Friday, May 15, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part seven)

I wonder: Does it get harder to write about these movies, or easier, as the films themselves command ever higher cache in my own experience? I suppose the truest answer is "both" -- in that it's much easier to rattle-on about these pictures, but not nearly so easy to capture that unique cocktail of emotions that lent them higher slots than their predecessors. That having been said, all we can do is try. Here, then, are pictures 40-31 on the Key Grip's list of the hundred greatest motion pictures.

40. The English Patient (1996). When I was a kid I had a habit of referring to films such as this one as "soap-box movies" -- pictures whose very existence, I believed, was the result of a premeditated intent on the part of the filmmakers to monger awards and critical acclaim for themselves, instead of simply and unceremoniously getting over it and making the best movie they could. As an adult I'm not sure that this sort of dismissal is always, or even generally, fair, but the vestigial side-effect of that bias is a conspicuous dearth of a certain type of critically "important" picture from this list. There will be no spaces saved in these pages for Gandhi, Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire, Ordinary People, Schindler's List, A Passage to India, On Golden Pond, or Seven Years in Tibet, to pick just a small assortment of random but illustrative examples. If you need fifteen violins and a crane shot over snow-capped mountains to make me feel like I'm watching a good movie, if you need a pensive, falsetto-register piano tinkle with which to sting the female lead's solitary tear sliding down her face, then sorry bucko, you should've worked a little harder at putting me in those moments and not quite so hard at trying to dress them up.

The English Patient is a film I might have thought these very thoughts about, had I seen it for the first time as an angst-ridden preteen forced to wait an extra day for Guidry's next start on the mound. But here's the thing about that: I'd have been wrong. Anthony Minghella's depiction of Michael Ondaatje's engrossing tale of love and loss in a time of war is a standard-bearer for the genre. There are many tales of the heart-rending separations people experience during times of global conflict, but none of them -- none, of, them -- rival the superlative achievement of Minghella's adaption and direction, graced with the spot-on performances of Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, and Kristin Scott-Thomas.

Fiennes is the "title" character, a certain impeccably well-spoken gentleman who, at the film's opening, is being treated in a British field hospital for burns so ghastly and debilitating that no one expects him to live for more than a few hours, including him. Since he claims not to know anything about himself, including his own name, he is listed in the registry simply as "English Patient." Befriended by a young and impressionable Canadian nurse named Hana (Binoche), the patient is loaded onto a truck for transport to a larger, safer hospital, but the medical convoy is bombed along the way and Hana and her charge must take shelter in an abandoned Italian villa. There they are soon joined by a Sikh mine sapper named Kip (Naveen Andrews) and a shadowy American named Caravaggio (Willem DaFoe) who claims to be a "friend of the family," though from the very outset his intentions are anything but clear.

As Hana grapples with the pain of having just learned that her husband was killed at the front, Caravaggio begins spinning an elaborate yarn about his three closest associates at the British war offices in Cairo -- Geoffry Clifton (Colin Firth), his breathtakingly beautiful wife Catherine (Scott-Thomas), and Geoffry's close and trusted friend, a Hungarian mapmaker from Hapsburg nobility named Count Laszlo de Almasy. Neither Hana nor her nameless, bedridden patient much want to hear this story, but Caravaggio's shifty and possibly menacing nature prevails on them, particularly since it would appear (from beneath hands that are always tightly-wrapped), that Caravaggio himself has already fearlessly ruffled someone else's feathers, somewhere, enough to precipitate the removal of both his thumbs.

As Hana and Kip fall steadily (if unwillingly) in love, the story of the Count and Mr. and Mrs. Clifton is patiently told by Caravaggio, who in due course reveals that he takes the badly burned patient for the Count. This is bad news for all concerned since, denying all sense of loyalty to his best friend Geoffry, the Count apparently took up a passionate affair with Catherine -- the two of them falling so deeply in love with each other that not even their offsetting and unmistakable personality flaws could temper the fires of their romance. When Geoffry finally discovered the truth, a series of events was set in motion that resulted in the Nazis taking Caravaggio as their prisoner for interrogation, and which turned the lives of Geoffry, Catherine, and the Count down paths from which none of them would ever be the same again.

