seen yet, and this was the best of them, probably among his most iconic, and ironically, most minimalist. Also, Jimmy Stewart’s in it!

#99. Unbreakable (2000)
So here’s another Shyamalan, the only other collaboration to date with Bruce Willis, riding the emerging wave of the modern obsession with cinematic superheroes by telling one of the most original stories about them, a real world fable that captures the inherent pathos of the genre better than anyone before or since.

#100. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Here’s another clearly much older film, one that stands out by standing out from the pack, on the surface obscenely dated (who would even remember George M. Cohan these days, basically, if not for this movie?) but, on the shoulders of James Cagney, playing against type, playing entirely timeless.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Film Fan #51-75

#51. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
It seems weird, at first crack, to have a list that includes both The da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ, because at first blush, one represents anti-faith, and the other extreme faith. I don’t believe either film needs to be viewed in the context of faith at all (although with both it certainly helps), and in fact, they have a lot in common, movies that rely on a particularly modern perspective to get their messages across to wide audiences in the particular ways they choose to tell them. The da Vince Code was a thriller that happened to feature elements of a particular religion rather heavily. Passion of the Christ is a historical drama that happens to be known for two things: extreme drama and extreme knowledge of its particular perspective. Anyone who doesn’t know the biblical story of Jesus isn’t really going to get the same thing from it as someone who does. That’s also beside the point. Mel Gibson crafts a film that’s every bit the artistic achievement of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I would argue infinitely more focused (for any number of reasons, but more importantly, a more complete experience), fully immersing itself in the particular reality of its subject matter. There are no real star turns (the closest being the actor who portrays Pontius Pilate), and that isn’t really the point anyway. This is a singular accomplishment, a prolonged moment interspersed with some real humanity and, if you will, fantastic elements. Still, it’s necessarily not easy to watch, which limits its appeal one way or another. Great films are repeat as well as lasting images in your memory. This is that kind of experience, but in its own way, which makes it hard to rank completely, even in a completely faith-objective way. I’m not a horror fan, who revels in gore, just as I’m not a religious fanatic, who’ll accept anything that’s “meant” for me. Still, this one vexes most critics because it seems to blend both audiences. What it actually is, in the end, is great moviemaking.

#52. Man on the Moon (1999)
Jim Carrey, after films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and The Truman Show, had already made me a lifelong fan, but this is probably the movie that sealed the commitment permanently, building a new mystique around his portrayal of a comedian who was everything he pretends to be, a completely conjured personality, immersed in a world of his own making and getting the bigger laugh in his own mind because of it. No, Carrey is not Andy Kaufman. He’s far more in on the joke than that.

#53. Blues Brothers (1980)
When most people think about musicals, the images that come to mind come from conventional examples, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Mamma Mia, that sort of movie. My favorite kind has the song come about as a direct extension, a representation of the character, and that’s never more apparent than Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi’s madcap quest for redemption, which backfires so spectacularly it actually succeeds. Songs in musicals shouldn’t sound like gimmicks, and nothing here sounds anything like that. Plus the rest of the movie still works, because hardly anyone is trying to have anything but a good time. Y’know, without showing it too much.

#54. Instinct (1999)
At one point a member of the top ten club, this has been a private little favorite of mine since I first saw it at a college screening, featuring Anthony Hopkins fully unleashing the potential of his Hannibal Lector persona, a man so completely detached from humanity he seems anything but. This time, however, the character is completely humanized, frighteningly identifiable, as Cuba Gooding, Jr. discovers, in a role he was born to play (much like his character in Jerry Maguire; the dude’s seriously underrated, and now has no career thanks to it). It’s the central message, about the illusion of control, that continues to be relevant, particularly in recession times. Who still believes they have all the power in their own lives when their financial situations are cast into constant peril? It’s better articulated in this film.

#55. Pulp Fiction (1994)
There’s a lot going on in this acclaimed Quentin Tarantino drama, which following a number of loosely related episodes, highlighted by John Travolta working with Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson, in the role that basically made his career. One of the reasons I still find myself working on my appreciation of it is because I know there’s a lot more to it, including Bruce Willis, but only a few moments stick with me, mostly the really famous ones. But those, for now, are plenty. And I’ll keep revisiting Pulp Fiction, to absorb the rest of it.

#56. Attack of the Clones (2002)
The most purely adventurous Star Wars film also has a lot of emotion packed into it, as Anakin Skywalker struggles to avoid his destiny, even as forces conspire around him. George Lucas also unfolds this one a lot more deliberately than any other entry, with a far more conventional plot (basically a whodunit) than usual. Natalie Portman has her best showing of the prequel films, allowed to be a lot more ethereal and alluring, freed from mechanical needs of the plot that constrain her elsewhere. Jango Fett also leaves a lasting impression, a true space cowboy, who would have been home in a Man With No Name shootout.

#57. Looking for Richard (1996)
The thing most critics don’t appreciate about Al Pacino is that he clearly relishes being an actor, being involved in the craft, and this is the project where he best is able to express his passion, channeling it through Shakespeare and one of his least appealing lead subjects. Lots of famous actors also appear, including, for me, most notably Kevin Spacey, perhaps the only other actor I can think of who shares a similar passion, and whose career has been comparatively stymied by critics.

#58. Raging Bull 1980)
The thing I take away from this one is the theatrics, perhaps the most Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro do in their careers, to portray the kind of man who becomes not just a living legend, but one in his own mind as well. I don’t for a moment believe either one of them is like that in real life, and that’s the real appeal for me. I think, however, that some critics might have started believing that about De Niro, and so he was never, in their minds, able to leave this role behind. It’s not a bad way to go out, but it’s also a terrible disservice to a remarkably talented actor.

