Sunday, May 17, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part eight)

Our job now seventy-percent complete, it's time for us to tread into some genuinely high altitudes with movies 30-26. But before we continue, I've received one or two off-column queries about how exactly I've gone about all of this, so I thought I'd take a moment to explain.

Basically -- and I know this is going to sound prosaic, but it's the absolute truth -- the key to the whole exercise was to reduce it into smaller bites. I took from my own collection all the films that I'd afforded "five bald head" ratings, and supplemented those with favorite films I'd seen but hadn't yet collected for myself. This gave me a total of about 125 pictures, which I'd naively thought could be ranked from 1 to 125 in a single step. Of course the immediate difficulty one faces with a ranking task of such magnitude is what economists call a "transitivity problem": It was possible, I quickly found, to believe that I liked The Sweet Hereafter better than Rocky, and Rocky better than The Station Agent, and The Station Agent better than The Sweet Hereafter.

The solution came to be entirely by chance. Figuring that, at least, the top- and bottom- overall choices would be straightforward decisions, I went down the entire list looking for those two movies, and assigned a "#1" to the first, "greatest" film I encountered. But because I still needed a "#125," I had to keep reading down the list, whereupon I found that I wanted to assign a number of other movies the "#1" slot, too -- eventually about a dozen or so.

Instead of letting this bother me, I decided to run with it, ultimately filtering the pool into sub-classes based on which movies were positively, arrestingly superlative (#1), which movies were outstanding but not quite as good (#10), and so on, after which the job of ranking the entire list became a simple question of ranking the films in each individual sub-class within it -- usually about ten movies at a time. The chances of a transitivity problem went away almost entirely, and the thinking about how to place a movie at the top of its class became a question of picking the best out of ten-or-so, instead of the best out of two thousand. The highest and lowest-ranking films from any one class were then compared with their counterparts from the adjoining classes, and only once did a minor problem of circularity emerged, which was settled (thrillingly) by re-watching the three films in question.

Without further ado, then, here are The Key Grip's choices of the twenty-sixth through thirtieth greatest of all movies.

30. The Lives of Others (2006). To say that this is a film about a power-intoxicated love triangle behind the iron curtain of the mid-1980s barely hints at the subtle complexity of this enthralling tale of the men of the dreaded "Stazzi," the East German secret police, and the 'lives' of all those 'others' they were tasked with monitoring.

It is East Berlin in 1984 and, as the opening placard explains, "Glasnosdt is nowhere in sight." Deep in the shadowy clockwork of the Stazzi lurks rising-star Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muehe), cool-headed interrogator extraordinaire (the two opening scenes are intercut between his chilling interrogation of a suspect, and his explanation of proper technique to a classroom full of college students). At the conclusion of the class, Weisler's friend and superior Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) invites him to see the work of "the republic's only non-subversive artist," Georg Dryeman (Sebastian Koch), in the form of a play to be premiered that very evening and likely to be attended by Grubitz' own superior, Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme).

At the play Grubitz takes turns congratulating himself to Weisler for his good judgment about Dryeman's self-evident loyalty, and panning back down to the VIP seats to watch Hempf, who seems restless and figety during the performance -- except when the stage is held by the leading actress, Dreyman's girlfriend Christa-Maria Seiland (Martina Gedeck). Grubitz, meanwhile, is content to stare-down Dreyman himself, sitting in a wing, for even the slightest hint of odd behavior. "I'd have him monitored," Grubitz says to Gruber in an affectless monotone as the play is ending.

Of course he has no idea what he's letting himself in for, or how the granting of his wish to install a listening station in the attic above Dreyman's apartment will change the lives of all the aforementioned parties, forever. By the time it's all over, this improbably complex and subtle brush-stroke narrative will manage to shift our sympathies for the main characters not once but several times, even without the benefit of knowing, until very near the end, exactly what's been going on.

The skill with which this film patiently assembles its intricately woven characters, the subtle changes in perspective and allegiances, the quiet desperation, the blind alleys of possible narrative twist that must come to nothing if we are to find the eventual resolution genuinely surprising, are unto themselves a thorough justification for top-thirty placement. But beyond the "simple" fact of the tight formation in which all these disparate plot elements must fly, there is the added consideration that each of the other ingredients under director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck's control are surmounted with equal aplomb -- from the subtle use of color schemes to convey different characters' visions of their situation and its terrifyingly fluid nature, to the equisite use of Gabriel Yared's versatile and haunting soundtrack, to the literal accuracy of the listening equipment with which Weisler is shown, up in that attic, finding out more than he bargained for about the people on whom he has volunteered to spy.