Minghella's work on this picture is nothing if not bold, from his decision to suggest right up-front the big "reveal" about Caravaggio's presence in the villa, to his insistence on a dramatic heightening of the pathos surrounding Hana and her lucklessness in love (one particularly memorable scene flowing from Kip's decision to defuse an unexploded bomb while celebrating tanks roll past). From the note-perfect score to the remarkably unpretentious camera work, to the palpable "a-ha" we sense at the very end of the film, with respect to its own opening credits, everything works.

39. A Bridge Too Far (1977). Our second movie in a row about World War Two could not be more different from the first.

It is the fading summer of 1944, and General Eisenhower wishes to see the war in Europe over by Christmas. General Montgomery, in response, hatches a plan to storm the Belgian front and race into Holland up a single two-lane road to the German border at Arnhem, from whence the army could wheel right and invade the industrially vital Ruhr. Only problem is, the Allied intelligence predicting severely weakened resistance is six months out of date, and now an entire Army, including a full Panzer Division stationed at Arnhem, sits in waiting for the unsuspecting paratroopers tasked with holding the bridges until their own tanks can arrive.

Richard Attenborough directs this all-stops-pulled extravaganza about the folly of overconfidence, the heartbreaking confluence of logistical bad luck and inadequate preparation, and the personal angst felt at the highest levels of this, the last Allied defeat in the war, and one of the costliest. The cast is as peppered with superstars as any film ever attempted. From Elliott Gould as Col. Robert Stout (who builds the "Bailey Bridge" at Son), to Robert Redford as Maj. Julien Cook (who paddled a brigade across the river Maas at Neimegan), to James Caan as SSgt. Eddie Dohoun (who holds a gun on a field doctor to force him to save his buddy), the paratroopers along the route do whatever they can, improvising, cajoling, stealing luck where none can be relied upon of their own doing, all the while noticing that their own advancing tank column, led by Lt. Col. John Vandaleur (Michael Kane) is falling further and further behind schedule.

Meanwhile, as a pensive Lt. Gen. Browning (Dirk Bogarde) looks on helplessly from the comfort of his English HQ, the troops surrounded at Arnhem are held tenuously together through the fearless actions of Maj. Gen. Urquhart (Sean Connery) on the outskirts of town, and by Lt. Col. John Frost (Anthony Hopkins) at the bridge itself. As the noose is tightened by Wehrmacht Gen. Bittricht (Maximillian Schell) and his crack team of rested Panzer troops, the highest-ranking exile from the Polish army, Gen. Sosabowski (Gene Hackman) desperately implores Browning and his coddled underlings in England to fly his troops in as soon as possible to relieve the pressure.

That we know how all of this turned out -- the war, at all events, certainly wasn't over by Christmas -- and yet find ourselves living and dying the tensions of every desperate moment of this exhausting, 175-minute epic, is the highest tribute to Attenborough's skillful deployment of all his myriad resources. Bucking the two formulas that might have competed for his allegiance at that point in the history of movies, he neither starts big and stays that way, a la The Longest Day, nor does he hold everything back for a single, this-is-it scene, a la Midway. Instead he's big just when the film needs that to grip us all by the throats (the scene in which the column begins its advance up the two-lane road is one of the loudest sustained bombing sequences I've ever watched in a motion picture), and then, at the precise moment that we might suspect that this and only this is what we're up against, he cuts away to a scene in which a single soldier, standing in a smoldering drop-zone, asks another, "Where's the captain." And when the plaintive reply comes back, "Dead," he pauses for a moment -- a moment of genuine quiet -- before saying, "I didn't ask you how he was; I asked you where he was."