#59. The Green Mile (1999)
Don’t play for emotions, and don’t go for evocative drama. That’s the lesson to take away from the general opinion of movies like this. Based on a Stephen King book, it follows a metaphorical prison story revolving around an innocent, unforgettable Michael Clarke Duncan and Tom Hanks, in one of his muted roles that plays against type, banking on his everyman status but also throwing in moral ambiguity. There’s a lot to love here, some timeless imagery, a series of moments that string one after the other, and a story that doesn’t play out predictably. Plus an all-around terrific cast.

#60. Kill Bill, Volume 2 (2004)
A director with an unparalleled eye for underappreciated talent, Quentin Tarantino builds the conclusion of his revenge flick around David Carradine, with one of the great climaxes in film history (and basically the reverse of his later Inglourious Basterds), plus a lot of Uma Thurman struggling against the odds, including the all-important flashback to the day of the interrupted wedding. It’s because of work like this that an exceptional filmmaker can become a great one.

#61. Independence Day (1996)
Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman lead the definitive defense against alien invasion in this endlessly rousing blockbuster, still the modern standard, and basically the foundation for the massive success of the Transformers flicks, with actual purpose and drive and heart behind it. Also a fantastic score to keep things rolling.

#62. Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles struggled a lot in his post-Citizen Kane days to retain his creative autonomy, basically laying the foundation of today’s thriving independent scene, but at great cost. Massive talent, huge ego, all of that is still waiting to be properly rediscovered, but a few well-known gems are visible today, including this one, co-starring Charlton Heston as a lawman in Mexico who gets swept up in a wave of corruption.

#63. Shutter Island (2010)
The first movie from this year to appear on the list is from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in their fourth collaboration, based on the Dennis Lehane book, which it follows closely, just in case you were hoping one might make the other easier to explain. That’s the beauty of this psychological riddle. Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo lend ample support, though Leo’s character probably isn’t all that appreciative. Here’s also my big excuse to mention Inception, which will surely warrant top ten consideration in some later edition of this list. It’s a wonder that one star made both of these movies. Here’s betting he lost a lot more sleep than anyone in the audience.

#64. The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
It gets a little self-involved, especially in the death of Trinity, but what’s remarkable about this conclusion to the Matrix trilogy is that there are plenty of big questions left to explore as Neo heads to a climactic encounter with the machines he’s been fighting for three films now. Basically the thinking man’s Terminator franchise, eschewing traditional narratives for a straight chronicle with plenty of distractions built in, this is where you finally get the real conclusion, not the fuzzy-happy one from the first film, where it seems simple answers really are possible, but one that acknowledges that life is far more complicated than we sometimes like to believe, even when we do our best to simplify it.

#65. Men in Black (1997)
If Independence Day made Will Smith a viable film commodity, then this one made him a star, and the only person capable of keeping pace with him is Tommy Lee Jones, who represents a person who actively suppresses the same personality that explodes all over this movie. Somehow, even though I enjoy it too, the second film doesn’t make the list, so don’t assume otherwise when you don’t see it here later.

#66. The Mask (1994)
This one is so natural for me to love, I can sometimes forget how much I actually do. Besides Jim Carrey and a love letter to cartoons, there’s Cameron Diaz in her knockout debut, which she was clever enough to finally live down, and basically duplicate, with There’s Something About Mary.

#67. Troy (2004)
Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Peter O’Toole, I would say they dominate this interpretation of Homer’s Iliad, but I love basically everything about it, another massive underrated epic experience that was easy to take for granted at the time, simply because no one believed it was really possible to sustain the new era of historical dramas of this type.

#68. Groundhog Day (1993)
Chris Elliot and Andie MacDowell are just enough to compete with Bill Murray for attention in this clever comedy that keeps repeating the same day, in the hopes Murray will actually learn something. He does, but it’s the kind of experience that viewers will want to keep repeating themselves…

#69. Forrest Gump (1994)
Tom Hanks, of course, but also Gary Sinese, Sally Field, Robin Wright, Mykelti Williamson, and even Haley Joel Osment leave just as permanent mark as Forrest Gump himself. You can think of this as a giant gimmick, but it’s heartfelt and charming, and a nice primer on history for any student reluctant to crack open their books.

#70. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Used to be that I preferred the second one, but I began to figure, the first one does a heck of a job introducing the characters, who completely dominate the experience, and help make other films not only possible but darn near necessary, even though that probably wasn’t the original idea. Here is Johnny Depp’s true legacy on film, the creation of Jack Sparrow, and probably the challenge that eventually inspired Heath Ledger to conjure his Joker. This is an actor completely losing himself in a character, not just a performance, an image, or a conceit. This is Johnny having fun. Probably saved his career.

#71. The Wild One (1954)
Who to thank for that sort of behavior? Why, Marlon Brando! Here’s what James Dean was trying to do, by the way. And the foil as portrayed by Lee Marvin? Equally impeccable.

#72. Star Trek Generations (1994)
Some critics scoffed at this historic meeting of Captains Kirk and Picard as too derivative of movie serials in its structuring. It’s funny when they can say that as a bad thing, for something that only superficially resembles the remark, when they love it to see Indiana Jones doing the same thing far more blatantly. Ah, well, the fans weren’t that much happier to see Kirk die, regardless of the circumstances, but it’s an entirely appropriate end for the character, just as Patrick Stewart’s first real crack as a movie star really shines through, an emotionally-charged arc supporting a new vision for heroism. In many ways, more naturally transcendental in moments than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, especially as Picard first experiences the Nexus.

#73. American Gangster (2007)
Two acclaimed actors, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, spar in this new version of a Hollywood staple from Ridley Scott, but spend the majority of the movie pursuing separate story arcs. It’s only when they unexpectedly come together that critics become baffled and the movie reaches a whole new level. The more complex the better, folks.