29. The Conversation (1974). I know there isn't a reader left who's going to believe this, but as God is my witness it was a pure (and indeed previously unnoticed) coincidence, that the two films about recorded conversations to make this entire list, would occupy consecutive slots on it. Gene Hackman is Harry Call, the best freelance electronic surveillance expert on the west coast, but for the small problem that he is so paranoid that he can't have a healthy relationship of any kind, from that of an employer to that of a lover to that of a friend to that of a tenant in a friendly-run apartment house.

As the A-story (in which Call and his associates are hired to record and then clarify a conversation in San Francisco's Union Square) unfolds inexorably -- seeming almost to taunt Harry with the inevitability of its own, looming denouement -- the man himself senses that he is pushing everyone else away and can do nothing to stop himself. He offends his most faithful sidekick Stan (John Cazale) to the point that the latter ultimately quits to take all he has learned and imbue it to a mostly friendly rival Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), who himself reveals at a convention after-party that Call's earlier freelance work resulted in the murder of an east-coast union boss. Shortly afterward Call throws Bernie, Stan, and the giggly women of the party, lock, stock, and barrel, out of his building and slams the door behind them.

The next morning, as Call works off his frustrations alone in his lab, a fragment of previously un-intelligible dialogue in Union Square comes through the headphones: He'd kill us if he got the chance. And, just like that, Harry Call must confront the fact that he is a sensing, feeling human being who just might repeat his own ghastly history if he delivers the tapes of this conversation to his client.

Director Francis Ford Coppola wrote and directed the exquisite narrative, in which the A- and B-stories are only separate until the very moment in which they are not, after which their confluence -- which would've felt contrived at the hands of mere mortal filmmakers -- seems as natural as the grim inner conflict with which Call is so self-evidently devouring himself over the prospect of more responsibility for loss of human life. The Conversation would've been a positively fantastic film, a run-don't-walk-to-the-video-store film, if Coppola had settled for pulling off only this much complexity, with such precision.

But the ending, which I will not spoil even though other internet-based reviews are happy to do so, utterly closes the deal and, I would argue, places this film among the top suspense pictures ever made. No contrived "gotcha" that, once we know it, seems hardly worth the trouble of having come all this way, this time. Oh, no: This one will set you back six inches in your chair.

28. Saving Private Ryan (1998). Steven Spielberg's second film of three to make our list is, without a doubt, the single greatest picture about World War Two, period. The grim reality of those early days of the western front is palpable to the point of being, at times, unbearable; the surreal intimacy with which eight individual GI's experience the chaos and devastation is confronted at freckles-on-the-eyelids range; the set-piece battles are mesmerizing to the point of motion sickness, and the sweeping John Williams soundtrack is grand and imperious without glorifying the blood-soaked horror of it all, or shamelessly trolling for a cheap audience response, either one.

As Captain John Miller, 2nd Rangers, leads his company into near-certain death on Omaha Beach, all of the three brothers of a certain Private James Francis Ryan of the 101st Airborne are having their lives taken from them at the hands of the enemy. None of the principles know any of this yet, of course, but make no mistake: it is this juxtaposition, the struggling shore party and the unknowing soldier somewhere behind the lines, that will pull the thread of tension that sustains us, almost unwittingly, as the story unfolds: He. Doesn't. Know. Yet.

Somehow Miller (Tom Hanks) and his motley rabble survive the beach-landing and the taking of a hardened gunner's nest at the opposite side, only to discover in the battle's aftermath that they have drawn the assignment of locating Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon) for evacuation to his grieving family in Iowa. With no choice but to follow orders, no matter how improbable or seemingly impossible, the squad departs Omaha Beach and walks, literally walks, straight to and through the front line, in a near-futile effort to locate, inform, and remove this single fighting soldier, somewhere in Normandy.

Not a hair is out of place in this gripping, tragic, heartwarming, and self-hallowing portrayal of those first, ugly hours when the fate of the entire planet hung precariously in the balance. From the nearly twenty-six minute beach sequence ("What's the rallying point?!?!" "ANYWHERE BUT HERE!!!"), to the coolly aware and melancholy scene in which Gen. Marshall (Havre Presnell) learns of Ryan's situation and orders him removed from the theater, to Miller and his company's ensuing search ("like looking for a needle in a stack of needles"), Spielberg brings the full weight of his oft-disrespected virtuosity to bear in scene after letter-perfect scene.