38. Elephant (2003). The second of Gus Van Sant's three directorial credits on this list is a dog's-breath-quiet picture about a typically banal day in the life of a random Portland area high school. Until, that is, it's not -- and then it's really, really, really not.

John McFarland is "John" (all of the characters in this picture are assigned the first names -- only -- of the actors playing them), a winsome and good-looking boy whose alcoholic father side-swipes a parked car while driving him to school, and who must then manufacture for his principal an alternate explanation of why he is late. Elias McConnell is "Elias," a photography-club zealot whose snapshots of the other students and the school betray the very sort of edgy banality with which we sense the entire day's events being unfolded before us. Nicole George is "Nicole," a pretty girl in both senses of the term, realizing perhaps for the first time this very day that she isn't quite as shallow as her two best friends at the lunchtable.

And all the while, lurking in unexplained cutaway shots like the undercurrent of rogue menace against which we must all get through our days all the time, are Alex Frost and Eric Deulen as "Alex" and "Eric," the two hapless and universally disliked outsiders who skip school to play shoot'em'up games on the computer, make out together in the shower, and, eventually, sign for a package that they've very carefully calculated will arrive today, when Eric's parents won't be home to sign for it themselves.

It is little wonder that Van Sant won the Palme D'Or at Cannes for this picture, with its gripping style of discursive, seemingly unrelated vignettes leading us inexorably down a tunnel from whence we worry, very early on, that only some of our playmates will emerge. Of particular note is Van Sant's conscious, one might almost have said playful reprieves of each storyline, as that character is set aside for a while and the next student's experiences are joined. "Hey, Eli, are you going to the concert this Friday?" John says to Elias, framed dead-center in the camera, to which Eli replies, "Nah, my parents are being bitches." And then, a few minutes later, when another of our characters is late for the next period and dashing down a hallway, we see two out-of-focus figures at the opposite end, one of whom says, "Hey, Eli, are you going to the concert this Friday?" to which the other replies, "Nah, my parents are being bitches."

I've said it before about other titles on this list, but it's important for me to specify about this particular selection that this is not a movie for the faint-of-heart. It's a methodically patient, almost affectless tableaux that Van Sant sets for us over the first fifty-or-so minutes of this breathlessly short (eighty-four minute) picture -- but when those fifty minutes are up, no one's grandmother will be able to keep knitting in the corner of the living room, I can assure you. As with all things about the film, this is of course cruelly and poignantly intentional, Van Sandt's point being that the routine invisibility of pain amid our tediously banal and suburban lives does not in and of itself render that pain conveniently neutered. Had he named the film "Ostriches," I'd have had no quibble -- but for the fact that this alternative choice would deny us the clever riddle of the title he did, in fact choose. And for those of you still wondering, "why 'Elephant'?" let me just say, you're only wondering that because you aren't blind and standing in a room with one.

37. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). "What happened to your hand?" "You want the long version or the short one?" "Let's try the long one." "I was trying to save my life, and it didn't work." "Um, okay, what's the short one?" "I burned it."

Speaking only for myself, I find it very difficult to think about writer-director-actor Miranda July for more than a few moments at a time without feeling myself overrun with an all but crippling sense of envy if not outright jealousy. A critically lauded author of bizarrely self-alienated short stories, Ms. July has scored multiple acceptances to both Harper's and The New Yorker, and her first collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, is like a Whitman's Sampler of pitch-perfect arabesques. In one story, told in first-person, a protagonist living in a small town in the high desert befriends a group of senior citizens and decides to teach them how to swim by setting salad bowls full of water on the floor of her apartment and making the seniors lie down with their faces in them. In another, a priggish young woman finds out that her roommate is a pole-dancer, and decides to deal with it by taking a job in a peep-show booth to prove she is equally valid as a sexual being, only to find that her own father is a regular attendee.

