Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (Part Six)

Our job half-accomplished, the Key Grip's list of the hundred greatest movies has become the Key Grip's list of the fifty greatest movies--which was the original intent of the project in the first place. As always, the reader is reminded that (like everyone else) your author has not seen every movie on planet earth; just because a particular title ends up not making this list doesn't actually mean that he wouldn't have placed it, say, ahead of The Station Agent. It could mean that, or it could mean that he hasn't gotten around to watching the other movie. Without further ado, then, here are your columnist's choices for the 50th- through 41st greatest movies.

50. When We Were Kings (1996). The documentary that will ruin you for all other documentaries, this improbably universal chronicle of the "Rumble in the Jungle" title fight between Muhammed Ali and Goerge Foreman in Zaire has a little bit of all the best attributes that make a great documentary: The all but literally larger-than-life protagonists are shown in perfect counterpoint -- the gregarious and talkity Ali, playing the uncomfortable role of heavy underdog, framed as if in silhouette against the broodingly intimidating and pensive Foreman. The principal commentators, Plimpton and Mailer, were writers at the peak of their profession whose only common attribute was their love of boxing -- a fact the filmmakers exploit as the only high-percentage means with which to impart that appreciation to the rest of us. And the cutaways are exactly as they always should be in the highest traditions of the documentary: Generally unanticipated, often unresolved, and sometimes downright herky. The scene in which four people take turns getting one or two words out to describe Don King's hair is but one example.

Add to these can't-miss elements the megalomaniacal ubiquity of Zairian President Mbuto, prowling just behind the scenes as if about to collar one of the two fighters and have him bundled off to an anonymous killing field somewhere, and you've got not just a documentary for the ages, but a story for the ages for the documentarians to tell. To say nothing of the camera's voyeuristic portrayals of the cat-herding logistics of the project -- presumably hard enough to plan and execute in the United States, but seeming all the more tense and possibly even insurmountable in the darkest heart of post-colonial Africa. "We have air conditioning in some of the rooms on the fifth and sixth floors," says a man into a walkie-talkie, at one point in the pre-fight marshaling of men and materiel in Zaire. "How many rooms?" says his dour counterpart at the table, touching him on the sleeve. "502 and 604," says the first speaker. To which the second man pauses, ruminatively, before clarifying, "That's four beds, Paul. You just told him that we have air-conditioned sleeping space for four people."

The reason we came all this way is of course the fight itself -- a fact which Director Leon Gast exploits to maximal tension-building showmanship by delaying the beginning of it until nearly three-quarters of his film is already unfurled. What follows is a depiction so keenly anticipated by the filmgoing audience as to capture the palpable sense of anxiety that the real-time audience felt when the bout was actually taking place, and with equal shock and marvel at the eventual outcome. Fights don't end the way the "Rumble in the Jungle" did, anymore, because fight referees are too eager to avoid a repeat of the tragic incident involving Henry Mancini and Duk Koo Kim -- an awareness of which only rarefies the thrill of watching this virtuoso chronicle of what just might be the last great title fight in history.


49. Alien (1979). "In space, no one can hear you scream."

Ain't it the truth. When Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett got together to write the story of Alien in the late 1970s, they were a pair of semi-marginalized sci-fi movie scriptwriters with a single, semi-successful picture to their credit: John Carpenter's low-budget intergalactic morality play, Dark Star. Little did they know that their follow-up effort, a haphazardly pitched and almost passed-on collaboration with Swiss sci-fi artist H. R. Geiger, would yield such lasting and iconic dividends. Of all the sci-fi/horror movies ever made, Alien is the standard-bearer by a margin that places it comfortably outside the realm of argument as a member of this hundred-film fraternity. It may be the greatest sci-fi movie ever made; it may be the greatest horror movie ever made. It is, without question, the greatest sci-fi/horror movie ever made. Nothing else even comes close.

Among the many fascinating legends that have imbued this film with a stature almost completely independent of its entertainment value is the famous tale of how O'Bannon and Shusett grappled with the dilemma that would ultimately lend the movie its most affecting and memorable moment. "We spent months trying to figure out how the Alien would get on board the ship," O'Bannon explained for the 25th-anniversary edition's compelling featurette. "Everything we tried to write rang completely hollow and contrived -- as though it were obvious that we were just needing an excuse for someone to open a door. And then one day Ron came to me and he said, 'What if it screwed one of the astronauts?' Well, we were off and running then."