#74. Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003)
The first act of Quentin Tarantino’s epic revenge flick is a series of vignettes so over the top, one of them is animated, but it’s all so thoroughly grounded by Uma Thurman, it works effortlessly. What’s more remarkable is that we care about the idea of revenge without really knowing, at least in this volume, what actually happened, and without even meeting Bill.

#75. Robin Hood (2010)
Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, the unofficial Gladiator reunion, as basically everyone dismissed this one. The story of the merry little benevolent terrorist has always fascinated me, and I’ve enjoyed one incarnation or another most of my life (there will be others on this list). This one’s so fresh, without being a deliberate or predictable Year One experience, as has become popular in Hollywood recently, so thoroughly invested in the themes the legend has always represented, it’s a little startling to see so many familiar elements played so differently. This isn’t King Arthur, doing much the same thing, but without the singular clarity, but rather a film with much the same effect as Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven, making it less about Robin Hood and more about Scott continuing a line of thinking that has interested him for at least a decade now. This is a filmmaker approaching full maturity, and the best is apparently still yet to come.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Film Fan #26-50

#26. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The perfect detective story, from the era before it was a TV staple, filled with character as much as intrigue, and all led by Humphrey Bogart, the man who wasn’t supposed to be a movie star, and so became an icon instead. Incredibly, there are two previous film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s book, and neither one comes close to the magic that seems inherent to this one. This is a clear counterargument to all those people who decry remakes these days.

#27. The da Vinci Code (2006)
Lots of people read Dan Brown’s book, and so it became natural to make a movie out of a book that was basically inspired by Indiana Jones, who in term was a homage to old movies. Anyway, lots of people then decided the movie was a joke, but the real joke is that Brown’s story is perfectly captured on film, led by Ron Howard (inspired I suspect by his success with A Beautiful Mind) and Tom Hanks, bringing some of his severe authority from Road to Perdition to a little more focus. Ian McKellen provides all the needed material to convey the theories behind the plot, that confirm rather than betray religious belief. Maybe it’s just Hanks, now able to portray maturity in a time when he’s best known as a toy cowboy, who makes it work so well, but I can’t help but think of The da Vinci Code as a touchstone of modern culture, with all the complexities so many people are constantly talking about, but are so busy ignoring while pursuing their agendas. It’s funny, because all the people with agendas in this film are the villains.

#28. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The first Star Wars released, technically, in my lifetime, endlessly praised as the rare worthwhile sequel, spends most of its time undoing everything its predecessor accomplished, and because of that, gets all the credit for expanding the saga, when really, all it does is affirm that George Lucas had a good idea from the start. What you really get is the feeling that Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen got off light. Leia leads a glorious rebellion…from one calamity to another. Han’s big reward for being a good guy is being used as bait and then turned over to bounty hunters. Luke’s Jedi training becomes even less pleasant. And then Darth Vader utters one of the immortal phrases in cinema history. One giant ball of unpleasant complication…

#29. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Described by most accounts as the guy’s version of a chick flick, this lovely little ditty was adapted from a Stephen King novella, and humanizes a bunch of convicts, revolving around an innocent man who flies the cuckoo’s nest, but not before lots of things go wrong. But the film’s true legacy is probably Morgan Freeman’s career, which exploded into the popular consciousness thanks to his indelible narration. He’s never looked back since.

#30. The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Another movie quickly dismissed in its original release, a trigger-happy nod to when westerns actually mattered, I prefer to think of it as an actor’s paradise. You even get Gary Sinese! Sharon Stone technically stars, but you’ve also got Gene Hackman sharing every inch of the screen, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe stealing it every other frame. Seriously, without this film, I don’t think I’d care half as much about either one. Oh, who am I kidding? But this still serves as my introduction to both titans, so that’s be enough right there, to keep this one in memory, but as a distillation of every western that Hollywood has ever made, it hardly gets better than this.

#31. Hancock (2008)
During a decade when superheroes exploded into an entire genre, it was only a matter of time before someone finally figured out how to do a movie with completely original material, and make it at least as good as the rest of the movies surrounding it. Except this one is generally better, and it’s not just because of Will Smith, but how cleverly Charlize Theron inserts herself, building a complicated relationship that breathlessly crescendos, revealing a scope few films, superhero or otherwise, approach.

#32. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
With great success comes the harshest critics, and Star Wars was certainly no exception. The backlash started with Return of the Jedi, but didn’t really set in until the prequels almost two decades later, and it’s a tremendous pity, too, since George Lucas didn’t really start to embrace his story until The Phantom Menace, and hit his stride until Revenge of the Sith, when the full impact of Anakin Skywalker’s descent could be fully felt. Ian MacDiarmid, who appeared to be a distant second to Ian McKellen, just as the new Star Wars trilogy limped a distant second to the flashy Lord of the Rings films by most estimates, is the center of this blossoming, revealing a distinct and full portrait of the true evil that was always waiting in the shadows behind the myth of Darth Vader. All the criticisms about Natalie Portman and Haden Christenson fall away, too. This is a story about contrasts. I argue that it’s time to give Lucas credit where it’s due, and admit that he may have known what he was doing after all. What this final entry in the complete saga really amounts to is epic drama.

#33. Mission: Impossible (1996)
I don’t mean to suggest, with the exclusions of the two films that follow this one from the list of 500 movies comprising this ranking, that this is the only Tom Cruise version of this franchise worth watching, only to acknowledge the shock of adrenaline and intrigue represented in the first entry is a tough act to follow. I mean to compare this film to The Maltese Falcon, is all. It’s time film lore reflects this kind of thinking.

#34. Red Cliff (2008/2009)
I’m a sucker for action, when it’s done right, and this film is a smorgasbord of action, as well as high drama, from one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, John Woo, who for a few years tried to make a regular presence in Hollywood (and is even responsible for the second Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible, which is imprinted with all his usual signatures). This is a war movie without inhibition, and also missing many of the gimmicks usually necessary to justify such an undertaking for wide audiences. Two versions exist; I suggest the complete cut.