So what does a woman capable of such radiantly quirky visions, rendered flawlessly in prose, come up with when her unreined creative impulses turn to celluloid? Well, she comes up with Me and You and Everyone We Know, a dark comedy with self-evidently flawed and limping characters, unafraid to muddle on through their flawed and limping lives despite the surest of convictions that at least some of the components of well-adjusted grownup success are missing from their baskets. And she does this, as only she could, by weaving what should be such improbably bizarre subject matter across those characters' disparate paths that we in the audience find ourselves torn between cringing away from the sight of all this tense and seemingly escape-proof strangeness, or slowing down to see the crash.

In one of the many wide-eyed stringers through the film's narrative, a pair of lightly supervised children begins corresponding in an adult chat-room with a grown woman who seems not to recognize their potty humor as anything other than an off-beat approach to foreplay; in another a shoe salesman copes with an apparently mutual attraction to a pair of under-aged girls by posting signs on his apartment window, where he knows the girls can see them, describing what he would do if he could do anything at all. And throughout these crazed and disarming runners, the film returns again and again like a metronome to the story of Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), a dreamy and disaffected father of two, whose wife has just left him and whose abiding fascination in a strange-behaving visitor to his life he can't quite confess, even to himself.

As marvelous as this film is, on as many levels, it also makes a very important point that we should all do better to keep in mind: Our idealized pictures of relationships can easily become curses to our own happiness. That dashing young woman we imagine ourselves with, the jet-setting guy with the weekend job teaching inner-city kids to read, the neighbors who won a banana-bread-making contest? They don't exist. We make ourselves happy in this world--or we don't--by how we play the cards we have.

I myself was pursued with some ardor as a freshman in college, by a young woman whose future was luminous with highly technical book-smarts and whose approach to life, whose conversational cadence and personal affect, were just off-kilter enough to keep her perpetually interesting in all the same ways as Ms. July. And where is she in my life, today? I never saw her again after that freshman year: I was too hung-up on the pictures in my head of what romantic love was "supposed" to be. Not every movie makes an important point, and not every movie with an important point makes it competently and un-manipulatively. This one does, and the point is simple and straightforward: Do yourself a favor. To which I can only add, do it right now -- before it's too late the way it is for me.

36. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). The Cohen brothers would -- and my Cohen-brother-ophile friends will -- forgive me for not having more than two of their films on this list, but only because one of those two films is O Brother Where Are Thou, easily the best of their pictures and arguably the greatest comedy ever made. George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson are Everett, Pete, and Delmar, three recently-escaped convicts from a Mississippi chain gang, in search of a treasure that Everett assures them has been buried at his farmhouse in a distant corner of the state. All they have to do now is evade the twin clutches of the soulless law-man on their tails, and the arid hopelessness of depression-era rural Mississippi, and a life of princely splendor will be theirs.

Along the twisting and character-peppered path of this loose adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses (which is to say, this loose adaptation of a loose adaptation of Homer's Odyssey), Everett and his compatriots are befriended by a man whose virtuoso guitar-playing he attributes to having sold his soul. They are also betrayed by a luckless brother in need of the bounty money ("I'm sorry, Pete, but they's got this'here depression on), thrummed into paralysis by a trio of laundry-washing "sigh reens," cornered by a larger-than-life bully with an eye patch, baptized by a church pastor dunking each of his entire flock in a rural and dust-clogged river, pressed breathlessly into getaway-duty by George "Baby-Face" Nelson, captured, escaped, captured, and escaped again, and even thrown forcibly out of Woolworth's ("Now, Everett, was that just the one, or did they mean for it to be the entire chain?").

By the time Everett's two boon companions catch wind of his true objectives, they are of course too deeply immersed -- and we right along with them -- in the perils of trying to extricate themselves from all of these assorted misadventures for it to even matter very much that the "treasure" all this time was of a very different sort than Everett had insinuated while they were all still cooped-up together in jail. After all, we've come so far already, and there's still that nagging matter of the blind railwayman's predictions to come fulfilled at the end.