After much tweaking and re-draft, Shusett's original idea came to be the famous scene -- *THE* famous scene -- in which Astronaut Kane (John Hurt) is dining with his compatriots after a scary encounter on a derelict spacecraft, acting as if nothing is wrong, and then suddenly... well... suddenly everything is wrong.

Arresting in its own right, especially for 1979, the scene is all the more telling as a symbol of director Ridley Scott's stunningly bold leadership style on the set, insofar as he declined to inform the other actors of what exactly was about to happen. "He told us this would be a very important scene," Veronica Cartwright told the makers of the featurette. "He said we'd only get one take, and that we might get a little blood on us. That was all we knew." Fortunately for the history of movie-making, the ploy worked to perfection: Kane's fellow astronauts stand around for a long, tortured moment acting genuinely bewildered as only sheer terror can bewilder, in a shot so spine-chillingly believable precisely because the actors playing those characters, were genuinely bewildered as only sheer terror can bewilder. Movies just don't get made like that anymore.

There is no rest for the fated crew of the Nostromo, of course, who thence find themselves targeted and picked off by the Alien, one by one, in precisely the same manner as the ensemble in one of the great original horror films, Ten Little Indians. Though just who will survive was at the time anyone's educated guess, especially after the only pre-existing stars of the movie, Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Skerritt, found themselves Alien hot-lunch numbers one and two.

The scene following Skerritt's demise was another high-water mark in Scott's directing prowess: As Parker (Yaphet Koto), Lambert (Cartwright), Ash (Ian Holm), and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deliberate their next move, the script calls for Parker to challenge Ripley's authority -- partly on account of her gender, partly on account of her erstwhile low rank, and partly on account of her tiresome insistence on quoting everything by the book. To accommodate some true tension among the players, Scott kept shooting and re-shooting this claustrophobic confrontation scene until the small hours of the night, finally taking Koto aside and privately instructing him to improvise a genuinely personal and hurtful screaming fit that Weaver would reflexively interpret as an attack on who she really is, rather than on who she was playing.

Koto didn't disappoint. And though his full-in-the-face diatribe ("Lady, who the fuck are you?!?!") was never planned for inclusion, it did have its intended effect, splitting Veronica Cartwright so thoroughly down her emotional middle that she collapsed in a fit of crying hysterics and demanded to be released from the film. Meanwhile, as the first A-D was mopping Cartwright off the floor, Weaver took Scott aside and told him that if Koto improvised like that again, she wasn't sure she could be fully responsible for her actions. Koto stormed out of the room and down one of the corridors of the fully-built "ship" and, for at least a few moments, could not be found. "Tell you what," Scott said to the eventually reassembled actors, "let's do it one more time, and then call it a night."

This was of course the take that would be used -- Lambert's tear-streaked disconsolance, Weaver's inexplicable rush to tell Parker to shut up, Parker's fuming passivity as he says, barely audibly, "let's hear it." The audience doesn't know quite what has happened in the moments before we joined this cheerful little retinue, but we know it hasn't been fun. The whole thing is stretched so tight, pulled so close to the bone, that even hardened suspense snobs sense the panic descending over our surviving characters, the frustration, the loss of control, the dread. Movies don't get made like that anymore, either.

One of the truest standards for greatness in film-making, it seems to me, is the extent to which later films from the same genre seem always to resemble the picture in question. If I'm right then Alien is truly a great film, having spawned not only its own stable of consistently successful and well-made sequels, but also a wide assortment of other horror / sci-fi films, made by other filmmakers from other starting premises, but in which one lone member of the team always seems curiously a little more self-empowered than everyone else, and ultimately survives. "Gee, that was just like Alien," we say to ourselves as we leave the theater. "Only not as good."


48. Empire of the Sun (1987). Steven Spielberg has become over the years the director that movie snobs love to disparage as proof of their own snobbery. And that's too bad, because in the process those people deprive themselves the simple pleasure of taking in some of the finest pictures ever made, without having to harbor a snotty agenda.

