Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Renewed Call for Submissions (w/explanation)

You may recall that I recently published a column in which I invited regular readers to submit their own movie reviews for inclusion in these pages. Well, it turns out that the e-mail address I was using for that purpose was set to forward to my old domain-name at the account I regularly use, and accordingly any such reviews have neither bounced nor showed up on my end. (I guess they go to Bermuda when that happens, or something.)

The problem has now been corrected and so I'd like to take this opportunity to once again invite regular readers to submit their own reviews, via e-mail, typing the words MOVIE REVIEW in the subject line and making sure to include whatever by-line they'd like me to use, at the top of the body of the message. Please type all reviews in the body of the message (no attachments), and please accept my apologies if you've already done all of this work once already.

-The Key Grip.
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Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Complete List In One Installment

As previously discussed, my dear friend and unconditionally supportive colleague Richard Dickson has been chronicling our journey in bullet-list form. Here, then, is the complete list from 100 to 1, all together in one column. (Thanks, Richard!)

100. Bottle Rocket (1996). Wes Anderson.

99. The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Atom Egoyan.

98. Three Days of the Condor (1975). Sydney Pollack.

97. Ben Hur (1959). William Wyler.

96. Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Stephen Frears.

95. Rocky (1976). John Avildsen.

94. Sling Blade (1996). Billy Bob Thornton.

93. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Sergio Leone.

92. The Station Agent (2003). Thomas McCarthy.

91. The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Jonathan Demme.

90. Das Boot (1981). Wolfgang Petersen.

89. The Verdict (1982). Sidney Lumet.

88. Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles.

87. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) Steven Soderburgh.

86. Mystic River (2003). Clint Eastwood.

85. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Robert Altman.

84. Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Paul Thomas Anderson.

83. The Hunt for Red October (1990). John McTiernan.

82. Gozu (2003).Takashi Miike.

81. Good Will Hunting (1997). Gus Van Sandt.

80. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Woody Allen.

79. Casino (1995). Martin Scorsese.

78. Scent of a Woman (1992). Martin Brest.

77. Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994).Krzysztof Kieslowski.

76. Breaking the Waves (1996). Lars Von Trier.

75. Miller's Crossing (1990). Joel and Ethan Cohen.

74. Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Godfrey Reggio.

73. Crash (2004). Paul Haggis.

72. The Usual Suspects (1995). Bryan Singer.

71. Buffalo '66 (1998). Vincent Gallo.

70. Noi (2003). Dagur Kári.

69. High Noon (1952). Fred Zinnemann.

68. Mulholland Drive (2001). David Lynch.

67. Gone With the Wind (1939). Victor Fleming.

66. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). John Ford.

65. Gettysburg (1993). Ronald F. Maxwell.

64. The French Connection (1971). William Friedkin.

63. Lawrence of Arabia (1962). David Lean.

62. Casablanca (1942). Michael Curtiz.

61. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Irvin Kirshner.

60. Apocalypse Now (1979). Francis Ford Coppola. (Edit: Corrected editor's previous typo "Coppolapa." Argh.)

59. Last King of Scotland (2006). Kevin Macdonald.

58. Apollo 13 (1995). Ron Howard.

57. American Beauty (1999). Sam Mendes.

56. The 400 Blows (1959). Francois Truffaut.

55. Princess Mononoke (1997). Hayao Miazaki.

54. Airplane (1980). Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker.

53. 8-1/2 (1963). Frederico Felini.

52. To Kill a Mockingbid (1962). Robert Mulligan.

51. LA Confidential (1997). Curtis Hanson.

50. When We Were Kings (1996). Leon Gast.

49. Alien (1979). Ridley Scott.

48. Empire of the Sun (1987). Steven Spielberg.

47. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Milos Forman.

46. Remains of the Day (1993). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (screenplay). James Ivory.

45. Time Out (2001). Laurent Catent.

44. M (1931). Fritz Lang.

43. Distant (2002). Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

42. The Godfather (1972). Francis Ford Coppola.

41. Songs From the Second Floor (2000). Roy Andersson.

40. The English Patient (1996). Anthony Minghella.

39. A Bridge Too Far (1977). Richard Attenborough.

38. Elephant (2003). Gus Van Sant.

37. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). Miranda July.

36. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). Joel and Ethan Coen.

35. Lost in Translation (2003). Sophia Coppola.

34. Ran (1985). Akira Kurosawa.

33. Stalker (1979). Andrei Tarkovsky.

32. Chinatown (1974). Roman Polanski.

31. Brazil (1985). Terry Gilliam.

30. The Lives of Others (2006). Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck.

29. The Conversation (1974). Francis Ford Coppola.

28. Saving Private Ryan (1998). Steven Spielberg.

27. Scenes From a Marriage (1973). Ingmar Bergman.

26. Michael Clayton (2007). Tony Gilroy.

25. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). Alfonso Cuaron.

24. Kitchen Stories (2003). Brent Hamer.

23. Forrest Gump (1994). Robert Zemeckis.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002). Steven Spielberg.

21. Broken Flowers (2005). Jim Jarmusch.

20. Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964). Stanley Kubrick.

19. Yi Yi (A One and a Two) (2000). Edward Yang.

18. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Abbas Kiarostami.

17. Layer Cake (2005). Matthew Vaughn.

16. Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulin de Montmartre (2001). Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

15. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Ang Lee.

14. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993). Krzysztof Kieslowski.

13. Gerry (2002). Gus Van Sant.

12. City of God (2002). Fernando Mierelles.

11. Cast Away (2000). Robert Zemeckis.

10. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). George Clooney.

9. What Time is it There? (2001). Tsai Ming-Liang.

8. Oldboy (2003). Chan-wook Park.

7. Fight Club (1999). David Fincher.

6. Snatch (2000). Guy Ritchie.

5. The Five Obstructions (2003). Lars Von Trier.

4. Unforgiven (1993). Clint Eastwood.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994). Quentin Tarantino.

2. The Return (2003). Andrei Zvyagintsev.

1. The Godfather, Part II (1974). Francis Ford Coppola.

Stay tuned for a guest column featuring someone else's complete (if un-numbered) list -- and some fresh reporting on a host of additional titles that your intrepid author has taken-in since the commencement of this project.

-The Key Grip.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

At Long Last! The Five Greatest Films!

Well here we are, folks: The five finest movies I've yet seen. I know it’s been a long wait; I hope it will have been worth it. Goodness knows it has been for me. And I know I've said it before, but the job of separating the titles on this list into classes like this was easily the hardest part of the entire project. For this last installment I’d hoped to end up with five—exactly five—titles without which I wouldn't be able to live in a hotel in Cambodia, and with which I could. The problem was all those other titles, running as far down the list as the twenties and thirties, that could just as easily have made the final-five.

I feel particularly bad that my "No, young American, you may only keep five" list does not include Snatch. Ditto Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Fight Club, What Time is it There, Old Boy, Cast Away, Amelie, The Lives of Others... you know what? I feel particularly bad that my only-keep-five list doesn't have every single other movie on the whole list. But Snatch was an especially difficult film to put sixth—perhaps the longest single hesitation I experienced over the entire span of the project.

As I look back over the entirety of this list, the temptation also to lament the absence of some specific title was always there, droning away in the background like an un-tuned radio playing at the back wall, though almost always this second form of unease was mitigated by the implicit need to pull something else off—the obvious self-check that keeps such an exercise from unraveling into a series of breathlessly announced revisions to the bottom twenty, over and over again. This being said, I do rather intensely wish that I’d found a spot in the eighties or nineties for Lars Von Trier’s dreamy, post-apocalyptic meditation on the perils of obsessive police-work, Element of Crime.

It is comfortably one of my hundred favorite movies, and by that measure alone, according to the ground-rules I’d set for myself in the first installment of this project, it should’ve been included. Moreover, it occupies a slightly different space from others of my favorite movies to have not made the list, e.g. The Way of the Gun, Defending Your Life, and Used Cars—films whose inclusion would’ve resulted in a complete-with-eye-roll dismissal of the whole compilation.

Element of Crime, as it happens, could easily have been defended as critically worthy; I only left it out (and this confession makes it unique, I think) because of how unanimous has been the negative reaction it’s garnered from family and friends. If Paths of Glory didn’t quite make the cut, I have credible, intellectually defensible reasons why other war movies and other Kubrick movies and other completely different movies belonged in front of it. The same sorts of things could be said about Fitzcarraldo. The same sorts of things could be said about The Passenger. The same sorts of things could be said about Go. But, really, Element of Crime should’ve held at least a low-level position on a list so pre-celebrated for its disavowal of peer pressure. It may well be my only regret, now that the project is over.

Fortunately things worked out in such a way that I am able to toss a pretty steep consolation prize to Lars Von Trier, without having had to explicitly compensate at all: the inclusion of another of his films—his third on our countdown—in the fifth-best-movie-of-all position. Without further ado, then, here are the Key Grip’s choices of the five greatest movies I’ve yet seen:

5. The Five Obstructions (2003). As an impressionable young man coming of age in the late 1960s, Lars Von Trier had occasion to view the celebrated short film of fellow Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth, The Perfect Human. And, as only happens to a fortunate few among us, Von Trier left the screening of that single, barely twenty-minute film, comfortable in the certainty with which he would be dedicating the rest of his life to filmmaking. There would be no careening from one silly project to another, no unfocused muddle from which he could claim status as a “late bloomer,” no squandered energy. Von Trier saw that scrappy little movie by Leth, and knew not just what he wanted to do, but who he was.

