Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (Part Nine)

It would've been hard to miss that the frequency of updates to this list has been dropping precipitously at the precise moment that we've entered truly high ground on it. That's no coincidence, of course: The best movies are also the hardest to write about, precisely because they had so much more powerful -- and so much more personal -- impact. It's one thing to say "the set decorations are perfectly, nay eerily believable" about Hunt for Red October, or that the "palpable sense of unease is all around us like incense" about Punch Drunk Love. And then, when the movies that made not just any impact, but an impact so significant and so lasting that they were assigned #1 rankings come along, how does one enhance those same statements without splashing empty adjectives all over the place?

I'm not asking rhetorically, you understand: if you figure this out, I want to be the second person to know. In the meantime, here are movies 21-25 on The Key Grip's list of the 100 greatest movies.

25. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). In what just may be the strangest road movie premise in the history of the genre, Julio and Tenoch (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) are two prep-school friends in Mexico City—vaguely shiftless guys with girlfriends away for the summer—who encounter a comely, slightly older woman named Ana (Ana Lopez Mercado), at a wedding. They spin her lavish tales of a secluded beach on the Pacific coast, a couple of days' drive away and—to their surprise as much as anyone's—she accepts their invitations to come along and see it for herself. What follows could in a pinch be described as “Bottle Rocket With Subtitles,” at least insofar as we in the audience find ourselves charmed by these two impish boys, staring voyeuristically as they come of age before our very eyes, despite our best efforts not to fall for their inimitable charms.

Along the way, Ana, Julio and Tenoch encounter the Mexican countryside in a way that immediately conveys to us director Alfonso Cuaron’s quiet brilliance, insofar as the country through which these three characters will pass is an allegory for them, and they for it: beautiful, possessing of a future bright with promise and yet at the same time fraught with the potential for semi-self-inflicted hardship and disappointment. Make no mistake, a straightforward, coming-of-age-cum-road-movie this is most assuredly not.

Yes, Julio and Tenoch find their friendship tested by their impish rivalry for Ana’s affections; yes, the trip they take is peppered with variously harrowing, disarming, and hilarious anecdotes; yes, the strain of carrying the fiction of this mythical beach for two days and two nights on the road serves as an obvious device for shading the personalities of the two male leads. All is as we would expect to find it, here. But to this ample foundation Cuaron adds a carefully chosen assortment of backdrops that, by their very context, will spike the punch of this otherwise easygoing picture with recurring statements on poverty, global capitalism, the meaning of loyalty, the failings of bourgeois social conventions. All are woven artfully into the narrative, all without heavy-handed manipulation or maudlin, tinkling-piano soundtrack.

As added element of allegoric tension, the boys themselves happen to hail from strikingly different classes--their own likely futures standing just behind the unfolding storyline like a muggy summer afternoon that could turn glorious or ugly at a moment’s notice—as is, of course, also the case for Mexico and her people, careening from a path that might lead to first-world splendor, to one fraught with poverty and misfortune, and back, without ever having to move farther than a two-day drive from urban to rural landscapes, and onward to the beach.

Mexican cinema has been turning out some real gems for several years now, the most famous of which is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s flawed but inescapably affecting triplet, Amores Perros (literally, “love’s a bitch”). But between the unflinching and steamy sexuality, the variously breathtaking and heart-rending triptick, and the carefully multi-layered narrative, Cuaron’s improbable coming-of-age road movie (complete with a ‘gotcha’ that we should see coming even before we've placed the DVD in the tray, and yet somehow don’t), holds pride of place over the field, and indeed stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the great coming-of-age pictures from any nation, of any era, in any theme or genre.

24. Kitchen Stories (2003). Our second bizarre premise in a row makes the first one look restrained and formulaic. It is 1950, and the Swedish government has undertaken the decision to fund the development of a new, hyper-ergonomic kitchen layout with which happy Swedish housewives might toil even more happily to please their bread-winning husbands. So far, so good (well... kind of). Only somehow -- we’re never quite let in on how, exactly -- the supplemental decision is undertaken to cross the international border into Norway, thence to study the kitchen behavior not of housewives but of the aging and legendarily cranky bachelors farming the Norwegian countryside.

To do this unobtrusively, the institute carrying out the research has devised an apparatus resembling nothing so much as an overambitious high-chair, intended for placement in the corner of the bachelor farmer’s kitchen and, once the farmer has acceded to all of this nonsense, the semi-permanent repository of the researcher who will chronicle his subject’s use of an existing, perfectly serviceable kitchen, day and night. And if that sounds like a premise straight out of someone’s gone-off plate of mackerel, well, that’s the idea. Writer-director Brent Hamer, resisting the temptation to reduce the picture to an assortment of hilarious anecdotes (the way a certain other highly acclaimed director did, recently), envisions not so much the preposterousness of the arrangement, as its obvious prelude to the formation of a quirky, temporarily-arms-length friendship between observer and subject.

