Sunday, May 3, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part two)

With the controversy certain only to get steeper as fewer and fewer slots remain for more and more of everyone else's favorite movies, let us waste no time in returning to the intrepid duty before us, that of listing The Key Grip's choices of the 100 best of his first 2000 critically watched films. We left off with position number 90.

90. Das Boot (1981). "These guys didn't know anything about international affairs," said movie critic F. X. Feeney about this film, as part of an interview for a documentary about the Z-channel. "All they knew was each other and their submarine--and it's kind of heartbreaking to think that the giant thumb from the Monty Python sketch is about to come straight down on their heads." Ain't it the truth.

A group of forty-nine Kriegsmarine recruits, many of them too green to bear the commissioning ceremony on deck without getting seasick, are placed aboard a German U-boat and put to sea, at the precise moment that the British have cracked the Enigma codes and will henceforth know the sailors' every move. In this classic hunter-becomes-the-hunted suspense piece, the crew dodges every possible peril from storms to depth-charges to the capricious folly of their own government, until both they and the audience are so weary and exhausted that their inevitable end descends upon us all as something not unlike a blessing.

Most people familiar with this film are keenly aware of the razor-sharp acting, the delicate balance of cinematic art with grim realism, and especially the astonishingly claustrophobic cinematography, which cynches this movie's place in line with its handling of the most memorable scene: a deep dive in which the structural rivets holding the sub together begin popping out and sailing around inside the sub like bullets. What most people don't know is that, as long as the U.S. version of the film runs (2:29 for the theatrical release; a whopping 3:29 for the director's cut / video release), the German version of the project actually runs significantly longer, and was shown as a television miniseries.

89. The Verdict (1982). In what is easily the pinnacle performance of his career, Paul Newman is Attorney Frank Galvin, a washed-up and semi-functional alcoholic trial attorney who has had but four cases in the previous three years -- and lost them all. In a final act of pity Galvin's long-time mentor Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) arranges to have Galvin represent the husband and sister of a woman who will spend the rest of her life in a persistent vegetative state as a result of negligence at the largest and wealthiest catholic-run hospital in Boston. Told to settle the case quickly and live off the proceeds, Galvin becomes emotionally invested in the victim's plight and decides to bring the case to court.

There follows the very sort of desperate struggle against all possible setbacks that only a down-on-his-luck achoholic can experience without even trying: His own clients threaten to sue him, his expert witness turns out to be African-American, the judge actively undermines his case at every turn, even his girlfriend (played by Charlotte Rampling) proves a far greater challenge than Galvin has quite signed himself up for. Many films are better coutroom dramas (cf. Anatomy of a Murder, Twelve Angry Men, Presumed Innocent, Witness for the Prosecution), but The Verdict isn't really about the courtroom at all: It's about that very peculiar flavor of redemption that comes when a person stops worrying about the mark he'll leave to history, and starts worrying about simply doing that which he knows is right, as best he can.

88. Citizen Kane (1941). Memo to the people over at AFI: You almost had it right. You only missed this movie's rightful place on the list of great films by--what, eighty-seven spaces? A great and enduring tale of power and accomplishment failing to bring happiness, this loose biography of William Randolph Hurst is hobbled by too much ham-acting, too many side-stories, too much length, and way too much soundtrack (even by early 1940s standards, and that's saying something), to come anywhere close to the top slot--at least in this author's humble view.

Still, no movie afficianado's card is punched without knowing what "ROSEBUD" means, and if you're sacked out on the couch on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or perhaps recovering from the flu, you definitely owe it to yourself to see what all the shouting is about. I believe I've said too much already. Let's move on.

87. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989). There isn't a single movie by Steven Soderburgh that doesn't probably belong on somewhere on this list. Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, The Limey, Bubble, and The Good German come to mind without even breaking a sweat. But of all his directorial accomplishments, none have ever quite recaptured the edgy, something's-not-right-here resonance of this, his writer/director debut film. Andie McDowell plays the part of Ann Bishop Mullany, a bored and disaffected goody-goody whose lawyer-husband John (Peter Gallagher) happens to be sleeping with Ann's sister Charlotte (Laura San Giacomo). When John's best friend Graham (James Spader) moves to town, Mullany takes it upon herself to show the newcomer around and make sure he's comfortable--whereupon she discovers just how far afield from her own visions of a well-adjusted homelife the rest of the world can be.