Naturally that kind of critical-moment influence conveys a pretty big debt of gratitude and so, when Von Trier arrived as a maestro filmmaker in his own right in the early 2000s, he set out to find his muse and inspiration—only to discover that Leth had undergone something not unlike a nervous breakdown several years earlier, quitting the European film scene and exiling himself to a rented villa in, of all places, downtown Port Au Prince. (One may imagine Von Trier’s facial expression on hearing the news: the pause, the dangled lower jaw, the averted stare, the open palm placed atop the head.) Clearly this kind of ending for Von Trier’s hero and de facto mentor wasn’t going to do at all.

Leveraging his own not inconsiderable clout to maximum effect, Von Trier persuaded a production company to finance the rounding-up of Leth for a series of five re-makes of The Perfect Human—each of them to be discussed in advance with the filmmaker in Von Trier’s shockingly austere and cluttered Zentropa flat, and each of them to be made in accordance with a set of restrictive guidelines (obstructions, if you will), conceived extemporaneously by Von Trier—as a means of stimulating Leth’s recently bored and undernourished artistic voice. Leth, to his credit, agrees.

The two men circle the real issue in their assorted meetings, of course, meandering through their discussions in a palpably strained ballet of light-hearted banter and sincere challenges, some of which lead right up to the ragged limit of words being exchanged—a fact that only heightens the pathos of the difficulties both men are facing: Leth to construct these re-makes without embarrassing himself; Von Trier to mentor his mentor without upsetting the delicate balance of professional admiration and differential authority that drives any cross-generational creative discourse. In each instance, the obstructions brainstormed by Von Trier are regarded as totally impracticable by Leth—in many instances the elder filmmaker literally refuses to abide by the conditions so articulated, at least at first—but of course this is the impossible-to-miss point of the whole thing, especially since each new version with which Leth returns to Zentropa is even more astonishing than the one before: The creative process abhors a vacuum.

This being said, Leth may hardly be blamed for his initial resistance to many of the ideas proposed by Von Trier—among them that he create a version of The Perfect Human in which no single shot is longer than twelve frames, or about a half a second. Other thrillingly sadistic notions to flit through Von Trier’s head during those artistic hazing rituals in his apartment include a requirement that all visuals be animated in some way, that the unanswerable questions posed in the original film must somehow be answered, anyway, and that Leth travel to the most horrific place he can imagine—then convey the horror of the place without actually showing it on-camera. At the conclusion of each meeting Leth adjourns shaking his head, convinced anew that the film cannot possibly be made, and at the beginning of the next meeting it turns out, somehow, that the aging and controversial Danish director has managed to outdo himself once again.

It’s overwrought to suggest this about most cinematic efforts, but it would be dishonest of me not to say right here in black-and-parchment that The Five Obstructions literally changed my life. Many of my finest pieces of writing, and those of the semi-formal writing group to which I belong, have flowed from an adaptation of Von Trier's and Leth's exercise. For one short-story I recently published I challenged myself to craft a full narrative from the first line of a randomly selected documentary transcript, and found myself trying to work a text out of the sentence, "There are seven empty beds in the room because seven of the people they brought here last week are already dead." In a recent group exercise, the circle to which I belong struggled to conjure individual tales from the line, “body of water.” In another, as yet un-published story of mine, I tried to evoke the imagery of various Chicago-area landmarks without actually setting any of the vignettes of the story at the landmarks in question, or perhaps even in Chicago at all. Another group project was inspired by the idea of standing in the shower thinking about the difference between Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker. Many of these efforts were the best work that the persons submitting them have ever shown in our circle. And all of it thanks, more or less directly, to The Five Obstructions.

That folks who watch the movie with me pick different favorite obstructions from mine is a fact that took me a long time to understand as something other than a challenge to my own expertise and my own creative intellect. And only now that I’ve typed that does it look like a pretty steep confession, but there it is: I have a favorite of the five obstructions, and, for a long time, when other people had other favorites it made me feel insecure. What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t see the flaws in my own choice? Nothing, as it turns out.

A roomful of five smart and creatively minded and bright-future-wearin’ glitterati (or, a roomful of four such people plus me) will result in five different choices for favorite obstruction, not in spite of our assorted creative insights, but because of them: Show a split-screen film in which there appears a briefcase with no explanation, crumpled money in someone’s hand with no explanation, and a long shot of the back of someone’s head as he gets off an elevator, with, no, explanation, and someone in the room will say, “that one didn’t do it for me,” and someone else will say, “ooh, it sure did it for me.” My friend Bill is drawn to the obstruction in which no shot may be longer than twelve frames, because under such a rubric only the most delicate brushstrokes are available with which to paint the whole story of the characters—and the resulting film becomes an exercise in economy. Me, on the other hand? Economy??? Not so much. No, I’m fine with not knowing the characters that well, as long as I get the chance to knit my brow over why we spent so much time watching the back of the briefcase-dude’s head. And never mind the fact that Leth, all on his own, was able to come up with all five of these, fabulously different, genuinely remarkable templates for our own creative voicing. Never mind that he's not just better than any one of us, but better than all five. Never mind that.

I haven't written much fiction lately, but whenever I'm tempted to try a band-new story from scratch, I always toss in my copy of The Five Obstructions and watch it with a legal pad and pencil in my hand—not for the inspiration to generate text, but for the inspiration to generate obstructions. And folks, if you can find a film that has had, and will continue to have, that kind of over-arching effect on an entirely separate sphere of your own life, make sure the film in question has a spot kept warm for it near the very top of your own list of the greatest movies you’ve ever seen; that’s all I’m saying.

4. Unforgiven (1993). Easily and un-controversially the greatest western ever made. Easily and un-controversially the greatest Clint Eastwood-directed movie. Easily and un-controversially the greatest Clint Eastwood-starring movie. And, to top it all off, one of the least allegorically circumscribed narratives in all of motion pictures—a movie in which bad guys come in all shapes and allegiances, and sympathy for a character manifestly does not guarantee that they will do the right thing when the critical moment arrives, or even that our sympathy for them will withstand the test. This, in a nutshell, is Unforgiven: the western so superlative that for well over a decade afterward the industry didn’t even try to produce another western; they just threw up their hands at the impossibility of following this act and gave up.

It’s a swan-song in more ways than just this, too—with its unflinching deconstruction of the bad-guy romanticism that had sustained the western ever since Eastwood himself first road a horse across an abandoned gravel quarry somewhere in northern Italy. There is no rightful vigilantism in this one, no senselessly murdered family to avenge, no crooked army captains to thwart as they pilfer gold from Spanish convents to finance the western campaign of the Civil War. No, this time the grim realities of the wild west come through loud and clear and unencumbered by our identification with some bloody-but-just cause. This time it’s all heavy lifting, from the unpleasant business of sleeping outdoors and riding horseback through a pelting rain, at one extreme, to the shocking self-realization that comes from taking the life of another human being for the first time, at the other.

Eastwood is William Munny, a reformed gunslinger whose wife has died, leaving him the sole and aging parent of two small children on a failing farm somewhere in the Midwest. When a prostitute is savagely attacked and scarred by ranch-hands in faraway Big Whiskey, her comrades pass the hat to raise a bounty for the lives of the culprits, and word of the reward eventually makes its way across the sea of grass to Munny’s mud-clogged stockyard—where he is trying in vain to separate pigs and mostly wallowing in filth when he gets the news. Matters aren’t so simple as a ride across the prairie to plug the bad-guys, though, since the bearer of this information is “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), a young man who, despite having very obviously never engaged in any such exploits before, demands to be taken along and to split the dough.

After a series of vignettes (equal parts’ hilarious and stomach-sinking) in which Munny endeavors to re-learn his dormant outlaw skills, he prevails on The Kid to bring along Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s lifelong sidekick and consigliare, and to trust Munny and Logan to make the big decisions of the venture despite having learned of the whole thing from him. The major obstacle in the trio’s quest now shifts focus from getting along and working together, to dealing with the no-firearms-allowed town of Big Whiskey and its cheerfully sadistic Sheriff, Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman, who’d turned down the same part when the script was shown to him by another director almost twenty years earlier).

At all events, the name of the game with this one is the fidelity with which it portrays things that heretofore have been defied for a set of values that they never really had. When Little Bill confronts a separate ad-answering gunslinger, English Bob (Richard Harris), and his sycophantic biographer (Saul Rubinek) we are to understand—at a stroke—that the real confrontation is between the eastern-establishment’s sophistry about the libertarian glamor of the lawless West, and the far baser and less poetically just reality they’ve been trying to deny. Is it any wonder, really, that Little Bill savagely beats English Bob (and tries to goad him into committing an action that would justify murder in self defense), or that the biographer who had heretofore taken every self-authored account of Bob’s exploits at his word is given a front-row seat, then left to wonder exactly who it is he’s been following around?

Meanwhile, in another daring choice, Munny, Logan and The Kid aren’t even in town for the brutal dispatch of English Bob, but are instead holed-up in a barn somewhere while Munny recovers from, of all things, the flu—contracted as the three men rode through bad weather to get there. In no other western I am aware of does the rival gunslinger receive his comeuppance while the “heroes” of the story aren’t even on the screen, and here once again we find ourselves not jarred by the inconsistency with previous examples, but welcomed home by the narrative’s far greater believability, just as we do throughout: from the fickle self-empowerment of the women, to the not entirely unsympathetic ranch-hands (who as they are stalked for assassination out at their ponderosa seem far less menacing—more like pathetic, really), to the surprising and box-challenging multi-dimensionality of the supposedly vicious lawman, whose own efforts to build a house from scratch have thus far resulted in something that would look far more comfortable at the dark end of a carnival midway. Even the regret that descends over our three outlaws as they carry out their grim business is noticeable after-the-fact for its near total absence from earlier pictures. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” Munny tells The Kid. “You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” An observation to which The Kid can only respond by getting drunker--as surely the rest of us would, too.