Among my circle of friends at least, this picture has provided an inexhaustible font of no-context-needed dialogue quotations, in the great tradition of the most arrestingly perfect character films ever made. ("It's a good thing your mammy died in childbirth, 'cause if she'd seen you now, she'd a died of shame.") This is not the only standard by which a film is summoned to such a high perch on this list, naturally, or else I'd need to hold a similarly lofty slot for a certain other comedy that includes such can't-miss lines as, "It's my honor to present a laurel, and hardy-handshake, to our town's new...." (you know the rest). No, to make such a lasting and superlative impression, a character-driven comedy has to have not just memorable lines, but memorable characters, a memorably perfect control of narrative, memorable cinematographic choices, a memorable denouement, and, above all, it has to be memorably, permanently funny. Check, check, check, check, and check.

35. Lost in Translation (2003). With all due apologies to Lars Gustafsson, greatness manifestly does not strike where it pleases. It just doesn't. It strikes where all the necessary antecedents have been laid out in perfect balance, like the auger-auger in the petri dish, waiting for the culture to take root and grow. The spores of greatness blow through the ether of our daily lives like so much tree pollen, but without The Gods' kiss of serendipity they fall straight to the floor and mostly -- if not completely -- die, unrecognized. Call me a cynic if you must, but lots and lots of people, lots and lots of ideas, lots and lots of creative impulses, are or would be great. For that greatness to manifest, everything must come together in just the right sequence and proportion. Greatness does not strike where it pleases. Period.

Of course not every perfectly set-up petri dish leads to greatness, either. Fortunately for us, the Sophia Coppolas of the world do, occasionally, get invited by college friends of theirs to produce second-rate fashion shows, on account of their last names, and those Sophia Coppolas do, occasionally, accept the invitations, despite the fact that the shows in question are in Tokyo, and will require those Sophia Coppolas to while away long days and nights stranded in the alienating double-sterility of a Japanese, business hotel. What emerges when the fates conspire to combine such a perfect circumstantial setting, and perfect understanding of the creative opportunity so offered, is Lost in Translation -- a methodically unhurried portrait into the quietly desperate lives of two smart and talented strangers, whiling away long days and nights, stranded in the alienating double-sterility of a Japanese, business hotel.

Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, a recently graduated Ivy League philosophy major whose newlywed husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) is dispatched to Tokyo to photograph a rock band on tour, while, at the opposite end of the hotel's appropriately antiseptic piano bar, Bill Murray is famous movie star Bob Harris, dispatched to Tokyo by his agent to shoot a series of commercials for Santori Scotch, the real-life whiskey produced in real-life Japan and advertised by a cavalcade of real-life western celebrities.

As Bob's marriage seems to sputter away from him all but literally over-the-phone, Charlotte just a few rooms away is equally wide awake at all the wrong times of day, and grappling with the existential crisis of wondering what, exactly, she has just committed herself to. "I'm in Tokyo, and I can't sleep, and John has all these hair products, and I just, I don't know who I married," she says in one poignant telephone call -- moments before the sister on the other end of the line interrupts her to say that she has to go.

On their second night in town Charlotte and Bob find themselves in conversation at the bar, and the dialogue that follows between them, just dry and sardonic enough to keep it clever without pretense, sets the stage for a cool but at once also oddly intimate relationship that will span (at least) the rest of their stay together in that hotel. As with only the best of thought-provoking cinema, the takeaways manage to work on an assortment of levels: From the curious manner with which visitors to Japan tend after only a short time in-country to adopt "Japanese" conventions of warmth and closeness, at its most rudimentary level of interest, to a careful deconstruction of those quietly desperate, passion-vs-practicality choices that we must often face in deciding with whom we will spend the rest of our lives moving forward.

To say that Charlotte and Bob have a romance while they are staying in the hotel is inaccurate. But equally is it inaccurate to say that they do not. That's Japan for you. And for Sophia Coppola's insights to have hit that nail so squarely on the head with this, her first picture, is an achievement not just great, not just genetically predisposed, but downright stupefying. Another of the films whose placement at the very, very top of someone else's list would give me no hesitation or qualm whatsoever.