Thomas Norstrom is "Folke," the reluctant, indeed at first openly belligerent farmer of our scene--a man who has lived alone for a very long time, and grown quite accustomed to same, thank you very much. Meanwhile Joachim Calmeyer ("Isak") convinces us with the lightest of hamless brushstrokes of his lack of conviction in the project, struggling to be at once unobtrusive, there in his high chair, and still a fully-functioning, sensing, feeling human being, endeavoring not to go crazy in the near-total absence of appropriate human contact. Along the way there is room for an envious neighbor (Bjorn Floberg), a bumbling supervisor (Reine Brynolfsson), an aging and infirmed horse, unrequited love, homesickness, intrigue, even reckless endangerment. But unlike other Scandinavian filmmakers, including others on this list, Hamer never lets the inevitability of the onrushing winter ruin his vibe.

The soundtrack, the color scheme, even the camera movement is playful--with cutaways to scenes suggested by the previous one in just that special way that always gets us chuckling at how we, and the characters, might have done a better job of seeing this coming. There is sadness in this film, yes, but it is a sadness that embraces the moment and celebrates it, instead of submerging into the overwrought self-victimization with which the Scandinavians tend so often to look at the inevitable sadnesses we all face every day. Instead of mashing our heartstrings to a pulp, Kitchen Stories plucks them one-by-one, reminding us of the simple joys, the simple tragedies, the simple pleasures, and, ultimately, the simple beauty of our quietly banal little stories, out there on that snow-covered Norwegian countryside we call life. One of the half-dozen pictures on this list that, if pressed for a recommendation, I would need know nothing about the person asking me before suggesting. And that’s not something that may be said about even the highest-placing films to follow, either: This one is, quite literally and in its own, unprepossessing way, for every one. Every. One.

23. Forrest Gump (1994). Robert Zemeckis clocks-in with the first of two superlative pictures on our list with this luminescent and stirring travelogue through thirty years of American pop-culture history, as seen through the eyes of the sweetly impaired title character--played of course by Tom Hanks. By turns a love story, a statement-piece on the desperate times of the late twentieth century, and a harrowing tale of near-certain death, improbable redemption, and unwavering commitments to lifelong friends, little doubt is left from the opening credits of the picture that this one will leave us feeling good—but to call this a “feel-good picture” is to slight its delicate balance of palpable sympathy for its main character, on the one hand, and you-are-there immersion into the iconic events of the most tumultuous epoch in American history, on the other.

The relationship between Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis goes back a long way, and with this film (as with another collaboration that will score even higher on our list), they exploit their implicit trust of one-another to the maximal benefit of we the audience. Hanks, unselfconscious and comfortable enough with Zemeckis’ oversight to spare himself the need to ham; Zemeckis, always conscious of cinematic construction before all other considerations (he began his professional life as a cinematographer), for once free from the need to marshal his principal acting talent, thence to concentrate on the tricky composition of an endearing but undeniably small figure, moving through some of the biggest things that have ever happened.

Only a director who began life as a cinematographer, who trusted his talent enough not to feel the need to direct it very much, could've pulled it off. From Gump’s childhood infatuation with Jenny, to his accidental tryout for the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, to his search for the missing Jenny, to his reflexively heroic conduct in Vietnam, to his failed reunion with Jenny, to his emergence as an international celebrity ping-pong player, and on in such fashion through shrimp-boat captaincy, lawn-mowing, three Presidential receptions at the White House, and a three-times-over run from coast to coast, everything, somehow, works.

The supporting cast contributes to the formula in a not insubstantial fashion, too: From Sally Field’s headstrong and unconditionally loving portrayal of Forrest's mother, to Gary Sinise as Forrest’s sternly cranky and yet ineffably lovable Lieutenant in Vietnam, to Robin Wright Penn’s bang-on-the-nose rendition of Forrest’s abiding, would-be, should-be, might-yet-be love interest, all the necessary contributors to the personal storyline are so instantly believable and sympathetic, precisely because the jobs they play are relieved of the burden of carrying anything heavier than themselves.

