Saturday, June 6, 2009

The 100 Greatest Movies (Part Eleven: Films 11-15)

As mentioned at the conclusion of the last installment, we've entered special territory with these last remaining spaces, in that no film to be discussed from now until the project's conclusion will have escaped at least momentary status as a candidate for my number-one favorite film of all -- a realization made especially poignant for this particular installment, seeing as how the five films described below will find themselves on the wrong side of the "top ten" cutoff. Of course the whole rush of excitement -- and whatever gleeful controversy might yet be kindled -- from an exercise like this one, comes from the messy and ultimately impossible business of sorting these precious jewels into something not unlike an absolute hierarchy. We can't all be first. And so, numbered as usual, here are The Key Grip's choices of the eleventh- through fifteenth finest of his first 2,000 critically watched films.

15. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). I was planning to start this entry by saying something sympathetic about how unusually challenging it would've been for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to pick the Best Picture of 2000, what with all the astonishingly superlative movies that came out in that single, charmed year. ...And then I remembered that the film they did pick was Gladiator, and suddenly I didn't feel so sorry for them anymore. Meanwhile, Ang Lee's only film to make our list at all finds itself nursing a fourteen-spaces-from-the-top nosebleed, and all is well with at least this tiny little corner of the film-evaluative universe.

Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, lifelong colleagues near the end of their useful careers as sword-wielding protectors of Governor Yu, administrator to one of the Qing Dynasty's largest and western-most districts, and himself the proud keeper of the "Green Destiny," a sword of unusual prowess and almost mythical cache in the eyes of his subjects. When the sword is stolen and Li Mu Bai's kung fu master is killed by minions of the infamous Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-Pei), Li and Yu Shu Lien must strike out into the breathtaking west-China landscape to avenge the murder and recover the sword.

Explained that way, this could be just about any martial arts picture of the past thirty-five years -- let's say, for the sake of argument, oh, half of Quentin Tarrantino's beta-tape collection, altogther. But the thrillingly remarkable thing about Crouching Tiger is that these tried-and-true elements of Asian martial arts cinema form the mere jumping-off point (literally?) for a plot so much richer in both complexity and empathy as to leave the unsuspecting viewer feeling all but intentionally misdirected.

The beating heart of the film (and of the book from which it was adapted) is the cleverly inventive conflict faced by Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai in their dealings with the young and impetuous would-be courtesan, Jen Yu -- a comely young femme who at various turns should be their protege, their sweetly adored proto-daughter, their quarry in a high-stakes pursuit for truth and justice, their mortal enemy, and their only real vessel for confessing the honesty of their own feelings for each other, and who yet eludes any, and all, of these nice neat boxes into which they repeatedly try to fit her and her exasperating exploits. Jen Yu, it happens, may or may not actually have stolen the sword, herself, and may or may not be intending its possession as her calling-card to throw off the oppressively malevolent tutelage of Jade Fox, under whom she's been secretly and semi-willingly a pupil ever since her forced separation from a mongol lover who'd stolen her heart after taking her hostage as a teenager when the Governor's court was crossing the high desert.

Over the next two hours the three kung fu warriors, Yu Shu Lien, Li Mu Bai, and Jen Yu, will pause between sessions of the breathtaking swordsmanship and (physically impossible but somehow instantly credible nonetheless) aerial martial arts displays, to ruminate over a galaxy of complex moral and existential dilemmas, from the consequences of admitting a forbidden love, to the perils of choosing the wrong mentor, to the very nature and point of close, unconditional friendship--ultimately disarming even the most cynically dis-believing martial arts rejectionist among us, in favor of the simple immersion in the universally enthralling characters and their could-happen-to-anybody problems.

Ang Lee's direction is typically conscious of tone and composition, inspiring his actors to explore the depths of their own capacities for subtle turns of attitude, over a more clamped-down, this-happened-then-this-happened interpretation of the somewhat different-feeling book by Du Lu Wang (adapted for the screen by Hui Ling Wang). The cinematography is lush and epic without seeming turgid, the high-China triptych is worth the price of the rental alone, the wire-work is instantly (if unexpectedly) believable, and the mostly cello-led score, composed by Tan Dun and played with just the sort of arresting virtuosity one might expect from Yo Yo Ma, fills every spare corner of its own space in the picture without once intruding on anyone else's.

It's been said that there are really only a very small handful of "stories" in the world: The getting-home story (Das Boot, O Brother Where Art Thou, Apollo-13, Saving Private Ryan), the learn-to-love-before-you-miss-it story (Good Will Hunting, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Amelie, Punch Drunk Love), the proving-one's-self-to-one's-self story (Rocky, The Verdict, Scent of a Woman, gosh, even Silence of the Lambs), but frankly I know of no other single picture that dares to tackle this at-once ubiquitous and yet so prickly question of what, exactly, one does when one's affection for a young and roguish colleague is placed in direct conflict with one's duty to serve the larger good. Many of us have been there, our unflinching desire to see the younger colleague prosper as we have before them -- an impulse perhaps reflective of a certain measure of ego-tainted superiority on our own parts but sincere and well-intentioned nonetheless -- brought into stark and hand-wrung relief by that young colleague's impetuous insistence on his or her own set of rules and principals. But to set out to write a book, or make a movie, about this idea is little short of unique as far as I know. And this is to say nothing of the exquisitely delicate and understated portrait of Li Mu Bai's and Yu Shu Lien's exquisitely delicate and understated love, for each other.