We forgive the relatively contrived and straightforward resolution because so much of what goes into it is so authentic that a straightforward resolution seems only fitting. In the real world there would be no big "gotcha" reversal, of course: Graham would be found to have done things he shouldn't have; John would be found to have done things he shouldn't have; Charlotte would be found to have done things she shouldn't have -- and Ann would be left to stew in the juices of wondering if she'd missed out by not doing things she shouldn't have.

86. Mystic River (2003). Could anyone ever have thought that Clint Eastwood the director would someday surpass Clint Eastwood the actor, in the annals of expert Hollywood filmmaking? Well one person who might have is Eastwood himself, a man whose directorial prowess began not insubstantially in 1971 with Play Misty for Me, a thoroughly unexpected suspense-thriller in which Eastwood plays a disc jockey who is befriended, bedded, and ultimately stalked by a comely admirer, a full generation before Glenn Close was boiling little kids' rabbits on their fathers' stoves.

Since that time, Eastwood has directed any number of the sorts of pictures a person might associate with him generally--from High Plains Drifter to Eiger Sanction to Outlaw Jose Wales to Sudden Impact to Pale Rider. But a funny thing happened on the way to Eastwood becoming a tried-and-true action director: He grew up all over again, beginning in 1988 with his stunning direction of the impeccably done bio-pic on the tragic life and times of Charlie Parker, Bird.

Since that "breakthrough" effort (can a man who'd already won two Oscars and directed himself in Jose Wales really be described at that late date as breaking through?), Eastwood has more-and-more consistently gravitated to serious works of film and left the kiddie stuff behind for the kiddies. From White Hunter, Black Heart to Million Dollar Baby -- with a few notable exceptions -- Eastwood's golden age has indeed been golden, and it is to the betterment of us all that the script for Mystic River wasn't shown to him until this new era in his career had found him, content and well-fed and eager to make something genuinely important and good.

Three childhood friends who've grown apart as adults, Jimmy, Dave, and Sean (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon) are brought back in contact with each other when Jimmy's daughter is abducted and brutally murdered. But with all three men knowing the desperate childhood episode that scarred Dave for life, and knowing the specific ways in which it scarred him, the other two are left with the increasingly uneasy and difficult-to-shake suspicion that the killer might be literally in their midst. Add to this palpable undercurrent of unease the fact that the bereaved father is a hardened criminal, while the third friend is a cop charged with investigating the crime, then sprinkle a generous dose of marital boredom and possible infidelity involving the three friends' spouses, bake the whole thing at a stagnant, ninety-three degree southside-Boston summer, and what comes out of the oven is a noire thriller stretched so tight with bad feelings and good acting that you can almost ping it with your finger.

85. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Master-Director-Extraordinare Robert Altman's only contribution to this list weighs-in at number eighty-five, held down mostly by a positively infuriating soundtrack, in which Leonard Cohen punctuates every scene by singing a plot narration over the top of the events themselves. The movie overcomes this handicap, somehow, to engage the viewer despite his better efforts not to be engaged by a story that should be at once so banal and so unsympathetic.

A small-time player and possible con artist named John McCabe (Warren Beatty) settles in a dreary Pacific-Northwest lumber town with the dream of making his fortune by opening a whorehouse. When McCabe is befriended and be-partnered against his will by the prim and priggish Constance Miller (Julie Christie), both he and we expect that the whorehouse's days are numbered--but Mrs. Miller surprises us all by, instead of shutting the business, running it like one. Patrons are made to bathe before seeing the staff, and the facilities are kept clean and orderly and dignified.