34. Ran (1985). Our only Kurosawa film to make the list is also his most ambitious, and comfortably one of the most important pictures ever made -- rivaling or surpassing the artistic significance of each of the Hollywood standards of elite artistic significance to have received some of our attention thus far, and at the same time far superior in its entertainment value.

In this film-adaptation of Shakespear's King Lear, mashed-up with the ancient Japanese legend of the Three Arrows, vengeance and a lust for power replace the emphasis on expiation so prominent in the original. Lord Hideotra (Tatsuya Nakadai), sensing the onset of his twilight years, decides to step aside to make way for his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo (Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, and Daisuke Ryu). There's only one small problem: without a clear indication of how the power is to be allocated among them, Hideotra has instead sown the seeds of a violent rivalry that will eventually see the king himself stripped of everything he has ever had, including his title, and banished to wander the countryside incognito. Meanwhile the youngest son, Saburo, struggles to make a just order out of the chaos that has exploded across his father's lands at the hands of his two older brothers and their conniving wives.

The framing of this picture is classic Kurosawa, the battle scenes playing out like visual symphonies -- at once arched beauty and supreme carnage, gobbling-up extras like the grains of rice in an unforgettably affecting meal. All of the actors hit their marks impeccably, but without question the exemplar in this regard is Mikeo Harada as Jiro's Lady Kaede; the scene in which she drags herself across a floor in her full silk regalia ranking high among those I-remember-the-first-time vignettes, the Japanese equivalent of the first time we all saw Woltz roll over in his satin sheets to find a little something extra in the bed with him. And whereas most films would be fortunate, indeed almost automatically deserving of a place on this list, to have one such memorably iconic moment, Ran affords us not one but two -- the second in the form of Lord Hideotra's thunderstruck descent down the flaming staircase of the fortress that has just been savagely attacked, and will be soon be razed, by one of his power-thirsty sons.

At two hours and forty-four minutes, Ran is long -- but no so long as to render a person feeling as though any particular indulgences have been favored over the supremely well-paced unfolding of the narrative. This is a complex tale about complex individuals, after all, with allegiances continually in flux and no obvious high ground to be sought or held. This is not the last picture to be made by Kurosawa, but it is certainly his magnum opus, the statement piece with which he signaled to the world that, unlike any other director before or since, he and he alone could marshal the creative resources and the stature to tackle such an enormous project with such down-to-the-detail precision. I will make no new friends by saying this, but Ran is the movie that pictures like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments would have been, if only their creators had been as daring, as unimpeachable, and as right, as Kurosawa was when he made Ran. Other movies will score higher on my own list for the lengths to which I enjoyed them, but none is as urgently a must-see work of important art.

33. Stalker (1979). Andrei Tarkovsky has two almost completely separate standards to live up to with his own creative talent: The first is that of any great individual filmmaker, whose initial critical success (in this case, 'Andrei Rubalev') sets a bar so high that most of us could never hope to throw-off the shackles of the implicit self-comparisons and would, instead, retreat into a morass of mediocrity so deep and abiding that we need never concern ourselves with having anything to live up to ever again. Most of us, in other words, would if we were Andrei Tarkovsky have let our own press-clippings devour our creative hunger alive and would never again have made anything as important or superlative on that basis alone.

But Tarkovsky doesn't just carry the torch of his own resume, as so many other directors manage with to do with such indifferent success; he carries the torch of entire nation's output of film. (If you hesitate to agree, try saying the words "Russian" and "film" in the presence of any movie aficionado you know, and see how long it takes for that person to say in response the word "Tarkovsky.") And it is to the immense benefit of the rest of us that Tarkovsky didn't let this bother him either, indeed went on to direct two additional films that would stand in most peoples' lists of the hundred greatest ever, the latter of which is -- somewhat sadly -- our only Tarkosky project on this particular list, Stalker.