At every turn Eastwood’s directorial hand is laid in just the right folds, with just the right pressure, to strum the moral complexity and gritty hardships of the narrative without waxing so atonal that the resulting film is impossible to take. The soundtrack (much of it composed by Eastwood himself) plays the counterpoint to all of this anti-western messaging, delicately evoking Peckinpah and Leone with quietly sentimental passages, stinging the quiet ride across the prairie in classical guitar, while the landscape itself (actually eastern Alberta and not the American high plain) is scoped by cinematographer Jack N. Green with a conscious nod to the paradox in which these people have found themselves—a setting, and a life, both big and spacious and full of promise (dare we say, beautiful?), but by the very form and character of that spaciousness, also a gigantic prison of tightly bounded and unsympathetic choices.

In the end, as we know only too well must happen from the opening moments of the picture, Munny’s simple desire to keep his past in the past proves no match for the stark brutality of the circumstances he’s ridden himself into—and when that awareness comes to him with full force, in the shocking twist that befalls the later half of the film, we understand perhaps even before he does exactly what he will do about it, and why. “My name’s William Munny,” he calls down the dark and empty main street, “I’ve killed women; I’ve killed children. And now I’m gonna kill you.” Many, many westerns have tried for this very note, the rage-fueled if momentary disavowal of principle, at their big and bloody and carefully choreographed dénouements, but none of them—none, of, them—have ever hit it as right as this one. Three other films will score higher, but no other film is as perfectly universal to its own genre. You watch Unforgiven, you have seen all the westerns you need ever see.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994). When it was first released, Pulp Fiction’s assorted receptions among the people who saw it formed a stark dividing line—mostly across generations. People either loved this movie to the point of recommending it to strangers on street-corners, or hated it to the point of begging close family and friends to ignore the hype and do themselves a favor—and the two camps were to a first approximation the same size. Fifty years from now someone will make a similar observation about this astonishing work of undiluted genius, and folks aren’t going to believe it. Indeed they can scarcely be brought to believe it now, so total is the transformation that has been wrought—by this movie—on the very fabric and ground-rules of American pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s playfully fractured narrative about the lives and times of suburban LA’s seedy underbelly (“I hope Jimmy’s ass is home, ‘cause Marcellus doesn’t have any other partners in 818”) is wound as tight as a clock spring, yelp-inducingly violent, lush with profanity and coarse sexual innuendo, peppered with stars, and acted, framed, directed, and edited to within an ace of literal perfection—but none of these things are what make the experience. What makes the experience, and what makes it so sumptuously enthralling that I can’t go more than a few weeks without re-watching the picture, is Tarantino’s (fleeting?) gift for the hilarity of gangster-deadpan badinage, some of it only hilarious once the stunned shock of all that profanity and bloodshed can be shunted to a more desensitized sphere of consciousness.

“Ain’t nobody allowed to kill anyone in my store, except for me or Zed,” is but one example of the sort of line that, for some people, takes a second trip through the movie to thoroughly appreciate. “Oh, I’m sorry baby, I had to crash that Honda,” is another. “You have any idea what my father went through to get me that watch? I don’t have time to go into it right now, but it was a lot,” is a third. “You know what’s bothering me right now? It ain’t the coffee in my kitchen….” is a fourth. And I, like the IMDB quote page for this movie, could go on, and on, and on. Essentially every line of dialogue in the entire picture is spot-on, unforgettable, and its own little jewel of either comic hilarity, scalpel-like social comment, or both—to the extent that, these days, starting a scene from the movie among close friends will earn not the completion of the scene by those friends, but the laughter that should have followed from the scene’s completion, with the ten or twelve lines of dialogue in-between rendered utterly implicit. No movie since Caddyshack has enjoyed the same iconic durability of stand-alone reportage, and Pulp Fiction brings the added benefit of being an engrossing dramatic tale with happy- and unhappy ends for some of the least expected characters in it, to boot.

Tarantino has sworn repeatedly that his casting decisions have nothing to do with rescuing self-marooned acting careers, but if he’s lying as shamelessly as I think he is, the crowning achievement in his ability to confidently reach for the improbably out-of-circulation talent must surely be the choice of John Travolta as Vincent Vega—the short-fused and cynical bag-man for local heavy Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and the closest thing to a protagonist that this utterly fragmented saga will permit. Bouncing his coolly vicious menace off colleague Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), low-end supplier Lance (Eric Stoltz) and his wife Jody (Rosanna Arquette), Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), and one-man cleanup crew Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), Travolta shows us with hair-raising understatement a casually homicidal lieutenant of the drugs-and-shady-dealings rackets, by turns newly arrived from Amsterdam, argumentative for argument’s sake, disinterested in thematic restaurants, adoring of his lovingly restored Mustang, reluctant to entertain the boss’ wife, an impeccable dancer, lamentably trigger-happy, un-self-consciously addicted to heroin, and, above all, ready to escalate any difference of opinion to the point of bloodshed, at the all but literal drop of a hat. ("Jules, you give that nimrod fifteen-hundred dollars, I'm gonna shoot him on general principle.")

Meanwhile Bruce Willis is Butch—the dive-agreeing and over-the-hill prize fighter whose father bequeathed a family heirloom to him from inside a Vietnamese POW camp (the aforementioned watch, delivered to Butch in childhood by fellow POW and captivity-survivor Cptn. Koons, played by Christopher Walken), but who when fight-night arrives decides to skip the dive and must then somehow beat it out of town with his helplessly naïve and doddering girlfriend Fabienne (Maria De Mederios). There is also the tale of would-be-café-hold-up artists Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), whose chosen café to hold up is patronized at that very moment by a class of customer that will prove far more than the duo had quite bargained for (“I been through too much over this case already to just hand it over to your, dumb, ass”), of Jimmy (Tarantino), the unwilling host of a delicately tight-spotted Jules and Vincent (“When you two came pullin’ in here, did you notice a sign on my front yard that says ‘dead nigger storage’?”), and of Brett and Roger, the aspiring double-crossers, soon to experience the sum and substance of Jules’ bible-quoting wrath (“Hey you, flock-of-seagulls: wanna tell my man Vincent where the case is hidden?”).

Oh, there are also (second-viewing?) uproarious scenes involving near-fatal drug overdoses, twist-dancing contests, jokes that fell flat on pilot TV-shows (“some of them get picked and become television shows; some of them don’t get picked and become nothin’; she was on one of the ones that became nothin’”), a disquieting exposé into the goings-on in the basement of a Compton-vicinity pawn shop (“fetch me the gimp”), Julia Sweeny as the daughter of exurban LA’s car-crushing tycoon (“So, what’s with the outfits: are you two going to a volleyball game after this, or something?”), a poignantly unruffled exchange over the cleaning of a crime scene (“What the fuck am I doin’ on brain detail; you an’ me is switchin’!”), and on and on, through the night into the chill dawn air of such Tarantino-childhood stomping grounds as Redondo and Englewood and Toluca Lake. (“Where’s Toluca Lake?!?” “It’s just over the hill, man!!!”)

It may take more doing for some people than perhaps it should or would with other great films, but the fact remains: to have found Pulp Fiction’s peculiar rhythm of ghastly carnage and comedic timing is, as if in one of those shaft-of-light moments from other movies, to realize all at once just how brilliant and unique this movie really is. “I watched it again on your advice,” a friend of mine said to me a year or two after the film came out on video (a friend who’d told me how much he’d hated it the first time), “an’ normally yo’ ass would be as dead as fried fuckin’ chicken right now,” he continued. “But you happened to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period.”

…And just like that I knew I’d scored another convert.

2. The Return (2003). Like so many of its own characters and the culture from whence they hail, Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev's feature-length directorial debut is mystifying, deliberative, brooding and difficult. That which is not said is every bit as important as that which is; no one is any more or less honest than a particular situation suggests for itself; and grim dignity is held in the face of all comers, and at all costs. Make no mistake, please: this is. Not. A light-hearted picture.

In just the first of innumerable daring choices in this one, we join the lives of the two main characters—teenaged brothers Andrei and Ivan (Vladimir Garin and Ivan Dobronravov)—bang in the middle of what, in some other film, would be the defining plot-point: a challenge by the other kids of their seaside neighborhood to dive from the top of a navigation tower at the end of a long breakwater. Ivan, the younger of the two brothers, cannot muster the courage to jump but, in a moment that will hold dominion over much of what follows, also refuses to climb down and thus admit his failure. Instead, after long moments of increasing exasperation from Andrei, the elder brother departs with his friends, leaving Ivan crouched Indian-style on the floor of the platform. And there he will sit—disgruntled, intransigent, and utterly forsaken—until at last his mother climbs the ladder to beg him to come down, presumably several hours later.

As I said, this is the film’s opening. The following day, the two brothers are playing with some of the same riffraff and, after some hazing about the navigation tower, they decide to race home—whereupon they are greeted at the front door by their mother, who holds a silencing finger to her lips because their father is asleep. No big deal, presumably... but for the small problem that their father hasn’t been seen by any of these people for twelve years, and hadn’t announced that he was coming. Indeed the boys are so thunderstruck by this turn of events that they clamor to the attic to retrieve the only photograph they have, carefully scrutinizing it as a way of verifying that the person sleeping downstairs (Konstantin Lavronenko) really is him.

Without a first word of explanation for where he has been, why he has come back, or what his ongoing intentions might be, the father announces at the dinner table that he will be taking the two brothers on a fishing trip, and early the next morning bundles them into his car and drives off. The boys quickly discover that this version of their long-remembered father is curt, inexplicably ill-tempered, and implicitly authoritarian, but also prone to afford them numerous privileges (wine at the dinner table) that they have heretofore not had, as a result of which it doesn’t take long for the preexisting alliance between Andrei and Ivan to start to fray at the edges, with Andrei reveling in the attention of his long-absent male role model while the younger and less trusting Ivan continues to feed his own simmering unease.

We are meant to understand at some indeterminate point in their journey that the car ride to this fishing spot is taking far, far longer than it should—not least because the boys and their mother live at the sea—and that there seems about this older fellow a strangely specific purposefulness in reaching one particular spot in the vast immensity of interior Russia. Along the way they encounter wallet-stealing hoodlums, a stuck wheel, a pretty waitress, and an intermediate fishing spot that seems, to Ivan at least, perfectly serviceable. But at all events the driving source of tension inside that car is strictly coming from inside that car. “If he is our father, then why did he leave us?” Ivan asks Andrei in their tent on night at lights-out time, to which Andrei responds, stoically, “Get some sleep, squirt.”

Other movies to make this list have enormous turns-of-plot in them (Usual Suspects, Fight Club, Oldboy), and other movies to make this list are playfully un-answerable mysteries (just who did write the pink letter to Don Johnston in Broken Flowers? What was in that briefcase that Jules and Vincent had to retrieve?), but I know of no other movie that includes both such devices—let alone includes either one of them so seamlessly and so un-self-consciously. Moreover, the twist is the mystery—they inhabit a coincident space in the film’s universe, goading us in just that very special, stirring way that only a great unanswerable, Lady-or-the-Tiger mystery can, without the slightest hint of how the question will be posed, or when it’s being posed, almost until the final credits have started scrolling up the screen. The boys and their father will, in fact, make it to the chosen fishing spot their father had in mind for them all along, that much I can say. But they won’t all be fishing when they get there, they may not all be coming home, and not everything that will be suggested out there in the remotest reaches of the Russian countryside will ever be answered to the audience’s satisfaction.

So many people who've written about this film have made it a point to slip-in a mention or two of the word "Tarkovsky" that it feels to this author like something not a million miles from a burden on the young and cleverly self-empowered Zvyagintsev, especially since his work is so very different. Where Tarkovsky was always about long dialogues, Zvyagintsev is much more likely to be about long silences. Where Tarkovsky finds fascination in how light can turn to shadow, Zvyagintsev's chemistry is vastly more fluid: happy moments turn unhappy—and the other way 'round—with far less warning and none of Tarkovsky's signature finality. In a Tarkovsky film, when another character decides to hate you, you have a nemesis for life. In The Return, when another character decides to like you, you'd better cash it in right then and there.

Shooting with a total budget of less than $500,000, Zvyagintsev found himself having to milk each scene for what was there beneath the surface, rather than to splash the place with lots of film-burning expositions and evocative but difficult-to-compose wide-shots. Instead the film seems almost to whisper its truths to us—the quietly menacing score and the tightly circumscribed points of view telegraphing the need for full participation by the audience. Fortunately the acting talent makes this job easy on us, with a believability and a stirring personal edge that will leave even the most cynical student of the art form curling involuntarily against the armrest of his chair.

Interestingly, nearly all of The Return is shot with indoor lenses, despite taking place outdoors—rendering the entire picture in a suffused, icy-blue light that infects even the most innocuous of vignettes: a palpable, visual metaphor for the unresolved emotions with which the boys must grapple, oscillating between their need for this man and all that he represents, and their unadulterated fear of his unpredictability and strangeness. And always, the droning questions: Why did he leave; why has he come back? “Was it out of love,” Dobronravov muses in the trailer’s voice-over, “or to punish us? To teach us to be men? Or was it for some other reason?” You’ll have to watch for yourself to decide—and even then you probably won’t.

1. The Godfather, Part II (1974). I toyed with the idea of deferring the announcement of film-number-one for one more column. But then I remembered that one of my longest-suffering friends here in Gainesville predicted that this film would occupy our top slot when I uploaded the very first entry in the series—so to put it off any longer would’ve robbed the matter of any of its suspense, anyway, at least for him and the fellow readers he knows. Never mind: We’ve all waited long enough to talk about the single most amazing work of motion picture art that has ever, or will ever grace a screen.

The greatest movie ever made is, of all things, a sequel—the second chapter in the saga of the Corleone family, with flashbacks to the power-amassing glory days of a young Vito (played at top-of-his-career perfection by Robert De Niro) juxtaposed in just the right meter with the long and gritty descent into abject isolation that comes with son Michael’s (Al Pacino) assumption of absolute power. Populated by a galaxy of players too wide and with too many complex interrelationships and allegiances to exhaustively summarize here, The Godfather Part II is, in the end, a picture about the costs, in particular the self-poisoning influences, of a life spent at the pinnacle of organized crime: The constant fear for one’s own safety and that of one’s family, the periodic need to collaborate with odious adversaries to attain a larger objective, the careful management of the need for loyalty against the need to seem gracious and accommodating.

In Vito’s story, the execution of his father and older brother by the local mafia don in Corleone, Sicily, prompts the young boy to escape on a steamer to Ellis Island, from whence (after a customs’ official has committed the obliging mistake of swapping his home town for his surname) he eventually offs the don of Little Italy and, at a stroke, assumes the job of running the New York City underworld. Meanwhile in Michael’s story, resumed thirteen years after the chronology of the first film, the family has moved west to a sprawling compound on Lake Tahoe, there to oversee the transition of the Corleone empire from narcotics to gambling.

After celebrating the First Communion of his son, Michael and his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) survive an attempted hit, prompting Michael to leave the compound for safer surroundings—entrusting to consigliare Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) the well-being of those he must leave behind. Eventually Michael meets and chats-up one Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), an unprepossessing but, make no mistake, Darth-Vader-powerful crime boss in his own right, to work out the terms of a partner-sharing arrangement that will see Roth turning a blind eye to Michael’s penetration of Las Vegas and Havana, in return for a share of the proceeds. While in Havana, however, Michael begins to doubt the permanence of the Battista regime against the insurgent communist guerrillas, and demurs on the making of any lasting commitment to the sprawling nightclub scene that defined Cuba’s capital city in the late 1950s.

At precisely the same moment as the old regime is being overrun in its own city, Michael pulls just a little too hard on the thread of that leftover question of who’d been trying to kill him in Tahoe, discovering in the process that he has been betrayed by his own brother, Fredo (John Cazale), who ultimately confesses that Roth is still trying to destroy Michael by having him scapegoated as the principal target in a US-Senate crackdown on organized crime. Having bought a Nevada Senator by implicating him in the death of a prostitute, and with the benefit of Fredo’s tips, Michael is able to sidestep the investigation—thanks in no small part to Tom Hagen’s discovery that the star witness against them, Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), has a brother living in Sicily, whom Hagen brings unexpectedly to the hearing room on the day that Pentangeli is supposed to finger the don.

But the magic of the film comes when, with all the principal threats to his safety and livelihood now effectively neutralized, Michael finds himself unable to exhale a much-deserved sigh of relief, instead choosing to exact ever crueler and ever more calculated reparations from those who have wronged him to lesser and lesser degrees—from Pentangeli, whom Hagen convinces to commit suicide in the bathtub of his safe-house, to Michael’s wife Kay (unforgiven and un-divorced, after admitting to Michael that she’d gotten an abortion while he was in hiding), to none other than Hyman Roth himself, whom Michael dispatches his capo to shoot and kill upon his return to the United States, despite the fact that Roth is dying, about to go to prison, and will be heavily guarded and almost impossible to kill. “Mike,” Tom Hagen implores, “it’d be like trying to kill the President.” And then, after a pause, “You’ve won, Mike; do you wanna wipe everybody out?” A question to which Michael, staring straight ahead—perhaps no longer even sure of the loyalty of Hagen himself--replies, “No, Tom. Not everyone. Just my enemies.”

The denouement that occurs at the conclusion of the picture is at once eerily evocative of the one that concludes its predecessor, and yet utterly un-self-conscious and sincere, too: yes, the resolutions of the two films follow the same track; no we aren’t bothered in the least by this fact, since this particular resolution is the only one to which such characters, leading such lives, can channel their own narratives. Indeed not a single element of this enormous, heaving, 200-minute odyssey calls even the slightest attention to itself, from the exquisitely self-alienating opulence of the Corleone compound, to Carmine Coppola’s palpably menacing score, to the selfless contributions of a cavalcade of A-list Hollywood acting talent, many of whom had no choice but to shelve their own typically scene-stealing personas to play both literal and figurative underlings to Michael and Vito, as we switch back and forth between their parallel rises to the pinnacle of their family profession. Perhaps not surprisingly, a whopping four separate actors were nominated for supporting-role Oscars (with De Niro winning in what may yet be the least suspenseful envelope-opening ceremony in the history of the sport), and the film itself waltzed away from the 1975 proceedings with nods for Best Picture, Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Screenplay (Coppola again), Best Score (another Coppola), and Best Set Decoration (Tavoilaris, Graham and Nelson).