#35. Thirteen Days (2000)
I consider this the unacknowledged coda to JFK, a film that follows the Kennedy administration in all its brilliant execution, tracing the Cuban Missile Crisis as if it were Shakespearean, guided by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp.

#36. Seven Pounds (2008)
What amounted to a milestone year for Will Smith concluded with this overlooked gem, which expertly culminated on all the films he’d been doing during the decade and concluding on a martyr’s note, a solitary and self-sacrificing individual who becomes the quintessential good Samaritan without weighing the movie down with saccharin or false emotions. Rosario Dawson provides a reliable supporting presence. Why isn’t she a bigger movie star?

#37. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Audiences really hated when they were told all the mind-blowing action and philosophy they enjoyed in The Matrix wasn’t throwaway after all, and so its immediate sequel provoked an inevitable backlash. Filled with more panache and bigger ideas, The Matrix Reloaded all but is the introduction to a new religion.

#38. Return of the Jedi (1983)
When you spend years of your life rewatching the same films, and with the support of a whole family, you really start to absorb the experience. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to understand the disappointment that greeted this conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy, because for me, it was just another thrilling addition to a favorite saga. This is the first time all the characters deliberately walk into adventure, and each sequence strolls along, nothing left for the story but a few clarifications and a final redemption. Luke, who isn’t really a Jedi but more like a survivor, is a ridiculously confident lead character this time, which may be the novelty that makes it all work. He’s all but become the new Ben Kenobi.

#39. Awakenings (1990)
Maybe this explains my reaction to Robert De Niro’s career, because this is my first and still most intimate experience with his acting, pretty much the complete opposite of what everyone else seems to think about. I haven’t been disappointed with some of his later films, like the critics who still idealize him based on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There’s also Robin Williams, playing what is probably considered his stereotypical “serious role,” but again, I don’t view Williams like most people seem to, and so this movie is what it is to me, a compelling slice of human drama, with no easy conclusions, just real emotions.

#40. High Noon (1952)
I figure Gary Cooper was born to this role, the lone hero, another perfect representation of the western archetype, with a lot of terrific music to give him company. This is the kind of iconic filmmaking that simply does not age.

#41. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
As far as dramatic statements go, this is about as dramatic a statement as the original cast of Star Trek could ever hope to make, with a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score driving events along, and a lot of troubled characters wondering what the heck the reason for all of it is, which is basically how audiences have been approaching it since its release. As to how it compares to other films, probably except for Star Trek (2009), this one’s the easiest to think of as a separate phenomenon from the rest of the franchise, and to consider for its own worth. I haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I figure if you respect that film, you should at least consider this one.

#42. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
A cultural landmark, the only real contribution anyone in the modern era has been able to make about Christmas, and hardly any of it has anything to do with the holiday, instead focusing on a desperate Jimmy Stewart as he struggles to find some meaning in his life. Silly boy, it was in all the lives you touched! And that, folks, is the true meaning of Christmas.

#43. Superman II (1978)
I’ve always liked this one (and with all the references to “Kneel before Zod!,” you can guess others have too), but I grew to appreciate it more after seeing Richard Donner’s complete vision in 2006. Compromised as it was by the need to rely on some rehearsal footage that clearly doesn’t match the rest of the material, it still reveals a more expansive and compelling version, one that more closely matches the spirit of its predecessor, and surpasses it. Any film where Marlon Brando can be reasonably inserted, that can’t possibly hurt, at least in my opinion.

#44. Casablanca (1942)
A movie whose existence still seems improbable to this day (there’s an anecdote included in some bonus material from the VHS special edition I probably display in my home that suggests simply by changing the names in the script, it would still be rejected by basic inclination by studios), a nuanced look at war, which just happens to be a bundle of iconic scenes, all anchored by Bogey.

#45. Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
Yes, another Star Trek, and based on the method by which this ranking was compiled, it’s not as suspicious as it seems. Any subjective list (and let’s face it, they all are) should feel free to feel a little indulgent. Star Trek films just happen to fit the criteria I value. In this one, Tom Hardy is subjected to endless scorn, based on the fact that it’s easy to overlook him in his breakthrough role, even though he’s completely awesome, and a perfect foil for Patrick Stewart, who if it weren’t for Star Trek would have been greeted with the same kind of welcome, if he were merely the guest actor in one of these films. Irony is great.

#46. Blade Runner (1982)
For the longest time, this was one of those cult experiences that did its best to elude me, but eventually, I grew to embrace it as the evocative experience that it is, the search for the worth and meaning of human life, led by Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott.

#47. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
I’ve been struggling with Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy for a decade, and I’m still not sure I’ve managed to reconcile all the popular and critical acclaim with my own experiences, which have always taken on a more combative relationship to the material. What’s not in question is the artistic achievement, which begins with the superb casting that drives the first installment to fantastic heights, led by Ian McKellen and Sean Bean, who either by permanent death or altered circumstances aren’t around to lift subsequent entries. The same can be said of Ian Holm. Also features the best of Howard Shore’s scores.

#48. Che (2008)
I waited what seemed to be an eternity to see this collaboration of Benecio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh on the life of the most famous revolutionary of the past century, whose legacy still basically amounts to a famous image and the unfortunate reign of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Hopefully this film, and its startling and incredibly focused drama, might begin to reverse that.

#49. Superman (1978)
The superhero origin story before it was popular, Richard Donner spends as much time with the Man of Steel matching wits with Lex Luthor as to how he ended up in Metropolis, making this movie as much as Kal-El/Clark Kent as Superman. Marlon Brando lends his incredible charisma in support of the project.