Frankly I'm not even altogether sure what the complaint is: I hear people say that his premises, or his portrayals of them, are too saccharine, too family-friendly, in some way too easy on us all -- and then I ask them about Saving Private Ryan and I get shouted-down for my own smugness on the subject. I hear people say that he boxes-in fine actors with roles that don't exploit their talent -- and then I ask them about Catch Me if You Can, and I get shouted-down for picking a film in which the actors were too good to let it happen. I hear people say that his directorial style is a dated mishmash of John Ford and John Huston, all sweeping scene shots and framed speakers and swelling music for the big disclosures -- and then I ask them about Empire of the Sun and I get shouted-down for trotting out the exception that proves the rule.

To which I say, if Empire of the Sun and Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me if you Can are exceptions, then that's why I'll be putting all three of them on this list (two more than Woody Allen, two more than Robert Altman, three more than Ang Li and Werner Herzog combined): they're not just exceptions; they're exceptional.

It is 1941 and the city of Shanghai exists as an uneasy, other-worldly safe haven, around which the Japanese occupation of coastal China has completely encircled it. Having been protected from imperial aggression for years, the British expatriots of Shanghai live their lavishly westernized lifestyles inside the safe zone as if nothing were amiss outside the wire -- but something is amiss outside the wire: The Japanese are readying themselves for December 7, on which date they plan to strike out at geopolitical prizes from every corner of the Pacific, breaking all possible sources of opposition with carefully timed, thunderclap surprise. It is the middle of the night when their warships begin shelling Shanghai, but only because of the time difference between there and Honolulu.

In the ensuing panic and confusion, a young boy named Jamie (Christian Bale) is separated from his parents amid a throng of desperately outrushing British and other western well-to-do. With no hope of rejoining them he makes his way to the waterfront, where he is discovered by a pair of politically unaffiliated American opportunists and small-time operators, Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano). To Frank's chagrin, Basie takes a liking to the young Jamie and, after the three of them are taken prisoner and transported to a Japanese-run camp in the Chinese countryside, appoints Jamie as his most trusted procurer of all that is covetable among the other inmates' assorted worldly baubles. Eventually, mostly at Jamie's clever arranging, Basie finds himself with a richly-appointed bunk beneath the most highly sought-after window in the entire compound -- but only after Jamie himself has born silent, wide-eyed witness to all that gritty humanity can show a prepubescent boy in P-O-W circumstances, from rancid food rations to illicit copulation to starvation to senseless brutality to death.

When the camp is about to be overrun by the onrushing Chinese, Basie, Frank and Jamie are evacuated on foot -- together with all the other prisoners -- where follows perhaps the most memorably disturbing scene in the picture, with the POWs stumbling onto a soccer field to which their own chattel property had been removed after they were taken from their houses in Shanghai. One of the inmates even locates, and then plays a tune on, her own piano, there in the middle of an abandoned soccer stadium.

Of course none of what Jamie sees, from the thrilling fly-by of an American P-51 pilot to the cold-blooded murder of a low-ranking Japanese who'd befriended him, can shake this young and consciously lost boy from the one true desire that a young and consciously lost boy will feel at the highest and lowest moments of wartime voyeurism: to be reunited with his own parents. "Try not to think so much!" the camp doctor shouts at Jamie as the Americans bomb a runway that the POWs had been ordered to build for the Japanese. To which Jamie, after a long moment to wake from his grief-stained euphoria at the bombing, replies quietly, "I can't even remember what my mother looks like." And Spielberg, my snobby compatriots will just have to allow someday, hits every, note, just, right.


47. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)."They was givin' me a thousand watts a day, and you know, I'm hot-to-trot. Next woman takes me on, she's gonna light up like a pinball machine an' pay off in silver dollars."

Jack Nicholson is Randall Patrick McMurphy, a multiple-stint convict who sandbags his jailers into thinking that he's mentally ill -- a fine plan until it works, and McMurphy is dispatched to an insane asylum. What follows are the one-hundred and thirty-three minutes that will blow apart everything you've ever though you knew about the boundaries between healthy vs. un-healthy, sane vs. insane, even care vs. abuse.