In consequence, what should be a film in which the characters serve only as the substrate on which to grow the cultural travelogue, and who therefore recede into comic-book levels of dimensionality and significance, becomes instead a film about these individuals, and these alone -- with Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon and Vietnam and The Moratorium and Watergate and d├ętente with China the seemingly insignificant; only so much set-dressing, just as they would’ve seemed for these individuals, had they really lived through it all.

This was the second-in-a-row academy award for Hanks as best actor (the previous one for his performance as an AIDS-infected and wrongly dismissed attorney in Philadelphia), and Zemeckis’ first ascension to the ranks of best director- and best picture winners. Let there be no complaint from anyone. Say what you will about the former’s sometimes-saccharine appeal to middle America, say what you will about the latter’s past tendencies to gravitate to less artistically important work, the collaboration they pull off with Forrest Gump is a letter-perfect film in which not the tiniest detail escapes the critical assessment and honing influence of a closely bound team, flying in the tightest of possible formations. When you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you can tell when the talent and the crew are getting along, and when they aren’t. Thank the gods of filmmaking that these folks did, and that they chose to do it for this, permanently affecting film.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002). Tom Hanks scores with two pictures in a row on our list, Leonardo DiCaprio silences his critics, and Steven Spielberg pays us one last visit along our path to the best movie, with the true-life story of Frank William Abagnale Jr. (DiCaprio)—the grown-up-looking high school kid who processes the news of his parents’ divorce by bolting from a custody hearing--thence to embark on a life of making ends meet by passing himself off as people he isn’t, to improve his chances of forging checks.

Taking the sort of glee from his crimes that older, more hardened thieves can only dream of (does he even fully realize that they are indeed crimes?), Abagnale assumes an impressively rich assortment of identities, from an airline pilot to a trial attorney to a chief of emergency physicians, all the while doggedly pursued by humorless and semi-hapless FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks). Naturally, the deeper into this web of deceit the young Abagnale sinks, the more estranged from normal life he becomes—but the genius of Spielberg’s and scriptwriter Jeff Nathanson’s adaptation of the autobiography is in its gentle depiction of Frank's slow but inescapable descent into abject loneliness, the distrusting and self-alienated isolation that any truly successful identity thief must surely consider his stock-and-trade.

When for the first time in years he encounters his big-talking, tax-cheating father, Frank Sr. (played with unsurprising mastery by Christopher Walken, in a role that seems to have been waiting for him in someone’s desk drawer for years), Frank soon realizes that neither he nor his dad truly know each other anymore, indeed can’t truly know each other anymore, for all the risks inherent in the knowing. When he calls his nemesis Carl on the telephone, we are not to understand—at least at first—that he is reaching out for the only form of social contact that he knows he can have without endangering the other party or further endangering himself. When he falls in love, genuinely and touchingly, with a young lady who would be miles beneath his station if he were any of the people he claims to be, he knows even as he senses the swoon that it will probably cost him his freedom.

Every member of the supporting cast is an irreplaceable contributor to the special chemistry of this three-parts-comedy, two-parts-social-comment, one-part-lost-puppy-in-the-rain symphony of talent, from Frank’s mother Paula (Nathalie Baye), to Hanratty’s boss Jack (James Brolin), to poster pin-up girl-turned-high-priced hooker Cheryl Ann (Jennifer Garner), to Frank’s girlfriend Brenda (Amy Adams), who had the inspired impulse to leave her retainer in for her screen-test, and got the part for it.

But special recognition is surely deserved of Martin Sheen, who climbed down from the highest perches of Hollywood aristocracy to play, with jaw-dropping believability, Brenda’s vaguely uneasy and semi-trusting father Roger—raising goose-bumps on the arms of even the most hardened movie cynic with his authoritative (and foolhardy) acceptance of the lying Frank, despite having, perhaps, three-dozen speaking lines in the whole picture.

The irrepressible and ready-at-a-moments'-notice score was carefully plotted by Spielberg and composer John Williams, not to make this a timeless story but rather the very opposite. “We were striving for a conscious recollection of the great caper-movies of the sixties,” said Williams, in an interview for the featurette. “From the opening title sequence, we wanted those who were old enough to have seen some of those films to know exactly the time and place and type of movie we were putting them in.” Williams has composed many film scores, of course--he may be the most prolifically superlative of all motion picture music-writers--and I will make no new friends with such a bold statement as this one, but friends, it is with this rollicking little picture that he makes his statement for all time.