It all goes so well that before long McCabe and Mrs. Miller are expanding into other forms of entertainment, building on to their hotel and their other properties with the very sort of recklessly high profile that leaves all but the least experienced filmgoer feeling an ever-tightening knot inside his stomach. As had to happen sooner or later, the thriving business attracts the attention of the greedy railroad barons, who upon finding themselves rebuffed in their efforts to painlessly buy our lead characters out, turn to contract killers to settle the matter for them in the grandest of climactic, western-movie styles.

The final scene, in which McCabe desperately tries to take on the well-trained and numerous killers as he trudges from building to building through three-foot drifts -- all while wearing a woman's fur coat -- is of course the most iconic and memorable. But for me the most hair-raising scene by far has to be the one in which the youngest, and by that measure most menacing of the rabble confronts a good-natured and benign cowboy on a footbridge. Altman never made another western, before or since, which bears further testament to the high reaches of his directing craft: he seems almost to have done it on a larf. And what he ended up with -- whenever Leonard Cohen deigns to leave the rest of us alone and let us watch it -- is one of the finest westerns ever made.

84. Punch-Drunk Love (2002). "I've been watching a lot of fucked-up movies lately," I remarked to a dear friend once at the dinner table, not too long ago. "Oh, you mean like Punch-Drunk Love?" he replied -- after which of course I immediately had to race out and acquire Punch-Drunk Love.

Well he was right.

Adam Sandler is Barry Eagan in this Paul Thomas Anderson-directed tour of the touchingly surreal, and Barry Eagan's life is nothing if not touchingly surreal. Harried into a self-despising spinelessness by his eight loquatious and pushy sisters, Barry lives the barest of existences in a dreary and under-furnished apartment, despite the fact that he also operates a successful business selling bulk loads of toilet plungers to casinos and hotels. In a misguided effort to help her brother, one of the sisters arranges for Barry to meet a friend of hers from work, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), but unfortunately not before Barry finds himself extorted by the woman he has just impulsively contacted on a phone-sex line.

Along the way to closing the big sale, extricating himself from the phone-sex blackmailers, wooing his new girl, and resolving his terribly conflicted feelings toward his sisters, Barry also finds time to pursue a scheme to amass proofs-of-purchase from containers of pudding in order to exchange them for frequent flier miles, and to rehabilitate a harmonium that was placed in front of him on the sidewalk by one of the witnesses to a ghastly car accident.

At all events this is a fine, fine film -- probably not as humorous as those versed in Adam Sandler pictures are expecting, but funny where it needs and wants to be, and not anywhere that it doesn't. It also features some genuinely arresting performances by all the major players involved, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor whose talent is scandalously under-represented by this overall list.

83. The Hunt for Red October (1990). It is 1985 and Cptn. Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), an aging veteran of the Soviet Navy, has just been placed in charge of a new and ultra-secret nuclear submarine, capable of silent propulsion using a hydro-magneto, or "caterpillar" drive. Despairing over the recent death of his wife, Ramius decides to break his orders and leave the protective confines of his scheduled war-games exercises in the North Sea, whereafter he finds himself hotly pursued by the bulk of the Atlantic fleets of both the US and Russian Navies, at least one of whom is actively trying to destroy the sub and all aboard. Alec Baldwin plays the part of Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who persuades his bosses that Ramius' intentions might not yet be clear, and whose reward for said persuation is to be sent directly into the teeth of the crsis in the storm-torn and leaden mid-Atlantic.

The supporting cast is just this side of un-assemblable, the Russian "side" including Stellan Skarsgard as an overconfident rival sub captain and Joss Ackland as the Russian Ambassador to the United States, with Sam Niell stealing entire scenes in the role of Ramius' trusted second-in-command. Meanwhile the Americans are represented by James Earl Jones as (an eerily Colin-Powell-like) Director of the CIA, Richard Jordan as the head of the NSA, Scott Glenn as the captain of the fast-attack submarine USS Dallas, Jeffrey Jones as a consultant brought in to diagnose the grainy black and white photographs of Ramius' sub, and Fred Thompson -- yes, that Fred Thompson -- in a memorably form-fitting role as the shoot-first, shoot-later captain of an aircraft carrier positioned at the fulcruum of Ramias' projected path of approach to American waters.