None of it would work, of course, without the peculiar cocktail of arm's-length-disintimacy at the prospect of death, and involuntarily deep comradeship, that exists among the exquisitely played soldiers under Miller's command. These include Tom Sizemore as Miller's trusty Seargant Mike Horvath, Edward Burns as the loud-mouthed and confrontational but nonetheless endearing Pvt. Reiben, Barry Pepper as the can't-miss-sharpshooter Pvt. Daniel Jackson, Giovanni Ribisi as the rashly altruistic medic T-5 Irwin Wade, and last, and certainly not least, Jeremy Davies as hapless map-translator Pvt. Timothy Upham. The tone of the post-invasion movie is indeed set by Upham, who realizes even as he is reassigned to Miller that he is hopelessly out of his depths. "Sir," he says to Miller, in one of the movie's countless unforgettable scenes, "it's just that I haven't held a weapon since basic training." To which Miller, visibly unimpressed, replies, calmly, "Did you fire the weapon in basic training?" "Yes sir," says Upham, looking at his shoes. "Well, then, get your gear," says Miller.

Cameo space is reserved for just the sort of no-expense-spared talent that massive war epics cannot work without, including Ted Danson as a surprisingly sympathetic fellow-captain ("I've got a brother of my own; find him"), Paul Giamatti as a fumbling Sergeant entrusted to help Miller's squad find the first of several candidates for the Pvt. Ryan they're looking for, Dennis Farina as the Lt. Col. who breaks Miller the bad news of his low-percentage mission ("It was a tough assignment, John; that's why you got it."), and Nathan Fillion as a James Frederick Ryan who, having just survived an all-but-unsurvivable battle to take a nondescript Normandy village in a driving rainstorm, finds himself being told that all of his brothers are dead -- and then, abruptly, that they aren't.

When Miller and his team finally find the Ryan they've been sent for, neither they nor he are in any fit state to carry out their orders, and everyone knows it. And what follows is, without a doubt, the second-greatest single battle scene in the entire archive of World War Two movies -- bested only by the beach-landing at Normandy that happens at the opposite end of the same, peerless film.

27. Scenes From a Marriage (1973). No one can claim to love quiet, subtle pictures with long takes and almost imperceptible turns of narrative, as I do, without his thoughts rushing back to Bergman each time the topic is brought up. Indeed Bergman might be the most talented director on the planet when it comes to cool subject matter, and certainly Scenes From a Marriage is the pinnacle of a storied lifetime of achievement as a writer-director of this very sort of picture.

Liv Ullman plays Marianne and Erland Josephson is Johan, the two principles of the marriage in question. Through boredom, mid-life crisis, and assorted dalliances and indiscretions, Marianne and Johan squabble in the ways that couples squabble -- the veiled cut-downs, the wondrously self-indulgent mythologies, the half-spoken references to a past that it helps no one to keep bringing up -- with an apparent inability to leave each other once and for all, or cut out the bickering and get over themselves, either one.

As we watch, palpably uncomfortable and yet inescapably transfixed, their saga spins out over years of trial separations, engagements with other people, and perhaps ultimately even divorce, but it seems no matter what obstacles they throw in the path of continuing to torture each other with their own bad company, the forces larger-than-ourselves (you know, the same ones that keep the rest of us continually slugging away at these things, too), always intervene at just the right moment: a heartwarming shared-intimacy over some minor drama being experienced by one of their children, a stolen memory of happier times, an unexpected confluence of appetites.

In all Bergman has written/directed over fifty feature-length pictures for distribution in his native Sweden, but it is this film and two others -- Autumn Sonata and Fanny & Alexander -- that cemented his reputation as a filmmaker whose entire raison d'etre was to portray the tense and balletic rituals of the self-alienated bourgeois; to expose their petty grievances and shallow pleasures without flinching even once. To show us who we really are, when we think that no one's looking.

26. Michael Clayton (2007). Tony Gilroy directs and George Clooney plays the title role in this unrelenting back-of-the-house drama of a law firm at which only the resident "fixer" can keep the top-flight clients from bolting to another firm, taking all their more reputable business dealings with them. ("Never underestimate a motivated stripper, Henry.") Executive producer Steven Soderbergh affixes his creative thumb-print all over this one, a film that might in a pinch be described as "Traffic Takes Manhattan," with all the same one-beat-out-of-rhythm unease, the same flaws in the characters' logic (and in their character), and the same sense that, if people don't get busy recognizing themselves for who they are pretty doggone soon, they're really going to regret it.

The film opens with the booming voice of one Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson -- another of those elusive "underrated actors"), speaking in what sound like affectionate, you-won't-believe-what-just-happened tones, to someone named Michael. As he monologues unseen, the camera reveals a series of cutaways in an empty and darkened law firm in the middle of the night (though, on re-watch, our eyes are perhaps drawn to the shot of a ten-line office phone, on which eight of the lines are in use and the other two are on hold). "Okay," we think to ourselves, if only momentarily, "I get it: he's leaving someone a voice-mail."

