#1. The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Because the Film Fan never sleeps, 2011 must be represented, and this is one movie I’ve been waiting for since its release was delayed from last fall. Considering the sheer number of Matt Damon projects that’ve been released over a very short period, I choose to believe the studio couldn’t possibly have been concerned about the quality, because this is a mind-blowing experience that, as the trailers suggest, explores free will, with politician Damon attempting to win campaigns and the heart of Emily Blunt, all the while dodging the likes of John Slattery and Terence Stamp, while getting a little help from Anthony Mackie. I’m always a sucker for ambitious material, and this one’s very ambitious indeed, based on Philip K. Dick, but with expanded scope (it’s usually the other way around).
#2. Bronson (2008)
After Tom Hardy’s breakout appearance in Inception, suddenly everyone wanted a piece of him. Having been a huge fan of his after Star Trek Nemesis, I’d anticipated this kind of reaction years earlier, but a variety of setbacks (including the reaction to Star Trek Nemesis) made it difficult to keep track of him. One of the projects that helped put him on the comeback trail was this explosive and highly imaginative portrait of a real-life small-time criminal who gained notoriety by repeatedly breaking out of prison (though the tone is radically different from I Love You, Phillip Morris, mind you) and being an all-around badass. You walk away from this one impressed by the audacity of Bronson, and once again marveled by Hardy.
#3. 12 Monkeys (1995)
My love of Terry Gilliam has been developing since 1999, when I first saw The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and I’ve been working my way through his catalog ever since, and finding myself more and more impressed. I’ve grown to love this one, the more familiar I’ve become with it, based not as much on Brad Pitt’s gonzo performance, but the quiet bewilderment of Bruce Willis, in the lead role, one of his best attempts to finally crack out of the action mode Die Hard had placed him in. If he weren’t so determinedly Hollywood rather than prestige-performance driven, Willis would have so much more respect than he does even to this day.
#4. Reds (1981)
Warren Beatty is another actor whose career was basically overshadowed by peripheral concerns, even though he consistently brought magic that few other actors in film history, even though with considerably more acclaim, have ever approached. Here he actually makes a communist manifesto, though it’s more about fighting for ideals over conformist corruption, a complex political drama that’s as relevant today as when it was released thirty years ago.
#5. Wyatt Earp (1994)
Kevin Costner does one of his typically epic character studies, and that’s all well and good, but what I’d really like to take note of is Dennis Quaid’s appearance as Doc Holliday, one of the greatest supporting performances I’ve ever seen, a truly stylized effort that steals every scene Quaid appears in, and easily the best acting I’ve ever seen him do. Where the hell is that guy in his other films? Because I like Quaid, but his Holliday is a true revelation.
#6. Traffic (2000)
Quaid’s here, too, but so are a boatload of other talented actors, including Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones (in the project that introduced her and Michael, and thus the fucker that broke a million hearts), Don Cheadle, even Topher Grace, all led by the momentarily glorified directing of Steven Soderbergh. Besides all the acting brilliance is a piercing study of the modern drug scene, which is stupendously complicated.
#7. The Good German (2006)
Speaking of Soderbergh, he’s here, too, in one of the projects that eventually got him blackballed by critics, who apparently both love and hate cinema, because they hated this one because they claimed it aped classic cinema too much, calling it a poor variation of Casablanca. Listen, baby, I know Casablanca, and The Good German is not Casablanca, and I don’t say that because I think poorly of The Good German, but because there’s only a fleeting resemblance, so little that it doesn’t even need to be referenced. What you’ve actually got here is George Clooney, who’s had most of his career suffering to break free of his classic movie star appeal (though he prefers to fall back on it in direct defiance), as maybe a distant cousin of Rick’s, caught in the middle of a complicated affair that involves an ambiguous pairing of Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett (how critics don’t love her as much as I do is another mystery). Anyway, it’s also in black and white, so all around it looks and unfolds beautifully.
#8. Sucker Punch (2011)
Even more recent movie alert! Obviously, I’ve only just seen this one, but I’m a big fan of Zack Snyder, more so over Watchmen than 300, so I was anticipating this one for maybe as long as The Adjustment Bureau, and since it’s basically his first original vision, there was that much more intrigue involved. Emily Browning (she liked to tie her hair up in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) must find some inner resolve to overcome a world that seems diametrically opposed to her, and that strength ends up being metaphorically visualized by a lot of ass kicking. Having already proven himself a visual master, Snyder now demonstrates that his storytelling flair is not exclusive to adaptations. I rank this one above the similar Black Swan for reasons I’ll get into when I reach the Natalie Portman spotlight a few entries from now.