As with all Tom Clancy-adapted films, the military mumbo-jumbo is kept to a minimum and also totally, down-to-the-detail authentic: there really is such a thing as a caterpillar drive, and the US Navy really did "fiddle around with it for a few years, and couldn't make it work." John McTiernan's direction is straightforward and unpretentious, wisely choosing to let his astonishing cavalcade of stars carry the scenes for him. The set decorations are universally enthralling, the cinematography is just tense enough to strip our defenses, the soundtrack knows exactly when to shut up and when to clobber us over the heads, and the near-total absence of women (they get a grand-total of three spoken lines of dialogue among them, two from a flight attendant), is almost forgiveable given the genre if not the time. Of all the high-tech cold-war thrillers, be they Clancy vehicles or otherwise, Red October is without a doubt the standard bearer: required viewing for anyone whose pallete includes a thirst for depictions of the cat-and-mouse espionage that unfolded for more than a generation between the nuclear superpowers.

82. Gozu (2003). "If the end-titles roll right now," said a close friend of mine with whom I was recently watching this movie, "I'm gonna run to the nearest living thing, and kill it." And then the end-titles rolled. Director Takashi Miike (Audition, City of Lost Souls, Visitor-Q, Ichi the Killer) outdoes even his own rarified achievements for the disturbing and surreal with this barely coherent diorama of senseless violence, bizarre encounters, creepy sex and inexplicable rituals.

Minami (Hideki Sone) is a Yakuza underling, tasked by the top boss with the job of rubbing-out his own mentor, Ozaki (Sho Aikawa) after the latter begins acting embarrassingly derranged. Ordered to drive Ozaki to Yokahama, Minami briefly believes that he has killed Ozaki by accident after suddenly slamming on the brakes, only to emerge from a coffee shop fifteen minutes later to find Ozaki's body is gone from the back seat of the car. He enlists the help of a passel of shadowy and increasingly odd-behaving accomplices in his increasingly frantic efforts to recover Ozaki, only to find himself confronted by a comely young female (Kamika Yohino) who insists that she is the living reincarnation of Ozaki and "proves" it by recounting several intimate details of the two men's friendship.

It should suffice as proof that things only get stranger from there that the US title of the film, Gozu, translates from Romanji as "cow head." This is probably a film best saved for that special mood -- in this case, the mood for something completely inscrutable and shockingly disturbing at the same time -- but make no mistake, it's a virtuoso effort on the part of all parties concerned; the sort of picture that doesn't just get inside your head and stay there but seriously considers charging you rent to share the space with it.

81. Good Will Hunting (1997). If Richard Ford only ever wrote one truly good book, and DaVinci ever only painted one truly great painting, then it may also be true that Robin Williams, despite all his promise as an unimaginably versitile and quick-witted entertainer, has only ever filled one truly great starring role in a motion picture. But it's okay, because that role -- Dr. Sean McGuire, the therapist tasked with mending the violent temper and unresolved childhood of a young super-genius discovered mopping the floors at MIT -- is truly one for the ages.

Matt Damon is of course stunning in the "title" role of Will Hunting, the troubled math-whiz whose future is as luminous as his past is ugly, and supporting roles by Stellan Skarsgard and Minne Driver lend just enough conflict to the lives of the two aforementioned leads, respectively, that the film forecloses any risk of saccharine feel-good dismissal. Gus Van Sandt, in the first of three directorial credits to make this overall list, places a carefully tuned emphasis on the Boston setting -- notably including that distinctly sharp and timing-dependent humor that Beantowners are so peerless at. ("When are you going to pay your tab?" "I got the winning lottery ticket right here." "I don't think that will cover it." "Yeah, well, it'll pay for your sex-change operation.")

After some mostly preliminary dealings with the outside world, the movie finds its footing in the fourth reel, when Hunting's childhood traumas and discomfort with intimacy risk destroying both his newfound opportunities and his newfound love, and the job of saving him falls to McGuire, whose impulse not to push the youngster too hard has freshened painful recollections of his own. Worth it for the final line of dialogue in the film, alone.

Next up: Films 71-80. Stay tuned....

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