Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (part three)

The best creative projects in life are those that take on lives of their own, so that completing them, far from a penance of drudgery, becomes something it is impossible to imagine not doing. I suppose this list -- which is already far too long and delves far too deeply into each movie -- is just such a project. It will take far longer word-lengths, far more time, far greater bandwidth than I'd properly anticipated when I started it most of a week ago, and that's fine with me. After all, there should be no rushing what we have to say about the greatest accomplishments in any venue, be it politics or cinema. Besides: it's not like I'm going to make any of my loyal political readers pass a quiz, or something.

80. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Of the many complaints that are likely to be raised from the entirety of this exercise, surely one of the first will be the uneven representation of the world's great directors. Gus Van Sandt has one more film on my list, all by himself, than Ang Li, Mike Leigh, Werner Herzog, Danny Boyle, Robert Altman and Woody Allen, combined. Still, if a person is to watch but one Woody Allen movie, then surely Crimes and Misdemeanors is that movie. Relieved from the burden of Allen's masturbatory vetting of his own neuroses, freed from the sepia-tinted tomb of the mid-1970s satire picture, stripped of all but the broadest of social commentary and nearly all of the alienating New-Yorker-inside jokes, Crimes and Misdemeanors is (like Mighty Aphrodite and Radio Days, I suppose) a case of Woody Allen being the director that the rest of us would be if we had as much talent, instead of being the director that the rest of us would be if we were bat-shit crazy pedophiles.

Martin Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, an accomplished eye doctor whose comfy lifestyle is threatened by his recently scorned partner in a saucy extramarital affair. When Rosenthal's brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) suggests an unconventional solution to the problem, the doctor resists... at first. Meanwhile, in another part of town where other people live, Allen plays a documentary filmmaker attempting to persuade a love-interest that he is capable of leaving his unhappy marriage for her. The two threads come together effortlessly and at just the right moment, but the real genius of this film is that it would've worked perfectly well even if they hadn't. The scene in which Rosenthal is interviewed by the police, for example, is as expertly handled as any single scene in cinema that I can think of just at the moment.

79. Casino (1995). Okay, I have a terrible confession to make, and it may as well come now as later: I haven't yet seen Goodfellas. I also haven't seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Doctor Zhivago, Some Like it Hot, Cinema Paradiso, or Berlin Alexanderplatz, either. But the point right here is that I haven't seen Goodfellas. I just wanted that out in the open before someone logs into this comment page for the very first time to ask how I could've put Casino at number-79 and not even given a mention to Goodfellas. Trust me, people, there will be an updated version of this list. And then probably another. And another. And another.

Meanwhile, Casino itself is an astonishing picture, full of just the right Scorsese-orchestrated complexity -- from Sam "Ace" Rothstein's (Robert De Niro's) early days as a can't-miss handicapper, to his heyday as the titular head of the biggest Casino in Las Vegas, to his inevitable fall from grace at the hands of disloyal underlings and a cheerfully psychotic lover (played with oscar-worthy precision by Sharon Stone). What makes the film is that when, after two-plus hours of greed, power, lust, and friendships gone awry, Rothstein comes to the end that we all saw coming, Rothstein comes to an end that we didn't see coming at all.

78. Scent of a Woman (1992). "Let me guess: Olgalvie Satin Soap, right?" "That's amazing." "Well, I'm in the amazing business."

Al Pacino is Lt. Col. Frank Slade, ret., an aging and (mostly?) blind loudmouth who has alienated himself from all human contact in the autumn years following the accident that took his sight. Chris O'Donnell is Charlie Simms, a student at a posh boarding school whose parents work for a living out west, and who depends crucially on scholarship funding to keep his seat. After Simms' no-account friends rig an ill-advised stunt to embarrass their headmaster, Charlie finds himself hauled into the big office and ordered to rat -- but not before spending the long holiday weekend stewing on the likely consequences of his silence.

With noplace to go in the meantime and needing money as ever, Simms answers an ad in the paper to house-sit for the caregivers of Col. Slade, whereupon Slade unceremoniously scoops Charlie up and whisks him to New York City to bear neutered witness to a whirlwind of debauchery and possible suicide. The final scene, in which the boarding school's entire ranks of students, faculty and staff are assembled to hear what Charlie has to say, has earned its place as another one of those "You want the truth? You can't HANDLE the truth" vignettes in American motion pictures.

I've had patchy luck arguing this movie to friends and family, no doubt on the basis of its title, which suggests many things that the film is not. If you're one of those people, I beseech you: see this movie -- if for no other reason than to witness the birth of one of the great acting careers of our time in Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing (with the grace and nuance that has marked his entire portfolio) the part of a co-conspirator and fellow witness who just might toss his scholarship-spending "buddy" beneath the truck tires to save his own skin.

77. Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994). In the early 1990s Polish-born, naturalized French director Krzysztof Kieslowski devised a trilogy of motion pictures
to commemorate what it means to be French, hitting upon the ingenious idea of harnessing one of the three colors from the French flag -- and the humanistic attribute that it represents -- as the vehicle for each film. The blue of the tricolor is intended to represent freedom ("liberte"), the white stands for equal justice ("egalite"), and the red symbolizes brotherhood ("fraternite"). All three of the resultant films take these themes and contort them in precisely the ways that a careful student of French culture would come to expect, after he'd learned to expect it. And, since this is Kieslowski we're talking about, here, all three resultant films are simply breathtaking. (White barely misses the cut of this list; Blue will eventually score much, much higher.)

Kieslowski's take, on the French take, on the subject of brotherhood, is a tale of a young fashion model who runs over a man's dog and then discovers that the man enjoys electronically eavesdropping on other peoples' telephone calls. In this manner the relationship between the model and the old man can be cultivated and explored, but so too can that very peculiar set of relationships that French people have with comparative strangers: There really is no such thing in public France as privacy -- everything a person does is scrupulously watched and graded by everyone else. Kieslowski's point, as with the other two films, is that the supposedly high-minded ideal symbolized by the color isn't always something to get too carried away with wishing for.

76. Breaking the Waves (1996). Lars Von Trier scores with two films in this list (and barely misses with not one or two but three of his others). This one is a long and difficult picture about Bess (Emily Watson), an emotionally troubled young woman in the religiously close-minded north of Scotland, who meets and marries an outsider, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), himself employed on an offshore oil rig. When Jan is gravely injured in an accident on the rig, Bess' tenuous grip on reality is shaken to its very core -- even before Jan begins making bedridden requests that can charitably be described as disturbing in and of themselves.

Like nearly all Von Trier films, Breaking the Waves is a deeply unsettling, complicated, sinking-feeling kind of experience; the sympathies one feels for the characters born as much of basic aversion to human suffering as of any specific sense of connection or resonance. People meet unhappy ends in Von Trier movies, and a lot of the time those unhappy ends are pretty easy to see coming, and a lot of those times Von Trier makes a very specific point of showing us every last, voyeuristic, gut-wrenching detail. Not for the faint-of-heart or the easily upset, but in the end a powerfully acted and powerfully directed story about love, loss, even redemption... of a sort.

75. Miller's Crossing (1990). Brothers Joel and Ethan Cohen will not thank me for leaving Raising Arizona, Fargo, Barton Fink, Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There, and perhaps most conspicuously No Country for Old Men off my list. Neither will a great many other people, come to that, but if you're only going to take two Cohen Brothers projects with you to your desert island -- a comedy and a drama -- then Miller's Crossing is without a doubt the drama that you must have.

Gabriel Byrne plays the leading role of Tommy, the violence-averse consigliere to an aging, prohibition-era crime boss named Leo (Albert Finney). When Leo discovers that his mistress Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) has also been sleeping with Tommy, he beats his long-time friend and banishes him from the syndicate, after which Tommy joins the rival outfit in town -- but not before proving his loyalty by agreeing to kill Verna's brother at Miller's Crossing, a remote location in the woods outside of town. From here the complexities of the story take on lives of their own, with Tommy blackmailed by one nemesis, stalked by a second, and openly threatened with exposure for what he has- and has not done, by a third.

This is not a particularly easy movie to follow on first watch: several comparatively lesser characters end up figuring prominently at crucial points in the plot, and with everyone dressed in the full regalia of East coast, prohibition-era gangsterism, it's not always an entirely straightforward proposition to tell everyone apart. But Byrne, who is in award-worthy form for this picture, cashes every check the complicated storyline endeavors to write, notably by pulling off a thrillingly complicated maneuver at the critical moment. One of the strongest films on re-watch in my entire collection.

74. Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Godfrey Reggio's no-dialogue, no-plot, no-cast documentary about the negative influences of human civilization is in many ways as affecting now as it was when it first aired almost thirty years ago. The film consists entirely of vignettes, shot over a wide assortment of locales in which the touch of man has left both the natural world, and his fellow man, flawed and limping -- the whole set to the intoxicating cyclicality of Philip Glass' minimalist soundtrack. So much of the footage, and all of the camera techniques, have become so dated now that it's easy to forget just how arresting this project was when it first played: In the theater where I saw it at age thirteen, in response to the greatly accelerated film footage through the windshield of a car driving on urban freeways, there were people literally screaming and covering their eyes.

Persons likely to be "pulled out of the film" by its comparatively low-tech, low-budget feel are directed to the contemporary equivalent, a much better-produced (if also less convincing) Ron Fricke project from 1992 called Baraka.

73. Crash (2004). I am obliged to dislike Crash -- or at the very least to poo-poo the idea that it ever got within spitting-distance of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2005 -- but I don't actually give a shit. This is an outstanding movie, period. With a veritable who's-who of early 21st century Hollywood for its cast (way too many top-of-their-form actors to do justice to, here), and just the sort of split-narrative, multiple storyline plot that makes for genuinely poppin' good social commentary, director Paul Haggis can do no wrong with this compelling statement on the badly dysfunctional social fabric of the modern American middle class.