More or less immediately upon arrival McMurphy discovers that the ward nurse, Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is an overbearing school-marm type with a compulsion to bully the inmates into forms of mental unhealth that they could scarcely have dreamt of suffering before they'd met her. Ratched makes it her job to break McMurphy, and McMurphy makes it his job to make Nurse Ratched's life as miserable as his.

The ensemble cast consists mostly of relative unknowns, but they nail their parts -- particularly Brad Dourif as the stuttering and utterly cowed Billy Bibbit, Will Sampson as the brawny and possibly deaf-mute Chief Bromden, Sydney Lassick as McMurphy's would-be sidekick Charlie Cheswick, and a young Danny DeVito as the only self-evidently derranged patient on the entire ward, Martini -- a man who devoutly believes that the Easter Bunny is trying to control his mind. Obviously McMurphy isn't going to fit in, or perhaps the real problem, as he and we both realize in the first reel, is that he might just fit in a little too well. The obvious solution at all events is an ever spiraling cycle of conniving, resistance, violence, and visions of escape. Disturbing scenes abound, but none without their calculated purpose in advancing either the plot, our sympathies for these assorted flawed and failing characters, or both.

As Nurse Ratched and McMurphy find themselves in the confrontation we should've seen coming, what none of us can see coming is the fate that awaits either of them -- each horrific in its own right, but each seasoned with just enough unexpected specificity to make the horror feel all the more personal and realistic. Even the iconic final scene gives little to nothing away for those who have not yet witnessed what happens immediately before the Chief picks up that water fountain.

This is Jack Nicholson at the absolute peak of both his celebrity and his craft, a fact that director Milos Forman exploited by largely (and uncharacteristically) staying the hell out of the way. Whole scenes are rendered in masters and two-shot, the lack of coverage only serving to amplify our preternatural sense that someone might be just off to the side -- listening, studying, contemplating. Writing things down. Mental health treatment was never the same after this movie, and if that sounds grandiose and overwrought, then ask yourself: When was the last time you heard of someone spending time in an "insane asylum"? These days there is, to a first approximation, no such thing. We treat mental-health patients with the same combination of transitory in-patient remediation to address a crisis, and intensive out-patient regimes to deal with those crises' chronic aftermaths, as we do their physically ill and injured counterparts. If Cuckoo's Nest doesn't deserve the credit for exposing just how horrific the prior model for such matters could be, it certainly deserves the credit for helping us all feel grateful for the change.


46. Remains of the Day (1993). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is as true to the original as a film can be without ruining the very peculiar chemistry that makes a movie different from a book. Of all the film adaptations of books to make this list (and there are several), none works as well, on that level, as director James Ivory's powerful and pindrop-quiet period piece about dignity amidst a storm of ambition, intrigue, and tragic misunderstanding.

In a story told as a series of seamless and unpretentious flashbacks, Anthony Hopkins is Stevens, the master butler of an English country estate at which his previous master had once hosted the diplomatically minded of 1930s Europe and America's aristocratic luminaries, in the hopes of averting World War Two. Emma Thompson is Miss Kenton, the impeccably credentialed housekeeper who replied to Stevens' advertisement in the last urgent weeks before the "summit," only to find her own peculiarly self-actualized approach to service thwarted at every turn by the vastly more old-fashioned Stevens. As the film opens, the new owner of the estate, a loquacious and obviously un-refined American named Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve) entrusts to Stevens the property's prized automobile -- a vintage Daimler -- with which to seek out and perhaps re-hire Miss Kenton, after what we already understand to be a veritable but lengthy absence from the staff.

As Stevens makes his way semi-haplessly across the English countryside toward Brighton, and his scheduled meeting with Kenton, the flashback sequences reveal much about the goings-on in the pre-war version of both the upstairs at the manor, and the down -- stubbornly returning, time after time, to explore the depth and complexity of the uniquely strained and "British" relationship that grew up between Stevens and Kenton in spite of their best efforts to dislike each other and each other's styles. Meanwhile the former master, a Lord Darlington (James Fox) manages in a single character to bespeak the sweeping conflicts of emotions that descended over Britain's aristocracy, as they faced the prospect of armed conflict with their seemingly close cousins in Berlin.

As we watch helplessly -- truly helplessly, for by this time he has thoroughly won-over our personal sympathies as a kindly and diffident boss, particularly toward Stevens -- Lord Darlington descends deeper and deeper into a pro-German stance instead of an anti-war one, ultimately taking on points of view obvious even to him as those he does not really believe, with ghastly consequences that are only ever hinted about in the cleverly detached style of the picture. Particularly touching in this respect is a scene toward the conclusion of the film, when Darlington has laid so many stacks of pointless documents out, in so many heartbreakingly tidy little piles throughout his quarters, that he no longer has anywhere to sleep in his own bed, and must instead curl into the fetal position atop his own footlocker. Meanwhile in the front-story, when Stevens is accused of having worked for a sympathizer, he finds himself first denying having ever known Lord Darlington. And then, when he realizes what he's just done and takes steps to correct it, our sympathies swell for everyone involved, all over again.

Of course the real story here is the unresolved emotion felt at arm's length by the two key members of the staff. And in the end, when at last Stevens and Kenton get to have their long-awaited meeting by the sea, the matter proceeds in precisely the fashion that we would come to expect, after having spent the first hour and a half of the movie learning to expect it. Ishiguro's treatment in the book is the embodiment of the credibly sympathetic denouement, Jhabvala's adaptation is unpretentious and deferential, and Ivory's direction is just light-brushtroked enough, just quiet enough, just patient enough, to stand stoically by and wait for our hearts to take the full measure of what has just been announced, and decided, and gained, and lost, by each of these two people whom we feel we have come so intimately to know. I said it about LA Confidential; I'll say it again here, about Remains of the Day: No one who placed this film at his or her overall number-one slot would have anything to apologize for, at least to me.


45. Time Out (2001). Director Laurent Catent's premise is as simple as it is devastating: What if a man, someone you know, had lost his job, and decided not to tell anyone? Including his family? Sorta grabs you by the shirt collar, doesn't it.

Aurelien Recoing is Vincent, a previously high-flying member of the French bourgeois who finds himself unable to confess to his wife, his three variously adoring or difficult children, and his doting parents, that he has just been down-sized from his post on account of a tendency to become so dreamy behind the wheel that he misses his appointments because he can't get off the highway. Instead Vincent cooks-up an increasingly elaborate and shaky lie, in which his professional responsibilities include gathering capital from interested investors for deployment in rapidly evolving markets in Africa and eastern Europe. To hold this job, he tells his wealthy father, he will need an expensive condo in Geneva (for which the father is expected of course to pay). To make a big splash with the new bosses, he tells his close friends, he will need to prove that he can secure investors with up-front cash.

The more deeply into this web of lies that Vincent becomes committed, the more obvious it becomes to us that the web is completely unsustainable -- and that, in fact, Vincent doesn't even want to sustain it, but instead wants to be found out and exposed for the liar that he is. When he is befriended by an aging and likable broker of cheap knock-offs, himself doing business out of a hotel suite, our spirits lift at the prospect that Vincent might yet find a semi-respectable out from this methodically tightening circle of deception, but at the precise moment that this fact becomes apparent to Vincent himself, he bolts the project and flees in his brand-new, very expensive car, only to re-embrace the terrifying anti-world to which he's grown more and more accustomed.

Most lovers of fine film are more astute than I, especially when it comes to sniffing-out the prospect of a manipulative "point" to be made by a particular director or script, so I must apologize in advance for saying that only at the film's very, very end, as Vincent is shown one last time, speaking in the corporate double-speak he's been using so effectively for so long, did I realize that the movie actually had an important argument to make -- and that this argument been made with such devastating effectiveness precisely because I didn't fully grasp what it might be until that very moment. When you watch this one, ask yourself, just as you sense the pull-back to credits coming on, what is different about Vincent's tone, about the content of what he's saying, in this final scene? And when you know the answer to that question, and what that answer signifies, you'll appreciate this movie on a level even deeper than that which the thrillingly cool-tempered suspense of the story, and the clean, minimalist acting and directing, could manage to evince on their own.