Except for one small problem: The longer Edens speaks, the more obvious it becomes that something is terribly amiss, here. ("...I realized I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life. The stench of it and the stain of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo. And you know what I did? I took a deep cleansing breath and I set that notion aside; I tabled it; I said to myself as clear as this may be, as potent a feeling as this is, as true a thing as I believe that I have witnessed today, it must wait....")

Edens, it transpires, is the renowned and ruthless senior litigator for Kenner, Bach, and LaDeen, a Manhattan law firm run by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack, in his last cinematic role), himself one of the few people who knows that Edens suffers from a manic depression so enthralling that he occasionally misses its effects badly enough to skip his pills. For ten years Edens has been schilling the defense of an agribusiness conglomerate with a weed killer that has the unfortunate habit of killing the people who live on the farms to which it is applied, presumably at no extra charge. After ten years of this being all the life he has, Edens needs just the sort of holiday he knows he'll get by leaving the lids on his medicine bottles for a while -- prompting him eventually to strip naked in front of one of the plaintiffs at her own deposition. And when this happens, who else can the firm trust to rein-in their star attorney and soothe the rattled client, than Michael Clayton?

This may be Tony Gilroy's directorial debut, but his teeth were cut on some pretty amazing pictures in their own right (screenwriter for all three of the Bourne Identity movies, writer-producer of the pace-quickening albeit flawed movie about a South American kidnapping, "Proof of Life"). Through the combination of Soderbergh and Clooney's executive oversight, with Gilroy's perfect-pitch on the subject of how to pace a suspense picture, stringing it tighter and tighter without snapping its plausibility in his hands, Michael Clayton emerges as a best-of-three-worlds collaboration: At once uneasy and irresolute like Soderbergh, instantly sympathetic in that special way peculiar to Clooney, and absolutely gripping from the opening monologue all the way up to -- and through -- the end-titles, the device for which is at once the most simple and straightforward, and perhaps the most difficult to pull-off, of any I've yet seen.

On the insistence of Clooney, Pollack and Soderbergh, Gilroy was given final-cut on this picture (something even he himself is on-record knowing well enough not to expect ever again), and his choices in the editing process reveal a sense of self, and a sense of medium, that even most of the great names in directing needed a lifetime to grow comfortable with. James Newton Howard's soundtrack outdoes even the best of his previous work, with haunting swells and fades juxtaposed against just enough low-rumble percussion to keep us planted squarely on the hook (the opening monologue is periodically stung with the muffled sound of someone striking the lowest half-dozen strings on a piano, through the opening between the lid and the case, instead of using the keys), and the set decorations are chosen with the kind of maestro care with which we can immerse ourselves totally into the competing worlds of a big and bustling midtown law firm, and a dingy basement poker match, without once feeling tugged around by movie-makers.

In a particularly interesting wrinkle that also works -- flawlessly -- one of the very first scenes in the picture, and certainly the most tense and suspenseful in the first reel, is also one of the last scenes in the picture, meaning that at the end of the film we spend a thrilling car-ride sitting next to George Clooney, worried for him and all that he stands for in the movie, despite knowing exactly what's about to happen.

All of the actors hit their marks impeccably -- thanks in no small measure to Casting Director Ellen Chenoweth: conservative and true-to-type where that will suit the movie (David Lansbury as Michael's alcoholic and no-account brother Timmy), but bold in precisely the right doses as to leave us, in the audience, feeling that extra undercurrent of tension that comes with a fine acting talent playing just a bit outside themselves. Most notable in this respect is the choice of Tilda Swinton, the always virtuoso actress (Vanilla Sky, Adaptation) who must somehow figure out how to play the in-house council for the client company, in such a way as to come across equally cold-blooded and obviously in over her head, and who pulls it off with skin-crawling deadpan. Clooney and Wilkinson are as outstanding in their own performances as we've all come to expect them to be, but mark this down: Tilda Swinton steals this movie.

It's been more than a few days off for this project, and for this I apologize. Between a number of professional commitments and an un-invited flame war on Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, your intrepid author has been a little busier than usual, to say the least. Thanks to all who've commented off-forum about this project, and about the blog in general, and, as always, stay tuned: our next installment gets us into the top twenty-five pictures -- the sort of movies that I'd not be satisfied to live on a Thai island, without. I don't know about you, but personally I can't wait to get crackin' on 'em.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida)

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