#9. The Thin Red Line (1998)
It’s taken me a number of years to fully absorb this one, even though I’ve had ‘The New World” to amply demonstrate Terrence Malick’s genius (small prediction, but I suspect his upcoming The Tree of Life will be a 2011 favorite), but I’ve finally done it. The obvious highlights are Jim Caviezel and Elias Koteas, both spiritually troubled in the patented Malick fashion.
#10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
Marlon Brando may have been the greatest actor to garner some of the worst reviews Hollywood ever saw. This one is inexplicably among them, another of his efforts to capitalize on his sudden Godfather-inspired career revival, though the movie really belongs to Jack Nicholson as what has become one of my favorite antiheroes, a horse thief attempting reform on the basis of falling in love. Sporting a wild beard, he looks and acts like one of the more authentic and sympathetic types you’re likely to find in a Western not staring the cuddly John Wayne.
#11. Green Hornet (2011)
Another recent release! I have yet to see Knocked Up in its entirety, so Funny People is for me the defining Seth Rogen flick. Well, now it’ll have to be Green Hornet, since Rogen folds so perfectly into this particular vision of the relatively obscure superhero that it’ll now be impossible for me to separate the two. Rogen is basically Seth Rogen, with a more sympathetic background, until he decides becoming the Green Hornet is a strategically good idea, and from there, expectations continue to be subverted, whether in the presentation of Kato, Christoph Waltz as the villain, or Cameron Diaz as the unexpectedly helpful office temp. Diaz is more appealing here than she was in Knight and Day, which was another nice surprise.
#12. The Phantom (1996)
Here completes our unofficial B-level superhero group, with Billy Zane bringing it as an iconic version of the newspaper strip staple, and basically a direct precursor to Mask of Zorro, even having Catherine Zeta-Jones along for the ride (how the hell it took until Zorro for Hollywood to officially notice her will forever baffle me).
#13. Brothers Grimm (2005)
Here’s Terry Gilliam again, in a movie I think I’ve finally come to completely appreciate. The whole reason I watched it originally was basically to help round out the Heath Ledger catalog, but even then, I liked it well enough to wonder why it was received so tepidly. Monica Bellucci, you’ve got Monica Bellucci! I also realized this time that Lena Headley’s in it, and Lena Headley (300) is awesome. Peter Stormare is a comedic genius here, too (he was also a highlight in The Million Dollar Hotel and Prison Break, but he seems to be appreciated very sparingly, another confusing notion). Ledger plays very tenderly against type, while Matt Damon seems to be lampooning his emerging Jason Bourne persona, and the whole affair cleverly places the Grimm brothers in a fictional but historic context, making it enjoyable on too many levels to dismiss as easily as everyone seems to have.
#14. Black Swan (2010)
Not included in the 2010 list last week because I hadn’t seen it yet, as with The Fighter (a few entries down). Remarkably similar to Sucker Punch, in that much of the story is presented from the warped perspective of the central character. But while Zack Snyder unambiguously integrates every element of his story together, Darren Aronofsky once more obscures the impact of his troubled lead by relying on audience participation and sympathy than outright skill. This movie undoubtedly builds on the Natalie Portman canon, and is perhaps its apex, at least to this point, and so the actress absolutely deserves all the accolades she’s received based on it, but I always find it puzzling when a filmmaker doesn’t seem to realize, or doesn’t care, when they leave enough clues about an alternate interpretation. Black Swan is supposed to be about unbearable pressure, but it’s probably easier to view it as Portman crumbling under expectations and passion that she herself never really shared, and is only now just realizing where exactly it’s gotten her. Or maybe that’s exactly what Aronofsky was going for. Either way, I guess I’m still working on this one, while Sucker Punch, for instance, is far more deliberate, though just as much an overall artistic achievement. Sometimes easier really is better, even if temporarily.
#15. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008)
Very much like the earlier Devil Wears Prada, in that someone is thrust into a job that proves more difficult than they previously imagined (ha! and reads just like Black Swan, too), but with the added benefit of Simon Pegg. Around him are Jeff Bridges, before everyone started caring about him again (and, like Meryl Streep in Prada, sporting atypically silvery hair), Kirsten Dunst (vulnerable and alluring, as always), and Megan Fox (trying to prove her acting appeal).
#16. Bowfinger (1999)
Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy were hailed as an inspired comedic pairing at the time, but it seems as if this movie has since been completely forgotten. Well, no more!
#17. Solaris (2003)
Soderbergh again, this time accused of aping (ha!) 2001: A Space Odyssey, even though this is a remake of another book adaptation entirely. George Clooney (this director’s own personal De Niro, or DiCaprio) is plunged into a deeply psychological mess when he’s forced to confront his lingering feelings for his late wife, Natascha McElhone. Jeremy Davies seems to audition for Lost as one of the troubled astronauts who attempt to demonstrate how much trouble Clooney is going to find.