#50. The Stunt Man (1980)
One has the sense, after watching this movie, that Richard Rush was destined to become one of the great filmmakers. Whatever happened to his career makes for a fantastic enigma, just like this movie, with Peter O’Toole leading the way.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Fan #1-25

#1. Alexander (2004)
Oliver Stone was so well-known when he made it that audiences weren’t exactly expecting a passion project out of him. In fact, nobody was expecting anything out of him. He hadn’t done a high profile movie since 1995’s Nixon, and had only done two other films since then. By 2004, he was pretty much known by reputation, which had been distorted to the point of irrelevance. Alexander was seen as just another misguided attempt to cash in on the success of Gladiator, a historical epic worth ignoring, or worse yes, outride deriding. He cast Colin Farrell, “who looked nothing like Alexander the Great,” in the title role, and submitted as supporting cast Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, and Anthony Hopkins, none of whom were all that popular at the time. Anyway, all of that negative talk is say that none of it really matters. Stone achieved his masterpiece twenty years into his Hollywood directing career. Farrell has never before or since found a role more befitting his unparalleled range, a sensitive actor who can also command the screen, whose singular knack for conveying desperation goes a long way in exploring the scope of a life that made history through sheer force of will. Kilmer and Jolie are indispensable in filling out this portrait, demonstrating equally powerful figures who help shape the man Alexander becomes, just as Hopkins explains his legacy for people who might still not get it. There are three cuts, the final one presenting a definitive version, but you really can’t go wrong whichever way you go. If you look past all the bad press, though, the movie really ought to speak for itself. Simply put, the most powerful movie I have ever seen.

#2. Munich (2005)
Steven Spielberg was in a fairly similar position as Stone when he made this portrait of terrorism. By all records, he’d already made all the definitive career statements any handful of directors could have been expected to make, a wide gamut from E.T. to Schindler’s List. Most of the critics at the time were looking for a movie that explained the modern world, post-9/11, and mostly, they looked to war stories. When Spielberg delivered this look back at the Israeli reaction to the Munich Olympics murders, it looked more like an homage to classic thrillers than a nuanced picture that blamed no one and impugned everyone. Most people hate that sort of thing. They prefer black and white. To personify the message, he cast Eric Bana, one of today’s finest actors, but who has consistently failed to capture critical acclaim. His only problem is that same kind of vexing nuance.

#3. The Truman Show (1998)
I guess at this point you’ll begin to see a pattern forming. Nothing should be obvious. Here is Jim Carrey’s finest transformation to date, a perfect reflection of the comedian’s dilemma. Yes, he’s the center of attention, but that’s not really what he wants. All he wants is for his world to make sense. As it turns out, the way in which he does that is tremendously entertaining. The Truman Show is not only that, but also incredibly moving, a breakthrough reflection on reality TV before it really exploded. The only man the whole world wanted to watch actually had no idea. Nothing was fake about him except the circumstances cast around him. I guess that also describes everything reality TV did in the years that followed.

#4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan quickly established himself as the most cerebral filmmaker of his generation. Early films like Following and Memento relied on a certain amount of gimmickry, but soon he set out to prove that his flair for getting attention was just the icing on the cake. Tackling superheroes had become something of a hobby for established directors like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi in recent years, but it took Nolan to truly embrace them. He gave Heath Ledger the defining role of his career, which finally transformed him into a character actor, and in doing so, perfectly encapsulated the murky portrait of modern heroism, super or not.

#5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Brad Pitt has such an abundance of charisma, he makes a curious icon of modern cinema. He never does what he’s supposed to. The actor everyone mistakes for Brad Pitt is Johnny Depp, but it’s Pitt who is constantly searching for the roles that fulfill him artistically, rather than the ones that are showy. It’s Pitt who’s perfect to casually inhabit someone who was genuinely infamous, who will instantly make you sympathize with someone who might at best be called an anti-hero, only to remind you in the least expected moments what kind of person he really is. Like Alexander, it’s a true story with constant surprises, the ring of truth behind high art, and has been all but completely overlooked. That’s the real tragedy.

#6. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino arrived on the scene and was instantly acclaimed as one of the most exhilarating new voices in cinema, someone who was literally born into it. Then everyone got a little too used to him, even though he made more films almost as a last resort. This is beyond a doubt his masterpiece, combining both his instinct to throw what appears to be utter nonsense onto the screen, as well as his singular voice, the one which intrinsically understands great drama, merging into the sublime. This student has beyond a doubt graduated.

#7. Memento (2001)
This is how much I love Christopher Nolan. In previous versions of this list, this one was higher still, and has recently had the great privilege of being eclipsed by its own sibling. I imagine that if you want to make historical comparisons, Nolan is our Hitchcock, who envisions filmmaking to be no different than the best of literature, which can announce itself as much by what it says as how it says it. Even told front to back, this one would still work.

#8. Gladiator (2000)
Ridley Scott was another director well into his career when he made a creative breakthrough, coming into his own as a visionary of the historical epic, which he went on to practice with much success later. But the first in this instance is still the greatest, as he channels Russell Crowe into a reluctant hero, who even dies at the end, still clutching moral victory. It’s not an easy message to accept for those who would rather believe life is made to enjoy all of life’s rewards, even though those that are not technically earned, and so critics were always baffled by this one, even after it one the Oscar.

#9. Star Wars (1977)
The oldest film of the top ten and a full-blown cultural phenomenon, this one really needs no introduction. George Lucas perfects the sci-fi film here, and to this day no one has really tried to top him. The fact that five subsequent films further explain what the heck was happening in all that adventure, I can’t even begin to separate from its own impact. I was born three years after its original release. Remains the greatest story inspired by and created for film.