Fascinating anecdote about the making of this film: During principal photography DiCaprio, as is his custom, would ask for one extra take of each scene, after everyone involved was sure that they had at least one keeper in the can (he called it, perhaps somewhat unfortunately, “one more for the Gipper”), the idea being that he would then be free to try something interestingly off-script, just to see what happened. This worked fine for as long as it took the other cast-members to get used to it, and then things really took off—in the form of Walken’s sudden and completely improvised choke-up during the scene (beginning at 1:45 of the linked clip) in which he describes, one last time, how he met and wooed Frank’s mother Paula.

It’s a completely unexpected moment, of course, and DiCaprio’s real-life momentary unease, followed abruptly by his total immersion in the improv, rings truer than any other single moment in the movie. “Are you sure you don’t want to do it again?” Walken said to Spielberg, even as he was still wiping tears from his cheekbone. To which Spielberg, visibly shaken, stood stock-still for a half a dozen beats, and then said, finally, “Chris, are you kidding?”

21. Broken Flowers (2005). Fans of director Jim Jarmusch would burn me in effigy (if there were anyone left still reading) for picking this as my only selection from his list of fine and arresting pictures -- not least because it is without question the most linear and accessible (dare I say, cinematic?) of all his efforts. But here's the thing: it is also his best, and by a margin far larger than seventy-nine spaces on some random bald guy's list of good movies.

Bill Murray is Don Johnston, a self-alienated and possibly early-retired computer entrepreneur whose long line of gorgeous former girlfriends may or may not include someone claiming that twenty years earlier she gave birth to his son. In an unsigned letter that has been curiously typed in red ink on pink stationary, complete with matching envelope and illegible postmark, the mysterious claimant suggests that the son in question, after years of hounding her with probing questions about his father, has finally grown exasperated with her demurrals and set off to find the truth.

Don shows this letter to his next-door neighbor, a working-class and instantly likable mysteryphile named Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who plans an itinerary in which Don will fly to the cities of all possible candidates for the mother in question (in an undeniably Jarmuschian wrinkle, there turn out to be either four or five -- depending on how one counts), whereupon Johnston will visit each of them unannounced, in search of clues. "What if this son shows up here while I'm not here?" Johnston asks his neighbor, as if anticipating the audience's difficulty with the whole premise--to which Winston replies, "Ah, no problem: I'll be monitoring your house the whole time!"

At length Johnston agrees to all of this (with just the sort of aggrieved, heavy-sighing way that a person would agree to something as absurd as this, as a way of getting the other person off his back), and in no time he finds himself realizing, way too late, that he is completely unprepared even to lay eyes on any of these women again, much less to say anything that doesn't sound bizarrely affected and possibly deranged to them, when they ask in turn what it is he thinks he's doing in their lives again like this after twenty years.

The actresses cast to play Johnston's past loves are as comfortable inside their assorted reactions to his sudden reappearance as we in the audience are uncomfortable with them – from Laura (Sharon Stone), at one end of the plausible spectrum of coping responses, through Dora (Frances Conry) and Carmen (Jessica Lange), to Penny (Tilda Swinton) at the other, with plenty of room in-between for oafishly over-accepting new husbands, mean dogs, invitations to dinner, hostile receptionists, even the odd, naked teenaged daughter thrown in on a larf. Never afraid of long takes or quiet premises, Jarmusch thoroughly outdoes himself with his conveyance of just how permanently changed Don Johnston’s life is likely to be, if and when he gets home -- the subtlety with which it dawns on us that Johnston’s history is not something he relishes, or even necessarily wishes to continue, but instead represents all of those many things about ourselves that we’d change if we could.

It’s no accident that the film opens (more or less) with Johnston’s most-recently estranged girlfriend Cheri (Julie Delpy) leaving him (“It’s like I’m your mistress, Don, except that you aren’t even married”), or that, having finally surrendered to Winston’s peculiar plan, Johnston passes on the opportunity to hit on a comely businesswoman waiting with him in the gate-lobby of his first flight. Should it surprise us that Don can’t remember – indeed has no idea – who the mother of this child might be? Of course. And in the end, that is the quietly brilliant point of the film: It should surprise us. It should surprise anyone. It should surprise him. And it does. But not quite enough.

And so we reach the conclusion of the first eighty of the hundred greatest movies. When next we visit this project we'll be delving into the truly, black-tie-required territory of the Key Grip's top twenty selections among his first 2,000 critically viewed films. And while the air is certainly thin up here and getting thinner all the time, let's not forget that every motion picture to make this list -- indeed many that almost did but just barely didn't -- are treasures; little chocolate bonbons for the soul. It isn't true that life would be unbearable without them. But it sure would be a lot less fun.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part eight)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida)
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Friday, May 15, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part seven)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned....
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (Part Six)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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