But for all its arresting size and sweeping scope, The Godfather Part II is, in the end, a “family portrait” picture, albeit the most atypically mesmerizing family portrait ever conceived. Michael is a big man with big reach and big ideas for how to use it, yes, but what makes people like him, we gather through the seemingly effortless storytelling craft of Puzo’s novel and Coppola’s adaptation, is the interactions he carries out within the family: The petty grievances, the wayward siblings, the dejected head-shake at the news that a sister will be marrying someone of low character, the lifelong adherence to doing what’s right by those with whom he shares blood. I mean, let’s face it: They don’t call these outfits “mafia” (literally, “my family”) for nothing.

Along the way to this point I was tempted to drop-in several whole scenes from the various films we've been discussing, courtesy of YouTube, and nearly always thought the better of it. The films must stand as complete works, for one thing, and it's unfair to the director's vision for another--like eating the icing off the top of a chocolate cake and throwing the rest of the cake away. But here, at the end of our long and amazing ride, I must make an exception to include a link to what is, beyond a shadow of doubt, the single most powerful and affecting scene in the history of motion pictures. On the commentary track Coppola says that they hadn't even expected it to snow. Well, I guess that only proves that this is obviously God's favorite movie, too.

...And, just like that, we have reached the end of our long and exciting journey through the Key Grip’s choices of the hundred greatest movies of all time. Just like that, it's over.

This project would not have been possible without the encouragement of several local friends and non-local well-wishers, and for that I am truly grateful. I hope that those who’ve been cheering all of this on don’t feel either swindled by any lack of critical heft to the final entries, or let down by the meandering prose, either one. Goodness knows the whole thing would’ve been impossible to finish without the benefit of a constant awareness that someone out there was logging-in to check for a next installment.

Special thanks are due to a certain Michael Patterson and his wife Gretchen who, on the occasion of a visit to the part of south Florida where I was living at the time, asked me what my favorite movie was and, to their immense and enduring credit, didn’t laugh me out of my own car when I said Apollo-13. (Though, really, Apollo-13 is still a pretty fucking-good movie, people.)

Special thanks also to Bill Stephenson, whose embrace of the entire exercise included several unilateral mentions of where things stood in general, and of how many of the listed movies he had- and had not seen, in particular. Ditto Richard Dickson, who has not had as many occasions to comment face-to-face, but who’s been dutifully chronicling the list, sans commentary, for eventual bullet-pointing in some future column. My mother, naturally, has spent long- or short segments of every morning for a month, either scanning in vain for the next chapter along our journey, or devouring every last word (and somehow missing the fact that on many occasions fifty or sixty of them at a time came rushing straight at her without a period to break them up).

I hope that some among my few remaining readers will take it upon themselves to contribute a review or two of their own—not just because I think it would be a lot of fun to upload someone else’s thoughts about some other movie that escaped mention in these columns, but also because the movie in question may well be something that I myself have not yet seen. Just send me an e-mail with the review typed into the body of the message, and I’ll be tickled indoor-lenses-blue to publish it, here.

Above all, thanks for reading: Thanks for commenting; thanks for wondering what’s next; thanks for sharing this experience with me even in some small and un-perceived way. It’s been a hell of a month, sitting here on this end, thinking more-or-less continually about all my favorite movies. It’s been thrilling, at times more than a little daunting, sometimes downright scary. But we’ve made it through at last.

…Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch all hundred of these flicks again, back-to-back, and then go to bed for about a year.

Dave O’Gorman
(“The Key Grip”)
Gainesville, Florida
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (Part Twelve: Films 6-10)

It's been the thick-end of a month (what am I saying; it's been a month) since we started down this path together, and frankly I'm not sure exactly when the lightning struck the monster's EKG leads and it began walking around the lab and smashing the furniture. I suppose something not unlike an apology is in order: I never imagined that the task of listing, and speaking briefly about, my so-far hundred favorite movies, would've taken this much time or this much bandwidth. On the other hand, how many aspiring writers get to have this much fun without buying a single stamp?

But enough of self-reflection and self-aggrandizement; we've waited too long already. Here are the Key Grip's choices of the sixth- through tenth greatest movies he's yet seen.

10. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). Not all that long ago I printed out the full inventory of my movie collection -- in about five-point type, mind you -- and handed it to a friend of mine with the directive of reading the entire list, column-by-column, and returning it to me with a supplemental list of films that were "missing" from it. And you know, I might have said here that the very definition of a true friend is someone who would actually do such a thing, but no, really the very definition of a true friend is someone who would even feign doing it: someone who would accept the printout from you and not laugh in your face at the very suggestion. To then turn around, less than two weeks later, and return a list with over two hundred thoughtfully considered additions written on the backs of the pages, is nothing short of unforgettable. Never mind the fact that he still hasn't paid me for a really nice pair of speakers that started out belonging to me and which are now mounted in matching recesses in his living room.

I mention all of this because of something even more special that happened as a result: Having assembled his list of suggestions using pen-and-paper, my friend had left the top-left space on the first page of his ideas, blank. When I asked him what the blank was doing there he explained that all the myriad titles that had popped into his head as he pored over my inventory had one crucial thing in common -- namely that they weren't the, single, solitary, "Oh my God, you have to watch this one right now" movie that, by itself, would justify the entire exercise. So we put the list down between us and talked it over. For the next three hours we sat together in his living room, thinking about movies, drinking his scotch and petting his dogs and eating his cheeses and listening to my speakers.

We talked about different directors, different genres, different countries, different epochs, until at one, otherwise unremarkable moment in the discussion, I said of a particular picture, "Oh, I watched that one twice in a row" (meaning that I'd watched it, taken a day or two off from movie-watching, and then watched that same title again). It was at this moment that my friend snatched-up his list and, in that coveted, top-left spot, wrote the words, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. "It's the only movie I've ever watched," he explained, "that, as soon as it was over, I let the credits roll all the way through, and when the DVD went back to the menu I just pushed 'play' and watched the whole thing all over again without getting up."

And now so it is for me, too.

In this, George Clooney's directorial debut, Sam Rockwell is Chuck Barris -- yes, that Chuck Barris -- playing absolutely straight the bizarrely implausible double-existence that Barris claims, in his "unauthorized biography," to have been living for most of his adult life. For it is Barris' assertion that, while he was busy inventing and producing (and eventually hosting) game shows, he made ends meet by moonlighting as a contract killer for the CIA. You read that right, folks: The creative "genius" behind The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Dollar-Ninety-Eight Beauty Pagent, and The Gong Show, claims steadfastly to have spent much of that same era doing wet-work in foreign fields for the United States government.

That Rockwell plays the part with full-immersion deadpan is only part of the magic of the picture, though it is certainly a big part -- pulling us down into the nefarious underworld of the international assassin by at first himself disbelieving the sagacity of his would-be recruiter Jim Byrd (played by Clooney), and thus setting for the film the marker against which our own disbelief can be checked and pruned and nurtured into something like acceptance, right along with him. No, we think to ourselves, this isn't really happening; this is too unbelievable. And then we look at Rockwell's face, and in it we see Barris, thinking, "No, this isn't really happening; this is too unbelievable." After which, of course, we'll believe anything that Goerge Clooney wants us to.

As I said, this is only part of the film's success: What Rockwell can't carry on his own and must instead defer to Clooney's implicit brilliance, is the enormity of the transition in American pop culture and her place in international affairs that was unfolding at the same time as all of this personal-level intrigue. And Clooney, for his part, delivers with just the sort of confidently understated discourse for which he's become so famous as an actor -- from intentionally black-and-white footage of a Sputnik-era Rockwell, riding shotgun on American Bandstand (to be sure that Dick Clark didn't take payola), through the momentarily speechless surprise on the part of a Vietnam-era Rockwell who returns from a hit-job to find that his girlfriend has painted the walls of their apartment in sunflowers and moonbeams, to the matter-of-fact cutaway shot of a Rockwell screening a pool of late-seventies game-show contestants, in a corduroy leisure suit.

The ensemble of cleverly off-kilter fellow assasins only further enhances the picture's credibility, since it is implicitly so much easier to believe that the flawed and unbusinesslike Barris might fit-in with their roguish likes. There is Olivia (Julia Roberts), a gorgeous and anally fixated quoter of Chauser, and then there is Keeler (Rutger Hauer), a German-born wash-out who insists that Barris take photographs of him in the act of making all his hits and who, in one improv moment that got the cast and crew laughing so hard they had to wrap for the day, orders "a green salad, no dressing" in a restaurant. Meanwhile Chuck's "daytime" life as a game show producer is circumscribed by his sixties-esque antimarriage to Penny (Drew Barrymore), who loves Chuck too much to quit the explicitly non-commital relationship that she'd first suggested on the occasion of their decision to live together.

Charlie Kauffman's unusually linear and non-cutsey screenplay is intensely aware, before all else, of the gentle stripping-away of Barris' shock, both at the unanticipated success of his game-show-producer life, and at the unanticipated aplomb with which he dispatches his iron-curtain targets when the TV-cameras aren't looking. Before our very eyes Barris progresses from someone horrified to the point of nervous, toss-off joksterism at the idea of killing another human being, to someone who's not only good at it but seems in fact to revel in it; from someone leaping up and down for joy at ABC's decision to buy a single season of The Dating Game, to a gum-chomping, sunglass-wearing, half-a-pitch-ought-to-be-enough Hollywood television producer.