#10. JFK (1991)
Oliver Stone again, in the other film that has to be considered a masterpiece, the only piece of fiction that has attempted to tackle the most important moment in US history from the past century. To fully understand it, Stone exploits all the conspiracy theories behind the assassination of President Kennedy, only to explain why they’re physically necessary, and why the subject who isn’t even a character in the movie is still important today. My appreciation for JFK has grown over the years. This marks the first time it appears in the top ten.

#11. The Departed (2006)
The genius of Martin Scorsese is that he made a career thanks to Robert De Niro, but a legacy thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio. I know that sounds a little like heresy, but where De Niro inhabited characters in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, it’s DiCaprio Scorsese captures literally at the moment he reaches acting maturity. That’s what this whole film is about. Titanic made him popular, but that didn’t guarantee Leo a career, as subsequent failures to capture the zeitgeist made clear. After The Departed, that all changed. Forget Blood Diamond, which somehow obscured his chances to win the Oscar for this performance. This is cinema magic, unqualified.

#12. The Matrix (1999)
The only movie that could possibly upset the public’s interest in Star Wars happened to debut in theaters just before The Phantom Menace. A strange combination of philosophy and action, The Matrix became ubiquitous in an instant. It wasn’t that its ideas were entirely original, but the way the Wachowski brothers presented them did. No matter what you think of the sequels, the first one burned an indelible image in movie history.

#13. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
The first out-and-out comedy on the list, it’s the kind of classic that ignores all restraint, understands no limitations of pretext, and puts it all out there, and pretty much everything sticks. You don’t need to be a fan of Monty Python to enjoy it, and I think that’s the one distinction that bothers most critics. You attach any label to the title, and that’s all they’ll think about. But in all seriousness, if Charlie Chaplin had done it, no one would be thinking that way today.

#14. Citizen Kane (1941)
This is the furthest back yet, and there’s a reason, because this is more or less the birth of modern cinema, from the consummate professional and genius of film, stymied by a system that had no use for any of that. They wanted Orson Welles, and they also really, really didn’t want Orson Welles, because in him was a talent that would not accept restrictions, and for that, the rest of his career was as constricted as possible. He better understood filmmaking than anyone else for the next twenty years. He was and still is far ahead of his time. He is Shakespeare and Herman Melville for a new medium. This is still his most famous accomplishment, mostly because it’s still so darned hard to find much of anything else that he did. It also happens to be really good. If it featured the famous actors of the day, more people would watch it.

#15. Watchmen (2009)
The comic book that looked beyond the episodic adventures typical of that medium, and instead looked at the scope of careers and history, became the next great superhero film in the hands of Zack Snyder. Famously described for years as unfilmable, Watchmen is actually the consummate film experience, full of set pieces and giant personalities, uncoiling moment after moment, until finally Snyder envisions a more perfect ending to the whole affair. I could kind of understand that after The Dark Knight, audiences weren’t quite ready to accept that someone else could make another superhero movie this good, but at some point, they are really going to have to catch up.

#16. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
All of the Star Trek films will be on the list, but this ranking isn’t a de facto designation. I’m a Star Trek fan as well as a film fan, and this one is the best of the Star Treks, and also a great film, bolstered by Patrick Stewart’s embracing of the switch to the big screen. Like Star Wars a little earlier, I don’t know what someone would think if this were the only Star Trek they ever saw, but it was a pretty definitive success at the box office, so that’s probably a good indication that it works pretty well.

#17. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
I saw this film as a fan of Jim Carrey, but there’s a wealth of other performances to enjoy, be it co-star Kate Winslet, or supporting actors Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson, whose subplot could easily support its own great film. What’s so constantly surprising about this film is that it works on so many levels.

#18. Mr. Arkadin (1955)
Because of the conditions put on Orson Welles’ later career, as suggested earlier, I figure it’s up to personal experience as to the next best film in his canon. This one has been considered a weaker version of The Third Man, but I consider it a sort of tribute to Dostoyevsky, something that feels authentically Old World at times, but embroiled thickly in classic film noir as well. There are multiple versions available, owing to the fact that he was sabotaged in his attempts to put the finishes touches on the film. It’s your own reward to watch each of them, one of those tricks to have an excuse to rewatch a great film.

#19. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Almost from the beginning, Hollywood has been obsessed with the subject of war, trying to explain its horrors to a public that has not always been interested. Francis Ford Coppola famously took inspiration from a classic piece of literature, but that didn’t make it any easier to make. It was war to make this definitive portrait of war, defining the career of Martin Sheen, and giving Marlon Brando another chance to define his.

#20. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The problem with Bryan Singer is that he isn’t easy to pin down. If he’s got a particular message to make, he doesn’t make it very obvious, which may be one of the most refreshing moves a filmmaker can make. Here he makes a startling debut, building a web of characters out of a terrific cast, headlined by Kevin Spacey, in a role he still can’t top. Sometimes, when critics want to take the wind out a classic, they’ll try and explain its success away as some sort of fluke. There’s a reason why my appreciation for The Usual Suspects only grows.

#21. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Terry Gilliam has been thinking out-of-this-world thoughts since he infiltrated the British brotherhood of Monty Python, but his uniquely American perspective has been formulating new fantasies for decades now, leaving him a prime candidate for critics to underestimate the longer he continues working. Here he guides Christopher Plummer into a profound exploration of legacy and responsibility. There are other things to talk about concerning this movie, but let’s concentrate of what it’s really about.

#22. The Mask of Zorro (1998)
For one generation, which was at this time well past its prime, pure cinematic adventure was embodied by Indiana Jones, just as it had once been by Errol Flynn. For me, it was this film, which had the good sense to dust off an old Hollywood favorite, and take it to a whole new level. Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, it was a potent combination, another funny little crossroads of careers, and the true birth of the modern cinema superhero.