44. M (1931). This is by far the oldest film on my list, but let no one think that I'm tossing some sort of obligatory bone to the early days of cinema. Oh, no: Fritz Lang's classic picture about a serial child-killer and a city's desperation to stop him is as compelling and terrifying today as it was when it first ran. Part of this is an accident of its time and place: The film was made in Germany at precisely the moment that their film-making industry began adding sound, so that huge swathes of the film--in some cases entire scenes--are completely silent, followed abruptly by the booming foley of some insignificant element of the set decoration. We sit in preternatural nothingness in the black of our living rooms, watching a young Peter Lorre slowly measure out the moves he has rehearsed so many times, in expectation of his next dead little girl--and then a street car clangs past him at full volume with no warning, either to him or to us.

A marvelous study in how much suspended disbelief can be managed with how little investment of fancy devices and technology, M continues to hold court over any number of plot premises that always take us straight back: The city-wide hysteria over the safety of its children; the ridiculously overwrought police efforts to stop the killer; the more typical criminal elements that eventually form their own league to try to root him out before the cops semi-inadvertently clean up everything else that's rotten, including all of them.

I was in my early thirties when I saw this film for the first time, and I'm grateful for it: There's something far more unsettling, far more instantly engrossing to the idea of a sexually motivated child-killer--the sense of powerlessness that the sight of him and his depraved appetites evokes in us all, the involuntary flexing of one's arm-rests as Lorre moves in for his next kill, the veritably primal dread of the thing--that would have been mostly lost on me as an eleven year-old, fretting over his long-division homework and wishing the Yankees hadn't been rained out.


43. Distant (2002). One of the things I've noticed about hobbyists is their tendency to disappear down more and more inscrutable alleyways of the original interest. A music-loving and professional music-reviewing friend of mine here in Gainesville lists, as his favorite band, "My Morning Jacket"--a group of which I'd be willing to bet that you have never so much as heard. It's a tendency that makes its own kind of sense when you think about it: The more versed in something a person becomes (be it wine, antique cars, music, or film), the more likely he is to dismiss entire universes of that something as banal and easy. You don't fancy yourself a lover of fine films because you own two copies of The Lion King, any more than you fancy yourself a lover of music because you own two copies of The Joshua Tree.

For me this impulse to rarefy tastes took an improbable form: I found myself, perhaps seven years ago, gravitating to films that were increasingly quiet--methodical, so measured out with such long takes and so little dialogue that anything less than my total, squinted concentration would cause me to miss the whole thing. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Distant is just such a film.

Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir) is a small-town Turkish photographer who has made it in the big city of Istanbuhl, but for whom the sudden departure of his wife has left a cavernous hole of quietude and self-alienation. Yusuf (Emin Toprak) is a friend-of-a-friend who, down on his luck in the village, seeks Mahmut out in Istanbuhl, in hopes that the photographer will afford him refuge while he endeavors to get his life in order. It is this, and just this -- the coy, largely withheld interplay between these two men as they struggle to make peace with themselves in the strained company of the other -- that makes for an entire film about the existential crises we all occasionally find ourselves in, when one other person is too much company and zero other people isn't quite enough.

This is no "Odd Couple With Subtitles" kind of affair; this is a stern and brooding portrait into the doubts that people form when left a little too long to stew in their own juices about others and about themselves, and Ceyland has an unflinchingly confident grip on this, leaving us to stew right along with his main characters. Some of the best shots in this film are several minutes long each -- and in the end this is just the perfect recipe for tackling such dense and inscrutable subject matter. The soul of a man's heart is deep, after all. Deep and wine-dark and, above all, quiet.


42. The Godfather (1972). By this point in the proceedings there is probably one of two thoughts rattling around inside the head of each of the five people left reading all of this: One, this guy doesn't pull any punches about what he likes and dislikes, regardless of date or genre. Two, this guy tosses random bones in the direction of movies that were made before about 1995, just to keep the five of us from calling him on his bullshit. I'd like to think that my choice of the forty-second greatest movie of all time puts that conversation to rest, though now that I think about it, choosing such a scandalously low slot for The Godfather may unwittingly cause just the opposite.

In the fading days of World War II, young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) returns home from the service, just in time to join his stern and capriciously beneficent father Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in the celebration of Michael's sister Connie (Talia Shire) to a thuggish young gangster named Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). While the Don and his trusted inner circle conduct a series of small business transactions indoors, Michael admits to his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) that this is no ordinary family business that we're dealing with here -- but also assures her that he wants nothing to do with it all, having enlisted in the service in the first place to escape the family's cloak-and-dagger lifestyle.