Of course, as Kauffman seems to know from personal experience (and to come back to repeatedly in his various involvements in assorted films), it is only when these veils of improbability are lifted from our acceptance of a situation that things can begin to truly go wrong. For Barris, this will mean not just life-threatening intrigue and the prospect of on-air self-humiliation, but a crisis climax in his never-healthy relationships with Penny and his long-deceased mother, to boot.

That there is room for so much in this picture without the finished product feeling busy or cluttered or unresolved is a testimant to Clooney's previously untried directorial instincts. In Barris' surreal and madcap game-show life there is comedy in abundance, some of it the kind of funny we don't often associate even with comedies, and yet there is also room for an improbably incisive comment about the dirtiness and fickle fortunes of the business, too. When Barris is confronted for his lowest-common-denominator opportunism at the Playboy mansion by one of the bunnies, we sense not the hilarious irony of the situation -- the sort of easy-way-out that a less confident director making his first movie would have chosen -- but instead Barris' private self-doubt, and with it the extent to which the bunny's criticism hits him below the belt. There is room, in other words, for us to embrace Barris as not just a charismatic and entertaining figure, but also as a sympathetic one: a fact the film exploits to maximum leverage when his moonlight world starts to go very, very wrong.

In an even more ambitious decision for a first picture, all of Clooney's visual effects are handled "in camera," meaning that there are no CG or cutaways or any other devices that would enable the cast to do what's happening on the screen without actually doing it. Instead they must, somehow, do it all. When Barris steps out of line at an NBC studio tour and, a breathless moment or two later appears from the oppsite side of the screen as a tour guide -- complete with the appropriate attire for the job -- that isn't some neato pixel-based card trick being pulled in some dimly lit office in Sedona ten weeks after principal photography. Oh, no: That's Sam Rockwell, rushing behind the backdrop to frantically change costumes and still arrive at the opposite wing in time to hit his mark. When Barris is listening to Penny describe the torture of listening to a jabbering date, and then the camera pulls back to reveal him pitching The Dating game to a roomful of television executives, without a cutaway, the whole effect is handled on a turntable, together with just a little inventive use of line-of-sight misdirect, wide- and tight angles, and a clever pot-down of the production sound at just the right moment to conceal the cast's instant switcheroo. For this reason, even if for none other, the film makes for an unusually strong re-watch.

Ultimately, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind works on so many different levels, not so much for the escapism with which it so artfully and so believably recounts to us the tale of a man whose life is so different from ours, but rather for exactly the opposite reason: because it tells us so much about ourselves, and how we deal with the unusual and often under-appreciated costs of success. Getting "good" at something you never imagined yourself doing -- to the point of being indispensable at it -- is, of course, it's own set of traps, and maybe it takes a guy who never even wanted to produce game shows, much less kill people for the CIA, to teach us that lesson.

"There comes a moment in every man's life," Rockwell tells us in grim voice-over during the film's opening, "when what you could end up being, gives way to what you have been. You didn't write a great novel; you weren't an astronaut; you didn't cure cancer. That's a bad moment." Here it is, the principal source of conflict in the movie, hiding in plain sight barely two minutes in, and still we only come to realize that's what we've been grappling with -- its resolution what we've been leading toward, this whole time -- at the very end. And all from an actor of whom you've probably never heard, and a director who'd never directed, before. The bastards.

Oh, by the way, there's a really nice Linn Kairn preamp on Audiogon right now for a thousand bucks. ...What's that, you ask? Do I think you should buy it? Gosh: Lemmie think....

9. What Time is it There? (2001). Many of Taiwanese writer-director Tsai Ming-Liang's pictures belong on a list like this one for their sure-handed dispatch of narratives so starkly reductive in content -- so difficult to imagine working, on account of how little there is to them -- that other directors would have run screaming from the pitch-session. But only one of his films is also polished enough in craft to hold dominion over a mainstream audience.

Kang-sheng Lee is Hsiao-kang, an out-of-the-suitcase watch vendor whose chosen spot is along the banister of a pedestrian flyover at a busy Tai'pei intersection. Shortly after Hsaio-kang's father dies, he is approached by beautiful Shiang-chyi (Shiang-chyi Chen), who wants to buy Hsaio-kang's own watch, off of his own wrist, because its dual-zone display will be perfect for her upcoming trip to Paris. "You shouldn't buy anything of mine," Hsaio-kang tells her over the din of the traffic just beneath them. "I'm in mourning: it's bad luck." But Shiang-chyi doesn't believe in all of that superstitious stuff, and doggedly persists with several follow-up telephone calls, until eventually Hsaio-kang relents and sells the watch to her.

What follows is a carefully balanced metronome of Shiang-chyi in Paris, alternating with Hsaio-kang in Tai'pei, neither of them completely over their chance encounter and its unfulfilled potential. While Shiang-chyi endeavors to have an enjoyable time in Paris, she continually returns to the whereabouts and condition of her watch -- which seems to have an annoying tendancy to go temporarily missing in various, progessively less probable locations in her hotel room. Hsaio-kang, for his part, awakens on the first morning of Shiang-chyi's trip, with the twin, inexplicable compulsions to change every time-piece he encounters to Paris time, and to watch and re-watch Truffaut's The 400 Blows, over and over again in his darkened bedroom.

Though clearly minimalist in its form and execution, there is much more to this one than a casual, gabby viewing would at first suggest -- from a major jolt of comedy at the expense of Hsaio-kang's mother and her vaguely dim-witted insistence on fulfilling the Buddhist customs surrounding the potential reincarnation of the dead, at one extreme, to the arresting heartbreak with which Shiang-chyi realizes the most important lesson of her trip, at the other. The all but post-apocalyptic disintimacy of modern city life, the inadequacy of our coping mechanisms for dealing with loneliness, the embarrassment of unrequited first affections, and the bizarre affect with which persons in mourning can sometimes act-out, each theme addressed by Liang is meted out at just the right dosage, with just the right timing, and with just the right subtlety, that their universality can be preserved through the skein of a pair of undeniably and specifically foreign cultural backdrops. There are also the compelling inquests into the hidden costs of family dysfunction, homophobia, the role of fear in how we structure basic human interactions, and the nature of trust. All this from a movie in which nothing is supposed to be happening, and in which very little actually does.

Perhaps not surprisingly, French influences are manifest -- from Bresson to Tati -- with the absurdist melodrama of such ubiquitous disintimacy articulated through Liang's coolly surreal directorial style, force-multiplied through a perfect symbiosis with the cinematography of Benoit Delhomme. Most significantly, the camera never pans in What Time is it There, but instead traps the acting talent in something not unlike a "cage" of visibility.

These self-alienated creatrues are, we gather almost subconsciously from the filming style, clamped down by their own set of choices: each scene running to its own agenda, as if without their say-so, and crackling at its conclusion with a new, poignant comment on the currency of relationships. "What are you looking for?" an older gentleman asks Shiang-chyi, in English, while the two of them sit at opposite ends of a park bench in a Paris cemetary. "A telephone number," replies Shiang-chyi, momentarily brought up from the rifling of her own purse -- whereupon the older gentleman (Jean-Pierre Leaud, the same actor who as a child starred in the leading role of The 400 Blows, and this time apparently playing himself) hands her his telephone number.

If the movie itself is a series of telling comments on the nature of human interrelationships in the post-millennial world, then so too are the recurring classifications to which it is often and somewhat implausibly assigned, from "comedy" (the scene involving a cockroach and a giant koi is worth the price of the rental, alone) to "romance" (despite the fact that the two leads are located in two different parts of the world for the overwhelming majority of the film). To this extent, perhaps Tsai Ming-Liang is revealing not so much his French directorial influences as his Scandinavian ones, having produced a film that opens with the death of a father-figure and proceeds through bad luck, heartache, robbery and prostitution, and yet still can be considered a romance, and/or a comedy, by at least some of the people who've commented on it. Perhaps we're all turning Scandinavian, in the end: Finding romance in situations that involve thousands of miles of separation; finding comedy in situations involving dead fathers and petty crime. At all events, What Time is it There is one of those few pictures that may be sat through a half-dozen times and still enjoyed, as if for the first time, for what else it offers.

8. Oldboy (2003). There are people who will tell you that the Korean film industry has in the past decade come into its own as a force to be reckoned with in the motion picture arts, and that’s a bit of a shame because, really, what those people mean is that director Chan-wook Park has come into his own as a force to be reckoned with in the motion picture arts. Beginning with his “vengeance trilogy,” Park has directed essentially every noteworthy Korean movie to earn inclusion in this supposedly pan-national burst of cinematic creativity and importance. But nowhere is his rarefied entitlement to inclusion among the best filmmakers of any time or place as fully on-display as with his statement picture, Oldboy.

To say that this film sets a new standard for Asian suspense-thrillers is to engage in droll understatement—from its willfully and enthrallingly inscrutable first reel, through its seamless integration of the classic, why-did-they-pick-me suspense narrative (in a style evocative of the mid-70s conspiracy flicks coming out of Hollywood), to its totally comfortable deportment of the main character’s self-taught virtuosity in the martial arts.

It all starts with the sight of main character and eventual hero Oh-Dae Su, being held in a police substation for public drunkenness. After perhaps ten or fifteen minutes of jogging in place with this scene, the lead acting more and more unruly at the hands of his semi-dismissive captors (okay, Chan-wook, we get it: He’s an asshole), Oh is ultimately released, whereupon he is abducted from a phone booth by persons unknown, and taken to a nondescript room in a nondescript building—something not unlike a hotel room—and ultimately held there, against his will, with three meals a day and a monthly haircut, for the next fifteen years.