#18. The Fighter (2010)
Boxing is such an inherently cinematic sport that it’s no surprise that Hollywood has repeatedly explored it, even as boxing itself has become less culturally relevant. Famously, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale portray a pair of Lowell, MA brothers who unexpectedly found success, though how exactly is what provides the story for this film, the fall of the older brother, and the rise of the younger. While I wish the movie had provided more of an arc for Wahlberg’s lead character, his loss is Bale’s gain.
#19. Primary Colors (1998)
One of the movies that attempted to break the stranglehold Titanic maintained for months at the box office and in the imaginations of filmgoers, this is the adaptation of the famously anonymous (at the time) look at a fictionalized Bill Clinton, and probably the last time John Travolta really got to shine in his big comeback.
#20. Sanjuro (1962)
The less famous follow-up to Yojimbo, I can really get behind the strategic and brilliant mind on display here.
#21. An American Tail (1986)
I honestly can’t explain at this point how this one was left out of the 500 countdown, because this is an acknowledged touchstone of my childhood, a classic tale of a misfit trying to find his way, with songs I still sing today, even though it’s been a long time since I last saw it.
#22. Simone (2002)
This is a movie that has long fascinated me, but one I’ve only recently seen. Al Pacino fabricates a movie star (almost entirely Rachel Roberts), but the reasons why and how he does it and completely fascinating. Mostly, I guess, critics didn’t care because they mostly don’t care for Pacino, though as always, it’s their loss.
#23. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Martin Scorsese went through a period where he was kind of anonymous (much as how Shutter Island was received last year), though there was tepid praise for this one, in which Nicholas Cage can’t seem to find equilibrium in a world he can’t seem to understand.
#24. What Dreams May Come (1998)
Critics really hated this one, I mean with vehemence. God knows why. Robin Williams must have shot their dogs or something. Anyway, what some like to call manipulative, I call fantastically imaginative, as Williams literally walks through paintings in his quest to understand death and reunite with his troubled wife. Cuba Gooding, Jr. forever torpedoed whatever respectable career he might have had after Jerry Maguire by having the hubris to appear in something like this.
#25. Go (1999)
Lots of great actors and storytelling in this one. Sarah Polley navigates a baffling night trying to do the right thing, and a million obstacles get in her way, including William Fichtner, Scott Wolfe, Jay Mohr, Timothy Olyphant, and Taye Diggs.
#26. The Postman (1997)
I’m pretty sure this one marked the end of Kevin Costner’s epic characters phase, the concluding backlash review all but burying it, to no other explanation other than the critics finally wanted to put the actor behind them. Based on a book, but it doesn’t matter, more inspiring than The Road could ever hope to be (read that book, never did see the movie).
#27. More American Graffiti (1979)
The sequel that cashed in on the sudden popularity of George Lucas after Star Wars, that brought back most of the characters from the original, with more focus on the characters themselves.
#28. Alpha Dog (2007)
This and Primary Colors serve as the predecessors to The Social Network, and this one even has Justin Timberlake! Basically following a bunch of completely unlikable characters around (including the apparent victim in all of it, Anton Yelchin), and like the other two movies, based on real events. Of all the egos represented, Alpha Dog features the most unsavory. Yay for achievement!
#29. American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas’s second movie, and the one that most properly established his interest in following events and characters rather than truly exploring them (when you think about it, that’s what really happens in Star Wars, and it’s only different in the prequels because he finally has a character he’s literally committed himself to hanging something around). Basically a series of vignettes, but a little less clearly so than the sequel he had nothing to do with. Also not related to it, but clearly inspired by it: Happy Days!
#30. Battlefield Earth (2000)
So many people were petrified that this was a blatant attempt to popularize Scientology that the word of mouth was sour from the start, and not a scrap of film ever needed to be seen to sustain this momentum. John Travolta and Forrest Whitaker have a grand time oppressing humans, represented by scrappy Johnny Good Boy Tyler (Barry Pepper), one of my favorite names of all time. All considered though, even with all the efforts from the filmmakers insisting that it didn’t, if you really think about it, you can still pull off a Scientology interpretation if you want. But you don’t have to!
#31. Jabberwocky (1977)
Terry Gilliam in his first attempt to make a movie that had nothing to do with Monty Python, even though it is clearly inspired by his days running with the crazy Brits (though Michael Palin stars), is probably a better overall movie than the Pythons themselves ever made. (Heresy! Heresy!) But Gilliam was only getting warmed up.
#32. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Kathryn Bigelow makes a movie that explicitly asks us to care about a bunch of Ruskies. How far we’ve come! Though not too far, because critics wouldn’t really care about her until The Hurt Locker. Still, you’ve got to appreciate the showdown between Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford, even though, technically, neither of them are Russian.