Anatoli Solonitsin is "the writer," a dreamy, failed-poet type whose own life seems to have come farther off its moorings than even dreamy failed-poet types can usually get before they end up working jobs at the local plumbing supply store. Nikolai Grinko is "the scientist," an appropriately scruffy and pedantic cynic who, we sense, would question the ability of water to boil away in a pot if he hadn't seen it himself. And Aleksandr Kaidanovsky is the Stalker: the man in whose charge these two misfit truth-seekers will exist for the balance of the film -- the man whose job it is to take them to, and sneak up on, the site of a comet collision in central Russia, rumored to now be a place in which wishes come true merely by thinking them.

Returning to a subject matter he engaged so terrifyingly and yet so playfully at the same time in his earlier sci-fi suspense thriller Solaris, Tarkovsky once again hamstrings his rough-and-tumble hero with the realization that a straight-ahead approach to the granting of wishes will produce results that might be more accurately thought of as the granting-of-nightmares. This time, however, the hero isn't the problem -- it's the two impatient and allegorically similar tourists who have hired him to have this matter de-cloaked once and for all, at least one of whom would seem quietly preoccupied with destroying the site if the whole business about wish-granting should turn out in the end to hold a grain of truth.

As with all Tarkovsky films, the point of the thing is never the overt one: the issue of whether this "zone" is capable of granting wishes or not takes an all but literal back seat to the loquacious posturings of the three travelers, each of them taking his turn at soliloquy to expound upon the nature of humanity, aspiration, greed and death, in this less-is-more sci-fi thriller that contains not a single, solitary special effects shot of any kind. "My conscience wants vegetarianism to win over the entire world," the writer intones toward the Stalker, when it comes his turn to ruminate, "but my subconscious is yearning for a piece of juicy red meat," he continues. "So --" and here just a heartbeat's pause, as only a Tarkovsky-directed actor can pull it off, "what is it that I want?" It's a question as old as trees falling alone in the forest, and, in the end, the fact that Tarkovsky can make it fresh for us all over again is reason enough to place this movie on our list.

32. Chinatown (1974). Earlier in these proceedings, when I complimented Curtis Hanson for his fearless direction of L.A. Confidential, in part on the basis that any such noir thriller would have to be played perfectly to avoid dismissal as a caricature of a genre already peppered with so many great and important works, I was thinking first and foremost of Chinatown, of course. Just as one cannot say "Russian" and "film" without the film-buff in the room saying "Tarkovsky," neither is a person likely to utter "noir" and "film" without the film-buff quickly sputtering the word "Chinatown," and anyone out there who hasn't seen this move or Ran has a very, very difficult decision to make while browsing tonight's selections at his local movie store, for Roman Polanski's piece-de-la-resistance is every bit as important a picture and just that little, two-spaces-worth smidgen the better-entertaining film.

Jack Nicholson is Mr. J. J. Giddes, a moderately successful private investigator in the LA of the nineteen-thirties, hired by a Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray to snoop on her husband Hollis (Darrell Zwerling), the director of the L.A. Water Department and possible philandering wife-cheater to boot. Only two small problems: The woman who hires Giddes turns out not to be Evelyn Mulwray at all, as proven by the real one (played by Faye Dunaway) and the woman Giddes clandestinely photographs with Hollis for the would-be Mrs. Mulwray turns out not to be Hollis' mistress, either. Before he can say "unresolved feud with the LAPD," Giddes finds himself in the eye of a storm of power and intrigue in which he discovers that much of the water the city desperately needs at the height of a depression-era drought is instead being diverted to the valley to irrigate what are, at least for the moment, relatively low-value tracts of citrus.

The further into all of this he digs -- now trailing the true and semi-willing Mrs. Mulwray as a sort of paying voyeur to his continued inquiries -- the more that powerful feathers are ruffled, eventually tangling Giddes with some old nemeses on the force, some new ones at the Water Department, and, perhaps most threatening of all, a tall and ominous business magnate named Noah Cross, played with on-the-nose, movie-stealing perfection by John Huston. "How much money are you worth," Giddes says to Cross, in one memorably chilling confrontation with power-incarnate, to which Cross, much too important and well-connected to break a sweat getting angry at a cockroach like Giddes, merely grins and says, "Oh, I've no idea -- how much you want?"