Just as inexplicably as he was taken, after spending fifteen years adopting and honing just the sort of semi-effective coping mechanisms we might expect from someone in such a predicament, Oh-Dae Su is just as inexplicably released. Eventually he finds himself confronted by a stranger who hands him a cell phone and a wallet full of cash. “Don’t bother asking,” the stranger says, dolefully, “because I don’t know anything.” In due course the phone rings and, after the obligatory who-is-this routine, Oh-Dae Su learns that he has five days in which to figure out the mystery of his captivity, after which his captor will disappear permanently and with him any hope of answering the riddle.

Of the many fascinating challenges that Park manages to surmount so effortlessly in this breakneck-paced action flick, is how to deal with the question of Oh’s contrition for all the many wrongs he has committed, and which among them might have been the one serious enough to merit a fifteen-year revenge sentence. Naturally, none of the thousands upon thousands of ill deeds he has been chronicling in the clean, spiral-bound writing tablets with which his captors kept him stocked in captivivity is the ill deed for which he has been held—and to that extent the misdirect that they represent for the audience could be dismissed as a fairly standard, again-1970s-style plot device. But instead of leaving the matter there, the contrition that they represent itself comes to serve as a sort of background hum of self-recrimination and self-doubt in Oh-Dae Su’s rage-filled quest to understand his captivity.

He’s lost so much, during those fifteen years, as it happens: His captors have, while he was dutifully leaving fingerprints all over the room’s dishware, framed him for the murder of his wife (a murder which presumably they themselves have committed); his daughter is living with a host family in Scandinavia, where she is old enough now to be enrolled in college and presumably to barely remember her supposedly murderous dad. And yet, through all the I’ll-find-you-if-it’s-the-last-thing-I-do invective, through all the marvelously choreographed and cheerfully disturbing violence, through all the compulsion to learn the truth, Oh-Dae Su’s puzzlement is transmitted to us by actor Min-sik Choi with just the right inflection to have us understand that a part of him suspects he may have deserved everything he got, and that in consequence he may actually regret some of those things he’s done.

Left to stew in his own juices about all of this, Oh might have imploded beneath the palpable oppression of so much unknown and probably unknowable, but from the very outset he is assisted by a comely, eccentric, and only slightly over-eager young femme, whom he meets after losing consciousness from a fever in her sushi bar. When he comes-to in her apartment, she has read all of his journals, and appoints herself at once as his confident in solving the mystery. It is with the gentle prodding of this equally befuddled and intrigued applicant that Oh is able to marshal the fortitude to keep up the search—discovering along the way that he is a thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being capable of far more complex and self-sustaining impulses than ordinary puzzle-solving revenge. “Who’s she?” One of Oh’s childhood friends asks, early in the pursuit of the answer to his imprisonment. “Ah, a little girl who cries too much,” he answers, half out of the side of his mouth—but with just enough implicit validation lurking in the undercurrents of his voice that we understand at an instant his semi-fatalistic acceptance of her, and just where that acceptance is likely to lead.

Many reviewers speak (rapturously or otherwise) of the breathless pacing of this film, and of its remarkable continuity through a steep assortment of tonal signatures. But in my research I’ve found few references to the skillful handling of Oh’s progression, over the course of his five-day time limit, to a much more grown-up stance in his dealings with other people than he’d had before his captivity—the great irony of which, of course, is that it took fifteen years of solitary confinement for him to recognize the extent to which his sociopathic selfishness had been isolating him from everyone else all along. This progression, catalyzed by all of that soul-searching in all of those journals, is so poignant and so noticeable precisely because it is so ingeniously understated, thus standing it off in such stark relief to Oh’s jaw-set determination to find and brutally dispatch the person who forced him to look inside himself so intensely and for so long.

We sense that Oh realizes, on some level, the extent to which his newfound warmth and consideration (when they’re allowed to hold primacy over his martial-arts-driven pursuit) are a form of letting himself be changed by this unseen nemesis—a form of letting him “win”—and without a doubt the most clever and unexpected takeaway from the entire picture is the finely tuned inner conflict that this evinces in Oh, dialed-down by Choi at Park’s direction, all the way to the quietest facial cues: He’s a better person, “despite” not wanting to be. Indeed, by the time Oh finds himself in the lavishly post-modern penthouse apartment of his erstwhile captor and would-be murder victim, the answer to the great riddle of Oh’s captivity almost doesn’t matter anymore.

Except it does matter, of course: we want to know, and so does he. And when at last the truth is revealed to him, when Oh finally knows the real story, the foundations have been laid for one of the great twist endings in the history of modern movies—a twist better executed, easier to digest, and more summative of all that has come before than that of any other movie-with-a-twist to make this film-ranking, from its top to its bottom. Indeed, pictures with twists this momentous to the underlying story almost never work, since they cause the act of having absorbed all the preceding narrative to feel like wasted energy. Not this time. This time the twist serves the movie, instead of the other way around, and with it comes the sudden realization that the picture we’ve been watching this whole time is not just different from the one we thought we were watching—that much is relatively easy—but indeed far, far superior to the one we thought we were watching, too.

7. Fight Club (1999). “The first rule of fight club is, you do not talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is, you do not. Talk. About. Fight. Club.”

Of all the movies that I’ve had difficulty in persuading friends and family to watch, Fight Club is without question the toughest sell of all. For too many people there’s just no explaining-away that bracingly self-defining and by that measure wholly unfortunate title, since images of Clint Eastwood being French-kissed by a baboon and duking it out for the affections of Sandra Locke almost have to flit through a person’s mind—and this sort of imagery couldn’t be farther from what this film is about than if Chuck Palahniuck had titled the book from which it is adapted The Taming of the Shrew, instead.

In leaden, appropriately sarcastic voiceover, Edward Norton narrates the tale of his own, nameless character: a thirty year-old insurance adjuster so numbed by his soulless job that he vanquishes his insomnia by bawling his eyes out at support-group meetings for the terminally ill—despite the fact that there’s nothing actually wrong with him. But then his cozy arrangement is disrupted by fellow imposter Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), an impoverished but bold-action-taking woman who waltzes politely in on a testicular cancer meeting (“technically I have more of a right to be there than you do; you still have your balls”). After which, of course, the reflection of Norton’s own dishonesty robs him of the pleasure of feigned despair.

Once again lacking an outlet for his need to feel something in this world, Norton’s character gravitates into the orbit of one Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a remorseless seize-the-day type who brings Norton in on his, shall we say, atypical living arrangements—an abandoned house so dilapidated and decrepit that, each time it rains, the two men must wade into knee-deep water in the basement to unscrew the master fuses from the power panel. Over a pitcher of beer at the local watering hole, Norton confesses his despair at the anonymous destruction of his own apartment, and Durden in turn suggests that the two of them recover their senses of what is- and is not important in this world by fighting each other in the parking lot. The idea works so well that they start to make a habit of it—their antics eventually attracting an unexpected crowd of equally self-alienated yuppie men, clamoring to “be next.” In no time at all, Durden and Norton have devised a regular meeting schedule in the bar’s basement and entitled the whole thing, wait for it, now, “Fight Club.”

And, okay, yes: there is footage of men hitting each other in this movie. Yes, some of that footage is intensely graphic and possibly even disturbing. But where most narratives that begin with such a premise would unfold in the direction of ever bloodier, ever higher-stakes fights, fight after fight after fight after fight, until Durden and Norton found themselves in some sort of all-encompassing battle-royale over their respective futures—serves instead as the point from which this movie is only really getting started. For between Norton’s breathless self-liberation at work (“Is that your blood?” “Some of it, yeah”) and Durden’s progressively nihilistic “homework assignments” for the rest of the group, ultimately the form and purpose of these gatherings begin to morph into a sort of anti-consumerist manifesto both vastly more socially relevant and vastly more disturbing to ponder. “We’ve all been brought up to believe we’ll be movie stars and rock musicians,” Durden tells the group during one of his many impromptu Nurenburg rallies in the bar basement. “But we won’t. And we’re starting to realize it; and we’re very, very pissed off.”

One of the recurring critiques of this picture is the direction it leads next—though it’s worth considering the paucity of other avenues down which it could possibly have led, given what has happened up to now. Either these men will keep hitting each other in the face forever (plausible but not much of a story), relinquish their newfound dream of gritty self-empowerment in a bourgeois culture (not very likely after their first real taste of blood), or, the only other option really available to them, take things to the next level: a level at which commissioned artworks in corporate HQ-plazas are defiled, entire collections of VHS tapes are degaussed at the movie store, and, in an eerily prescient escalation given the date, explosive charges are planted in the basements of buildings.

Thanks to Fincher’s high comfort level with any number of crazy-sounding film techniques (he got his start making music videos, after all), at each turn the visual style of the film is dark, comic-book-impossible, and rippling with energy. But above all, it is amoral. Durden takes what he wants, whenever and wherever he wants it (though he would argue, it is only that which he needs), Norton’s narrator makes no bones about wishing ill of Marla Singer (to the point of declining her request to come and get her after an overdose of pills), and Singer herself sees no particular quandary in signing for the meals-on-wheels of deceased neighbors in her apartment building. Everywhere one looks in this picture he finds someone consciously refusing to abide by the same social contract as the rest of us, even when first blushes have lulled us into thinking that perhaps they are. To cover what few expenses he has, for example, Durden turns out to be an expert high-end soap maker—a job that doesn’t sound all that lacking in moral clarity until, that is, one realizes that the tallow he’s using as his main ingredient is rendered from bags of fat that he’s been pilfering after hours from a nearby liposuction clinic.