Forget what you've heard about this film being preachy about race relations; it's barely even about race relations -- but rather casts a much wider dispersion on the American bourgeois and their ubiquitous me-first hypocrisies. From their ingrained insincerity to their tone-deaf sense of others' feelings, to their inability to make the simple effort to communicate intelligibly and in complete sentences, Crash is about a lot more than modern Americans' tendency to distrust each other for the colors of their skins. "I'm angry all the time, and I don't know why," says a tearful Sandra Bullock, at one point in the picture. "In cities you're supposed to touch other people all the time," says Don Cheadle, at another: "Here, we're surrounded by all this metal and glass; nobody else ever touches you."
If Crash makes that argument better than I do, well then, that's why it's seventy-third on this list.

72. The Usual Suspects (1995). Gabriel Byrne is back with his second starring role in four slots, this time as Dean Keaton -- the dirty ex-cop and probable murderer turned clean, aspiring restaurateur... that is, until agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) of the Customs Department rounds him up with four other notoriously hardened criminals in a desperate attempt to make one of them confess to a truck hijacking. Naturally the five men lawyer-up and, between their interviews and their release, they rally in the holding cell to cobble together a quick-money plan built around robbing some crooked cops of a shipment of stolen diamonds.

Soon after reaching L.A. to fence the loot, however, their contacts go sour and they find themselves instead standing in the presence of Kobyashi (Pete Postlethwaite), a shadowy South-Asian gentleman who claims to work for the most ghastly and all-powerful criminal mastermind on planet earth, Keyser Soze. Mr. Soze has orchestrated both the lineup and the leak about the diamonds, it transpires, so as to assemble these men for a common accounting of all the times they have each stolen from his enterprises without their knowledge. "That you did not know you were stealing from Mr. Soze at the time," Kobyashi drones in the slow, patient sing-song of someone whose back is assuredly covered, "is the only reason that any of you are still alive."

By way of penance, Mr. Soze has instructed Kobyashi to order these men into a near-certain-death ambush of a drug deal aboard a small freighter anchored in San Piedro harbor. Keaton, together with his most trusted confident among the group, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), devises the plan they hope will at least have their ledgers cleared with Soze and their lives intact, even if no further renumeration from stopping the deal is ultimately had. And of course, as only edgy heist movies can feature an "of course" at this point in their synopses, nothing is as it seems and nothing about the climactic moments in the five men's lives goes according to the plan.

A word or two of caution: This is a film about which the less you know -- particularly from internet sources -- the better, since plot spoilers of the typical cybernetic type would genuinely spoil the experience of taking-in this movie. There is an enormous misdirect waiting for the audience at the end, indeed a misdirect so gigantic that it is preceded, only a few minutes earlier, by a supposed revelation that feels for all the world like the "gotcha" moment we've been pointed to all this time. If you have not seen any of the movies on this list, this is the one to rent and watch this evening, before you risk finding out anything more than you know already.

71. Buffalo '66 (1998). Once upon a time, before this movie, there was a guy named Vincent Gallo. He was a passable bit-actor in mostly lesser-known pictures (Arizona Dream, House of Spirits, Palookaville) and also a journeyman composer of film-score (New York Beat, The Way it Is, Gunlover). And then, at a stroke, Vincent Gallo woke up one morning, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and found that he had written, and landed a production deal to direct, Buffalo '66, a gut-wrenchingly dark comedy about the hapless and twisted world of Billy Brown (Gallo).

When the film opens Brown is being released from prison. Though we won't know it until much later, it happens that he bet an enormous sum of money on the Buffalo Bills to win the '91 Superbowl, whereafter he found himself agreeing to take a fall for his bookie's accomplice so as to protect his own parents from the bookie's wrath. Having spun fantasitcal stories of a rich and thrilling existence jet-setting to foreign locales, Brown kidnaps a young tap-dancer named Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pretend to be his wife for an impromptu dinner at the family home. Ricci reluctantly complies, only to discover, to her surprise as much as ours, that Billy's parents are so maliciously self-absorbed and uncaring toward their son that he could have strolled through the door with... well... Christina Ricci, and it wouldn't have made a lick of difference or for that matter even registered.

The movie consists of far more, but the long and desperate scene at the dinner table -- complete with some marvelously handled flashback material -- is undeniably the centerpiece. It's tough to watch, but it's also a hilarious comment on the lengths to which some people will go to remain committed to family connections, even if those connections are one-way. Events veer without warning in just the way that a difficult afternoon at a strained family dinner table would in real life -- from Billy's mother ladeling sickly sweet affection over his would-be wife, to the father's insistence that she sit on his lap so he can cop a cheap feel, to the mother's inability to recollect that she once almost killed Billy as a result of a chocolate allergy, to the father's sudden and inexplicable decision that Billy shouldn't have a knife with which to cut his food because he may use it to kill him.

As almost had to happen, Layla eventually falls for Billy, spending the last reel of the movie imploring him to stay closer and closer to her instead of leaving their rented hotel room to do whatever dastardly and terrible thing it is that he seems bent on doing. Will Billy listen to his heart and return to Layla's waiting arms, or will he give in to the revenge he's been feeding all these many years in jail? As it happens, the audience doesn't know until after -- that's right, after -- the critical moment of his decision.

Next up: Positions 61-70. Stay tuned....

No comments: