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.
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