#23. Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The name everyone associates with this movie is Stanley Kubrick, but I have two others that trump it: George C. Scott and Peter Sellers. Sellers is pretty obvious, so I’ll concentrate on Scott. I still have never seen Patton, so this is the experience that instantly explains Scott’s star power, his sheer presence, no matter the tone of the role. That’s a pretty good legacy, too.

#24. Star Trek (2009)
Here is the first time Star Trek really gets to just embrace moviemaking, because it’s the first time everything is created specially for the medium. J.J. Abrams is one of my favorite creators on television, but it’s apparent with work like this that he’s got the talent to succeed anywhere he chooses.

#25. On the Waterfront (1954)
The birth of the first real movie star, just as Citizen Kane introduced Orson Welles as the first real filmmaker, Marlon Brando bursts onto the screen. This isn’t his first or even first famous movie, but it’s still his greatest achievement, the one performance that everyone judged all his other performances on. That this is his first starring role to be featured on the list is not an indication that I experienced the same critical pitfall as just about everyone else, merely that in this instance, all the elements were given the chance to align at the same time.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Film Fan Introduction

The thing that bothers me about most “best of” movie lists is that almost none of what most of them consist of actually seems relevant to me, as if I’m just supposed to become familiar with a sort of bible for film fans. There’s just this understanding that all these old films that were popular or critically acclaimed (most of the time, it’s mostly popular, not that the compilers of these lists will admit it, unless they’re being really pretentious and following the even more alienating route of tracking international filmmakers, who mostly only really influence other filmmakers) must still be revered.

The sad truth is that filmmaking today is a lot more sophisticated than it was even as late as two decades ago. The worst hacks making a movie in 2010 are still technically superior to the work that was done even in some of the most acclaimed films on those lists. The acting, for instance, has changed a great deal. When Marlon Brando first appeared, he completely revolutionized his craft, by making it naturalistic, relatable. In the early days, most actors didn’t know there was any other form but what they’d practiced on the stage, which by its very nature cannot feel as intimate as what can be captured on film, which is an audience that sits right in front of the actor, not ten rows back, or in some faraway balcony. When Orson Welles first appeared, he completely revolutionized cinematography. He came from the stage, but he also understood the new possibilities cameras afforded him. I won’t say anything about silent or black and white films, because those remain legitimate artistic choices.

The point is, for some people, it isn’t enough to be told that something is great. If it doesn’t feel great decades after the fact, then to that specific film fan, it cannot and should not still be considered as great. Films aren’t books. This is the only way there’s a real difference. Authors have complete control over their works, and they have since the beginning. Filmmakers faced a steep learning curve, and they didn’t always learn quickly enough. This is not to say all old films really are crap, and that all new films are completely awesome, but to merely soften the blow when what you find in the list of 500 films that will follow, there are more newer than older films. This is to say, it should now be considered completely legitimate to place newer films near the top of such lists instead of older ones, because in some intrinsic sense, they really are being made better these days. Not that they couldn’t make them liked they used to, because there are truly great films in the great old past, but not as many as you were always led to believe. That much, my dear, is called nostalgia.

That being said, this list also admits that it is still very much a subjective one, because it is the work of a single individual working from only his experiences. These are strictly his opinions. While this is in fact the latest (and most extensive) list of its kind, from this single perspective, to date, there are still a great many films that haven’t been seen, whose absence may be attributed as much to disinterest as lack of viewing. The films on the list might be said to represent the best of what this perspective has been aware of in his time, since they are the films that have been viewed, that have warranted attention, at least from this perspective. There are always new films being added to this experience. Since this list only covers films seen through 6/20/2010, already there are plenty of films that have since been viewed but will not appear, simply because they missed the cut-off, even though some would technically surpass many of the films that follow.

In an effort to feature a comprehensive version of the list, attempts have been made to weigh films from different eras, starting from a simple ranking from individual years, and then comparisons based on those that proved themselves superior amongst their own contemporaries. Still, a lot of newer films crowd the early parts of the list, and a lot of older films crowd the later parts of the list. The last hundred has plenty of newer films, however, many from 2008, 2009, and 2010, though two from this year made it to the top hundred as well.

Enough prattling. You want to know what weird ideas I have about the best films ever made…

Friday, October 15, 2010

Star Trek (2009)

And so it happened that Star Trek finally had to do what it had long avoided, had in fact, done everything to avoid, including the virtually unprecedented move of sticking with the same actors in their original roles for near-three decades, and pretty much two decades that amounted to four additional casts. After all that, the popular culture could stand nothing more from the franchise, nothing more, that is, than the reboot. And so, in the summer of 2009, that’s exactly what finally happened.

A funny thing occurred, too. The reboot actually made Star Trek popular. No, seriously. I’m not talking about a kind of grudging admittance, or even wide acceptance among niche audiences, but full-blown, mind-blowing success. It really wasn’t just the folks who had always liked Star Trek, or who might typically have been inclined to like it, who turned out to watch the new movie. What Star Trek did was become just another summer blockbuster success story.

As films like Batman Begins and Casino Royale had done before it, the reboot literally went back to the beginning, exploring the origins of James T. Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the familiar characters from the original series as the show and its six movie spin-offs had never been quite able to do, despite a fair number of allusions over the years. It opens, dramatically, with Kirk’s birth, actually, and even these glimpses of his mom and dad seem like an eternity of backstory. For those who considered themselves familiar enough with Spock, there’s plenty left to say about his upbringing as well. The movie spends much of its time exploring how much there is to say about the two characters, what kind of story is possible that builds itself around them.

What’s interesting is that, even while that is going on, the movie basically follows the same pattern, at least, of the four Next Generation films that precede it. A villain threatens to wreak all kinds of havoc, and by the end of the story, he basically needs to be blown up to resolve his threat. What’s different is the way all of it is presented. Freed up with new actors, all that struggle to make previous incarnations that have originated on television can truly embrace all of cinema’s possibilities. This is not to say that actors who first appear on television can’t fit easily into movies. Far from it. Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, the list goes on of actors who previously made their mark on television who went on to become famous and lasting movie stars. But in terms of an entire cast, especially one that has spent some extended period of time doing things shot specifically for TV, there is always going to be a learning curve to figure out how to translate that dynamic to another medium. Arguably, The Motion Picture and First Contact represent the apex of two different generations of Star Trek actors doing that, and the results vary greatly.

The difference with Star Trek is that everything is freshly conceived to fit the big screen. What’s funny is that the director behind this vision has had most of his success on the small screen. Aside from his early career as a screenwriter and Mission: Impossible III, J.J. Abrams is best known for TV shows like Felicity, Alias, and Lost, which admittedly was conceived as something of a big screen project for television, which the ambitious (and expensive) pilot episode alone will demonstrate. His credentials, however, along with those of the frequent collaborators who will go unmentioned here, testify to an uncanny devotion to character, which is a key element of what has always been at the heart of Star Trek. Clearly, that’s what he focused on with this initial offering of the reboot of one of the most famous franchises in modern lore.

Recasting was probably among the biggest hurdles, and was long one of the favorite pastimes of armchair fans. Surely you recall the popular interest in Gary Sinese taking on the role of Bones McCoy. Yet one of the unexpected and great successes of Star Trek was casting Karl Urban, who was best known at that point for a minor role in the Lord of the Rings films, instead. Zachary Quinto, then known for his disconcerting role on Heroes, had been publicly campaigning for the role of Spock, so his casting was the least surprising. The most famous actors, John Cho and Simon Pegg, cast as Sulu and Scotty respectively, managed to blend in, and make the most of their limited scenes. Anton Yelchin, a young actor working to make a name for himself, achieved the impossible by replacing the beloved Andrew Koenig as the quirky Chekov. Zoe Saldana captured lightning in a bottle by appearing in Star Trek and Avatar in the same year.

Then there was Kirk. What would you say if I told you Chris Pine’s last starring role before Star Trek was with Lindsey Lohan? No, seriously. It was called Just My Luck. Sure, he was more memorable in Smokin’ Aces, and in the elongated wait (when Paramount actually determined, correctly, that Star Trek could hold its own in the summer season, and so delayed release for months), also took a turn in Bottle Shock (that’s him, as the long-haired rebel son). But Chris was basically unknown, the quintessential actor for such an important role. For every Tobey Maguire, you also have a Christian Bale or Daniel Craig, who don’t seem like obvious choices before they’re cast, but only because audiences just aren’t that familiar with them yet. Star Trek made Chris Pine a star.

It did the same for Chris Hemsworth, who plays his dad. For some other parts, name actors were easier to go with, such as Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Bruce Greenwood, and Eric Bana, who replaced Russell Crowe as Nero. Either one was a considerable coup for the film. Granted, Crowe would have had more appeal for wider audiences, but Bana, who like Crowe is a personal favorite, still represents the kind of actor who probably would never have been available to Star Trek casting directors prior to this film. Then there was Leonard Nimoy, who represents the sole connection to any other incarnation of the franchise, and who just happens to be the most iconic face, reprising his role as Spock thanks to a time-twisting plot that plays fast and loose with everything that had come before. When the whole project plays everything as sacred, you can afford to treat it as nothing sacred, blowing up Vulcan and setting up a whole alternate reality that will serve as the new playground for subsequent films.

That’s what’s so interesting about this reboot. Clearly, for years, a lot of people became attached to the idea that Star Trek represented a continuing experience, even if each new incarnation dealt with new casts and scenarios. All of it tied together, as numerous guest appearances that cross-pollinated familiar faces continually attested. Even the maligned “These Are the Voyages…” managed to grant Enterprise, the first time the franchise attempted to look back instead of forward, this experience. Rather than starting from scratch, Star Trek’ bends the rules and keeps all the familiar experiences in play while also creating an entirely fresh starting point. All the familiar names are here, but they have different stories, just different enough that they speak to two different generations of fans, meeting somewhere in the middle.

As a fan who obviously had a lot of attachment to what had come before, I might have been seen either as an extremely easy mark for Star Trek, or as someone who should have hated the very idea of it. Personally, I hate both ideas. I don’t like each new incarnation simply because it seems I’m supposed to, but because I keep finding reasons to like them. On a certain level, yes, having a pre-existing interest does make it easier, but if a movie or a TV show rubs me the wrong way, then it rubs me the wrong way. Being a fan merely means that it’ll be that much more likely that I’ll eventually take another look, or however many it may take for me to change my initial opinions. Wrath of Khan, ironically, is especially indicative of that, in my experience.

Star Trek became one of my favorite movies from 2009 not merely because it was a new Star Trek film, but because it was a truly good film. (Granted, the number of times I saw it was definitely because it was a Star Trek film, but in 2008 and 2010, I saw certain Christopher Nolan movies frequently because they captured my imagination in similar ways, experiences I wanted to repeat, and often.) When whole sequences start to string together and I find it difficult to forget them, I know something has been particularly successful. And in Star Trek, pretty much everything works, without exception.

And so now we’re in another of those crossroads, a happy one, as it turns out. We get to wait for another Star Trek. Sometimes, that wait has been as little as a week, or even several times a week. There were four years between the end of Enterprise and the release of Star Trek, and seven years between Nemesis and Star Trek. There was a big gap between the original series and The Motion Picture, but some of it was mitigated by the animated series. For the first time since the original Kirk films, the franchise seems content to be a big screen experience, which is perhaps welcomed, after the constant succession of TV shows that represented the bulk of the backend from the last phase of Star Trek. It may play like safe to keep it in cinemas for the time being, but that feels pretty okay for now.
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