That there are no rules here, as far as we can see, is of course the whole appeal of the thing, nihilism in its most redactive. With all the trappings of the struggle to get ahead stripped away from the lives and times of these bright but no-longer-concerned-with-getting-ahead misfits, they find themselves free to exact whatever pleasures and satisfactions they wish from the wider world—and never mind what would happen if the rest of us were clever enough to follow-suit. Indeed so little concerned are these people about what would happen if the rest of us were clever enough to follow-suit, that they actively recruit the rest of us to follow-suit, and in some of the most cleverly oblique ways possible, not least by picking fights with total strangers (including a priest, for goodness’ sake) as a way of expanding the club’s membership.

Director David Fincher has at this point brought us two entirely different movies, though each of them with just his very peculiar stylistic flair—all impossible fly-through shots and full-immersion effects that, in lesser hands, would pull us so far out of the experience that we never really made it back. So what does he do now, at an hour and twenty minutes in? Why, he gives us a third movie, of course, by springing on us the sort of unsuspected twist that makes that at the end of Oldboy look linear and circumscribed by comparison. Indeed the twist here is so significant, and makes for such a sea-change in one’s perception of the events leading up to it, that Fight Club is actually an improved experience, rather than a diminished one, the second time through. M. Night Shyamalan has been trying for just this sort of thing his whole career, but with the benefit of Pahlanuik’s novel as his stalking horse, Fincher nails the very didn’t-see-it-comin’ vibe that Shyamalan so wishes for, so consistently, on his first try at such material and only his second motion picture director-credit overall.

The Dust Brothers’ soundtrack is everything a soundtrack for near-post-apocalyptic anti-yuppie nihilism ought to sound like (you supply the imagined music here, and you've pretty-much got it), and the supporting cast—not just Carter but Meat Loaf, Richmond Arquette, and David Andrews—hit every last one of their marks flawlessly. But it’s hardly an accident that the principal commentary track for this one consists almost entirely of Fincher, Pitt, and Norton, talking about the strange reactions the movie garnered from the critical community upon its release. This is their film, the three of theirs, and the reactions it got were just exactly those we’d only be fools to hope for if we’d set ourselves the task of telling the same story: An odd mixture of dismissal, outrage, and purse-lipped unease at the extent to which, for all its hair-raising visual effects, Fincher’s statement is at once so oddly intimate, so universal, and, by that measure if none other, so plausible.

6. Snatch (2000). Was 2000 the single greatest year in the history of motion pictures? Well... 1974 is going to be pretty tough to beat, ever. But with the dizzying assortment of its own movies to have made our list so far, y2k certainly gives '74 a run for its money.

The chronologically second of the Guy Ritchie / Matthew Vaughn / fractured narrative gangster movies (book-ended by Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, on one side, and the aforementioned Layer Cake, on the other), Snatch is unquestionably the pick of the litter, first and foremost because it is the only one of the three that steadfastly refuses to take itself seriously—indeed is most often found, at your local rental store, with the comedies. And it certainly is—though it is also so, so much more, that the classification, to me at least, has always felt like something of a slight.

In the A-story, Jason Statham and Stephen Graham are “Turkish” and “Tommy,” two east-end London characters who split their time between managing a slot-machine parlor and a stable of (illegal) bare-knuckles boxers. When Turkish dispatches Tommy and their top-card fighter Gorgeous George (Adam Fogerty) to a gypsy (“pikey”) campsite to acquire a new camper (“caravan”) from which to operate their business, the pikeys double-cross the pair -- after which George challenges the head of the pikey clan, Mickey (Brad Pitt) to a bare-knuckles boxing match, and is promptly knocked out cold by the wiry and indefatigable gypsy.

Trouble is, Turkish has already booked George for a fight with one of the many improbably successful fighters under the management of a certain Brick Top (Alan Ford), himself far shadier and far more menacing—indeed comfortably homicidal—than Turkish and Tommy could ever hope or want to be. Just how our pair of heroes, now with no caravan and no boxer with which to fulfill their commitment to the terrifying Brick Top, will get out of all of this is for a time at least anyone’s frantic guess. Until, that is, they hit on the supposedly bright idea of hiring the pikey to take George’s place (and George’s fourth-round dive) in the rigged fight, instead. I mean, gosh—what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, in another part of east-end London, pawn-shop owners Sol and Vincent (Lenny James and Robbie Gee) have been hired by Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia) to knock-off an illegal bookie’s office and steal the briefcase being carried by compulsive gambler Frankie Four-Fingers (Benicio Del Torro) because it contains an eighty-four carat diamond, stolen the previous week in Amsterdam. The two pawn brokers enlist the aide of getaway driver Tyrone (Ade), who turns out to be so immensely oafish and overweight that it takes him whole minutes to get into and out of the car, and who, as an added bonus, can’t drive more than a few feet without slamming on the brakes or hitting something, either. As one might expect by this time in the film (we’ve already seen these three characters behaving in ways that, shall we say, are far from thoroughly competent), much goes awry at the bookie’s—though it’ll be a while before they learn the true nature of their problems, namely that the office in question is owned by none other than Brick Top.

This is to say nothing of the myriad cast of ancillary and thrillingly eclectic characters in hot pursuit of either the diamond, the pikey, Turkish and Tommy, or some combination thereof. There is Avi (Dennis Farina), who’d hired Frankie to steal the diamond and bring it to New York, and who must now grudgingly fly to London to try to find him and it; there is Boris the Blade himself, whose failure to obtain the diamond from the hired pawn brokers lands him in hot water with his own contacts back in Amsterdam; and then there is Bullet-Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones), hired by Avi at the behest of Doug The Head (Mike Reid) to locate Frankie when Doug himself cannot.

With the breathless pacing, near-slapstick cinematographic devices (including the use of literal title cards for introducing the dramatus personna at the film’s outset), and the sumptuously self-fun-poking musical stings clobbering us over the head with how ridiculous everyone’s being, Snatch pushes hard on the envelope of the short-attention-span, “MTV” style of film conceit that has made other, lesser films (e.g. The Fifth Element) so palpably unbearable to sit through. But the most surprising bit—or perhaps, for those who’ve seen Lock, Stock and/or Layer Cake, the least surprising bit—is that the tale being told in this movie is in its fundamentals a linear and imminently digestible one, and by that measure the manic cinematography, the cheesy score, the shotgun camera work, serve not to pull us out of the film but instead to pull us farther in. Whereas The Fifth Element is what a sci-fi movie would be if it were made by MTV, Snatch is what MTV would be, if it were made by people who gave a shit. And that’s a big difference, folks.

Indeed it is really nothing short of astonishing that, somehow, director Guy Ritchie and script supervisor Matthew Vaughn manage to spin their unwieldy and polymorphous tale into something credible and understandable, manage to bring the complex facets of the story together at just the right moment with a hilariously improbable and at once instantly believable coincidence. But they also manage the far more subtle and refined challenge of coaxing us into a trance of comedic sympathy for all these should-be villains, until eventually not a single figure in the tangled fabric of our story is regarded with anything other than a downright acrobatic suspension of disbelief, and almost all of them with unqualified goodwill.

The humor of the thing is deep, abiding, and ubiquitous—from Pitt’s indecipherable accent (so indecipherable that the subtitle track reserved specifically for his lines eventually gives up on the exercise about three-quarters of the way through the picture, instead placing strings of question marks at the bottom of the screen), to Tyrone’s all but willful inability to do the only job he’s been hired for, to the recurring (and incidentally mostly un-scripted) antics of the gypsies’ dog, who crops up in many of the different storylines for at least as long as it will take to bite one of the actors in real life. ...And then on re-watch, it turns out that many of the gags are even funnier, including some that aren’t apparently gags at all, when accompanied by the commentary track.

In lesser hands all of this laugh-out-loud funny would represent its own kind of trap, of course—since there comes a time in the lives of all these people when, if you’ll pardon the pun, the gloves must come off, and the serious business of extricating ourselves from all the intrigue must be taken seriously. And it’s no secret that most filmmakers who try such a maneuver fail, either because the antecedent comedy is rendered unfunny by the eventually serious subject matter, or for just the opposite reason: because the comedy works so well that the getting-serious part is impossible to swallow.

That Ritchie and Vaughn can play both sections of the orchestra simultaneously with this picture, and with such high command of the art form, is one of the great gifts to the modern moviegoer. They have made in Snatch a movie that is at once thigh-slappingly funny and a surprise to find mixed-in with the comedies in the local movie store. They have made in Snatch a movie that it as once fabulously complicated in its narrative, and at once instantly accessible as a basic tale of flawed but basically good guys extricating themselves from tricky situations. They have made, in Snatch, the eighty-four carat diamond of heist movies. If you have not seen it, you must see it tonight. You must see it right now.

So there you have it, folks: the five movies that the Key Grip would have to agonize over leaving out of his suitcase at a border crossing beyond which he was only allowed to take five other films. When next we visit this project, we’ll be finding out at last what the five films to remain in the suitcase, would be. It would have been a big moment if anyone were still watching—but it’s not a small moment even as it is. Ten years ago a close friend and his wife asked me what my favorite movie is; ten years later, in just a few short days, I’ll have a straight answer for them.

Stay tuned….
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