That the two leads are at the height of their respective careers doesn't hurt the film even a little bit, either, with Nicholson reading his lines in just the sort of hamless, semi-disinterested drowse with which he first became famous, and then became famous for having semi-intentionally abandoned, and ultimately became famous for getting away with not bothering to try for any longer. Meanwhile Dunaway's Mulwray is just coy enough, just rattled enough, just unused to having to work to get her way with people, to leave us unnerved and fidgety at the droning sense that she's not telling Giddes everything she knows, or indeed everything that he himself will need to know, if he hopes to make it out of all of this alive.

Polanski directed numerous other films before, and has directed numerous other films since Chinatown, but I find it no great surprise that it took him most of thirty years to conjure another recipe of anything like as exquisite perfection as this picture. Indeed if he'd never made another film, it woud've been enough.

31. Brazil (1985). The directorial credits for our most recent six films including this one would form the backbone of a truly uncompromising filmography for all but the most extreme of purist film-buffs: Cohen, Coppola, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Polansky, and Gilliam -- with only the faintest of asterices reserved for the nagging detail that the Coppola in question is Francis Ford's daughter and not himself.

Typically sprawling, typically atonal, and typically dream-like, Gilliam tells a tale of love and conquest in a not-too-distant-future dystopia in which all the vital necessities of life are delivered through visible and clanking ductwork, and computer outputs are so small that they must be viewed through repositionable magnifying screens. As our story opens, hapless middle-bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) keeps having the same dream about a beautiful woman being carried off to bliss by a winged, valkyrie-like incarnation of himself. When by chance he seems to have discovered a method of tracing the woman's identity, he puts in for a series of joy-sapping promotions and transfers in the hopes of eventually violating the most serious of the totalitarian laws under which he has prospered, for the purposes of looking this total stranger up.

Events intervene as only they can in a Gilliam movie -- unfolding in a dense thicket of A- and B-stories, the latter featuring what should have been, and sometimes is, a comic case of mistaken identity, with Lowry dispatched to smooth-over the fact that his bureaucracy didn't actually bag the subversive terrorist Archibald "Harry" Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), but instead subdued and accidentally killed a charmless and law-abiding nobody named Harry Buttle, a character so conspicuously insignificant that he was afforded neither a speaking line nor an acting credit in the film.

As Lowry grapples with the guilt of this terrible mistake, his path crosses with other such colorful characters as his completely helpless first boss Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), the real Tuttle (who makes his mark in a memorably Heller-esque scene involving the swapping of a pair of, shall we say, unswappably crucial ducts), and eventually the woman of his dreams herself, Jill (played by Kim Greist). As lovers of Gilliam might expect, the denouement of all these characters' irretrievably fractured and dysfunctional timelines is anything but resolute, featuring unfulfilled hopes, the totality of the state crushing down, and just enough dangled narrative to have folks leaving the theater in two-by-two heated conversations about what, exactly, just happened. What just happened was two hours and twelve minutes of the most significant of all cult-followed films, the movie that put Terry Gilliam not just on the map, but above the fray.

Surely the air up here is getting pretty thin; our next installment will cover choices 30-21. But it also seems worth a few words to bear in mind once again that I considered not even numbering the list at all. In an ocean as deep with quality cinema as we find ourselves today, the attempt at a qualitative distinction between, say, The Sweet Hereafter and Chinatown becomes rather like trying to determine who has the better lifestyle among the hundred richest people on earth: on any given day a person will feel more like watching Chinatown, then more like watching The Sweet Hereafter on some other day. Then again, if I didn't number the list, we wouldn't have it available to us as something to squabble over, now, would we.

Stay tuned....

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