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.

Stay tuned....


Anonymous said...

right on keeping on key grip

Dave O'Gorman said...