#33. Kalifornia (1993)
David Duchovny does those Blair Witch Project brats one better, by setting out to study serial murderers and actually finding them, but still being able to handle it. Michelle Forbes is another story, though. Juliette Lewis does her best crazy person, and Brad Pitt is his usual awesome.
#34. Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola won mounds of acclaim for this one, and Scarlet Johansson basically got a career out of it, but try as I might, I still can’t think of this as anything other than a Bill Murray movie. He’s done plenty of movies at this point that have attempted to be the “latterday Bill Murray movie,” but this may be the definitive one, other than Cradle Will Rock. And he will probably never surpass, for the record, his new comedy cred from Zombieland.
#35. Merchant of Venice (2004)
Jeremy Irons, you’re in this too, but you’ve got to contend with Al Pacino. Long dismissed as a slander of Jews, Merchant of Venice is perhaps better understood as a study of the clash between cultures, and maybe this movie helps make that clearer, at least for modern audiences. Because Bill Shakespeare does pretty good on his own.
#36. Gandhi (1982)
I had this one on my to-see list for years, but only recently got around to it, half to finally see the performance that made a name out of Ben Kingsley though only mostly a career, and the other to better understand Gandhi himself. And while I greatly appreciate the example he set, I emerge from Gandhi with something of a shattered myth on my hands. On the one hand, he had an incredible amount of willpower. And on the other, it’s not like he began his campaign from a position of little respect. Anyway, it was, in the end, worth all the anticipation.
#37. Snake Eyes (1998)
Nicholas Cage in perhaps a prototypical wild man performance, at least in the early scenes, when he’s bursting with confidence and ego, until good friend Gary Sinese lets his conspiracy unfold. It seems like this is a classic just waiting to be appreciated.
#38. Romper Stomper (1992)
On the flipside from Gandhi is this movie, about a couple of hoods lost in racial theories that don’t even belong to them, and caught up in a tide of events that are both bigger than them and collapsing on them (Nazi dreams, ironically, once helped stem the tide of British imperialism, so there’s that, too), as they’ve already collapsed for others, even though they don’t seem to realize it. Of course, none of that would matter if it didn’t star Russell Crowe, all pure savage appeal.
#39. Southland Tales (2006)
This is almost like the ultimate B-movie, filled with cheesy characters and situations, and utterly reveling in it, and blesses with an awesome cast, including Dwayne Johnson in one of his best roles, Seann William Scott (ditto, though they paired up well in The Rundown), and Justin Timberlake, who at one point basically makes a music video for The Killer’s “All These Things That I’ve Done.”
#40. Sunshine (2000)
For a while, it seemed as if Ralph Fiennes was going to be the critically acclaimed version of Kevin Costner, until he became too obscure even for critics to take notice. Sunshine tracks three different generations, and each of them is portrayed by Fiennes, as they attempt to find prosperity in trying times, until, finally, one of them realizes that going back to the start really isn’t such a bad thing.
#41. The Way of the Gun (2000)
Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro spend the whole movie disproving the confident image represented in the opening sequence, and that’s pretty awesome.
#42. Young Frankenstein (1974)
If Mel Brooks had made a career of such biting parody of Hollywood itself, instead of enjoying himself, Hollywood would ironically have liked him better.
#43. Days of Heaven (1978)
Terrence Malick and Richard Gere in one of Malick’s earliest visual feasts.
#44. Infernal Affairs (2002)
The original version of The Departed is fascinating to watch, if not in outright comparison, then in its own right, though I will probably always prefer the Scorsese version.
#45. The Missing (2003)
This is almost Ron Howard’s version of True Grit, starring Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones.
#46. Oscar and Lucinda (1997)
Cate Blanchett again, in Ralph Fiennes’ sandbox. But this is basically Cate’s first big role, so there’s that to admire, too.
#47. Rock n Rolla (2008)
Guy Ritchie, Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson…Now that I’ve had a little time to process it, maybe I’ll say the goods are in Tom Hardy’s performance, which is totally different from anything else I’ve seen him do.
#48. Starship Troopers (1997)
Like a parody of WWII patriotism, this adaptation is somewhat notorious, but deserves to be kept in mind. Also, check out a younger Neil Patrick Harris, not yet having outlived Doogie, and not yet having transformed into Barney. Awesome!
#49. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor are not the highlights here, but Burl Ives. Seriously!
#50. The Conformist (1971)
I’ve tried several times to penetrate this one. Now it occurs to me that it plays like a moody predecessor to The Godfather. You will never view Michael Corleone the same way again.
That’s it, then, that’s the absolute end of the Film Fan, unless you absolutely demand I continue! We will otherwise segue into the Jabroni Companion, where you will find such noted actors as Dwayne Johnson (see Southland Tales above), Roddy Piper (They Live), Hulk Hogan (Suburban Commando), and even Ken Anderson (Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia), in slightly different roles!