With the Corleone family finally assembled -- Michael being welcomed home by his brothers Sonny (James Caan) and Freddo (John Cazale) -- and with the Don's trusted lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) close at his side, the matter of Connie's improbable happiness is quickly shunted in favor of a difficult business decision: whether or not to support a small-time rival in his desire to bring narcotics trafficking to the streets of New York. The Don, who by this time seems almost to sense his own impending obsolescence, demurs on the idea of protecting the drug trade, largely on the basis that he can't bring himself to view the target market for the drugs as anything other than loyal subjects who don't deserve to have such misery brought into their lives.

At this show of disapproval the small-time rival, Turk Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), decides to assert his authority by arranging a series of hits against the Corleone operation, including Luca Brasi (Lenny Montagne), Sonny, and eventually the Don himself -- who barely survives the hit, placing Michael squarely and formally in charge from his hospital bed. The stage is now set for Michael, who never wanted any part of all of this, to command the family's response from its highest seat of power. And the transformation, in his character and his deeds, is as all-consumptive as it is inescapable, the final scene standing peerless as the greatest climactic moment in all of motion pictures.


41. Songs From the Second Floor (2000). Writer-director Roy Andersson draws the short-straw of having to follow the toughest act to follow on this list, but he pulls it off with remarkable aplomb in this absurdist dark comedy about a Sweden driven crazy by economic malaise and the near total breakdown of basic social convention, from marital fidelity to traffic laws. Lars Nordh is Kalle, the owner of a furniture store who, lacking customers in this eerily prescient depiction of a life after capitalism, decides to burn the store for the insurance money. But a funny thing happens along the way to what should have been Kalle's relatively easy karmic payback at the hands of the police: they take no interest in him and his case whatsoever, and instead he finds himself tormented by the ghosts of people whose deaths are progressively less and less his responsibility -- and by thoughts of his own son, a poet who drove himself catatonic with the depressing influences of his own verse, and who now whiles away his days in a mental institution.

There is also a doctor who refuses to leave his wife to marry his own nurse, an unwilling volunteer from the audience of a magic show (and who thence quickly needs the doctor's services), a half-crazed peddler of shoddy and disquietingly realistic crucifixes, and a team of state-level economists passing around a crystal ball and eventually deciding that the best way to fix the economy is through virgin sacrifice. Did I mention this is a comedy?

Andersson's writing and directing are both perfectly tuned to the arabesque, held-a-little-too-long fascination of the thing, plopping us down amid the unfolding chaos with the same bird's-eye vantage with which we might take in a car crash. He consciously chooses lenses so long as to render the depth-of-field as thin and flat as tissue paper, with all the players crowded into an indistinct middle distance where every prop they pick up with their hands coming as a fresh surprise to us for its relative closeness. The effect of all this shortened space is to leave us all feeling as if the characters themselves are painted into the sets, their lives not deep oceans of love and power and intrigue, but existential nullities as shallow as the puddles in a parking lot. "It's a Swedish comedy about the permanent collapse of the world economy," I always tell people before showing this film to them. And it is.

Next up: Films 40-31. Stay tuned....

5 comments:

Doug said...

Couldn't agree with you more on #49. Alien did set the high-water mark.

The Key Grip said...

Glad someone out there is noticing -- I feel a little bit like that guy in the auditorium, tapping the microphone and saying, "Is this thing ON?"

Doug said...

Alien is one of those movies where if I'm channel surfing and come across it, I'm stuck to the end.
Braveheart, The Princess Bride and The Shawshank Redemption fall into this category as well (I hope they make your list).

Another point: most sequels tend to... well... suck. But Aliens was actually quite entertaining as well.

The Key Grip said...

I might be the only person on planet earth who think David Fincher's crack at it -- Alien3 -- was also very, very good. Different vibe, to be sure, but that's why the franchise used a different, visually distinct director each time: To give each movie a completely different vibe. Ridley Scott is a smoke-machine on two legs, Cameron is "movement all over the place here, man!" incarnate, Fincher turned Alien into "Fight Club with Funny Accents," and Jean-Pierre Juenet's turn ended up looking like nothing so much as "Amelie in a *REALLY* Bad Mood."

Dinonymous said...

Love the Alien love.