That all of this dense and fallow material can be crafted to fit into a two-hour container, together with the classic martial arts storyline of a stolen sword and the vengeance with which it must be sought out and returned, is the sort of accomplishment that few other filmmakers have ever seriously dared, and no one else has pulled off, ever. The kung fu, the sword wielding, and the impeccably choreographed many-against-one set pieces are, of course, vastly superior both in ambition and polish to anything that's ever been attempted in a martial arts picture before, and it does the movie no disservice to comment on these elements for the peerless standard-bearers that they are. But the shame of the thing is the expectation that so many of my friends have brought to the picture: that all they'll be watching is a bunch of people in flowing white robes, floating impossibly amid the thin ends of building-sized bamboo chutes and kicking each other. For this reason it's been another of those tough sells, to get friends and family to sit still for this one. The loss is theirs. Indeed I've been imagining many feedback scenarios once this entire project is complete, but the very first one I heard inside my head, before I uploaded the first installment, was of someone logging-in to say, "How could you put Crouching Tiger anywhere other than number one?" Tough question to answer, in the end: It may well be the single greatest motion picture ever made.

14. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993). When last we paid a call on the "three colors trilogy" of Krzysztof Kieslowski, it was to discuss Rouge -- the film whose theme was to be that of "fraternite," or brotherhood. At the time I hinted that Kieslowski's take on each of the three themes of the French tricolor would be importantly askance, but it is only here, with Bleu ("liberte"), that we may appreciate the full effect of his genius eccentricity with respect to interpreting the mottoes associated with each color.

Juliette Binoche is Julie Vignon, the young and jet-set-gorgeous wife of a symphonic composer who has been commissioned to write a work commemorating the unification of Europe, to be played in fourteen simultaneous locations, in fourteen countries, on the occasion of the ratification of the Maastrict Treaty. But before Julie's husband can conduct a single note of the performance he and their daughter are killed in -- and Julie herself barely survives -- an unusually empty and pointless car crash, leaving Julie independently wealthy and without any particular desire to move forward with her own life. "And what is it that you will do?" an apartment agent asks her in his office, when she presents herself in search of a quiet flat somewhere in Montpelier. "Nothing," she replies, simply. Then there is an understandably pregnant and awkward pause, before the agent adds, "Absolutely nothing?" "Absolutely nothing," replies Julie, just as simply as before.

In a premise that might remind readers of the story of Fin McBride in The Station Agent, Julie's attempts to seclude herself behind a wall of inactivity are met with higher-than-expected levels of pushback from the social fabric that surrounds her. By turns she finds herself confronted by a tabloid journalist who accuses her of having secretly written all of her husband's works, a former colleague of her husband's who confesses his own long-standing sexual obsession with her, a downstairs neighbor whom the tenant association wishes to throw out on grounds of rampant promiscuity, a mother in the late stages of dementia, a secret lover of her late husband, even a family of mice living in the closet.

Naturally Julie's dismay at all of these uninvited intrusions into her would-be hermit existence is nothing short of palpable, but the unforced brilliance of the film is that she also stands rock-like against every unexpected turn, dispatching each item on this improbable checklist with a dexterity born of equal measures' cold pragmatism and devil-may-care denial -- just as we might expect of a smart young woman who had a bright and drippingly self-confident future, and who'd suddenly lost it all, in real life. She makes significant gifts to improbable recipients, dismisses other peoples' concerns for her and her state-of-mind, and, throughout, speaks in the staccato bluntness of someone who's not likely to be worrying about cultural propriety any time soon.

Of course life may not leave her up there in that fifth-floor apartment to stew in her own solitude, either -- even as she pulls-out ever larger and larger stops to try to ensure her privacy -- but herein lies what surely must be the point of our director's otherwise inexplicably down-beat choices in characterizing what we all think of the virtuous ideal of liberty:

To make a movie about freedom, it would seem, Kieslowski endeavored to define exactly what that would mean, down to the specifics (in my mind's eye this might even been done with pen and paper), beginning quite obviously with a protagonist who would never have to worry about money, and to that extent there would be no reason not to envy her. But when Kieslowski looked down and saw how much blank space would be left on the page below that simple fact, the question must quickly have gotten a lot messier.

To be truly free, of course, a person must be free from concern -- free from family to worry over, free from anxiety about the future, free from the consequences of, well, really anything whatsoever. And the only way to be that free, of course, is to have none of the comforts we associate with a happy, well-adjusted adult life. "You want freedom?" our maestro director seems to be saying. "Well, then, here: Slow down, there’s no traffic behind you; take a good, hard look."

13. Gerry (2002). Our second minimalist picture in a row is the final entry for director Gus Van Sant, and without question one of the most controversial movies to make this list, anywhere on it from top to bottom. Make no mistake, this is a movie that is ruthlessly, nay venomously despised by whole ranks of mostly considered movie aficionados, and not without their own type of justification -- for during no less than eighty percent of this feature-length picture there is, to a first approximation, nothing happening on the screen whatsoever.

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (the two of whom co-wrote the screenplay with Gus Van Sant) play two lifelong friends, both named "Gerry." Almost from the very outset we are let in on the fact that they use the name as an affectionate verb for having just messed something up in an avoidable, usually painfully absent-minded way. "I thought you'd Gerry'd the rendezvous," one of them might say to the other, or "I was going to bring you that, but it turned into a total Gerry."

The brilliance of this deft little piece of characterization cannot be overstated, for it is with this one implied inside-joke that we in the audience understand a universe worth of backstory -- all double-ordered deliveries of pizza, empty-handed party arrivals, and forlorn waiting in airport gate lobbies for the friend who's waiting equally dolefully at the rental-car counter. At the film's outset we see them driving a battered old Mercedes (unquestionably Van Sant's favorite mode of transportation; there are no fewer than six of them in the three movies discussed in this list), to a scenic nature trail somewhere in the dry and sagey intermountain west, perhaps the Wasatch.

They park the car and get out, strolling amiably along the trail and talking about such walked-in-on-the-middle fare as one Gerry's astonishment at the inability of a Wheel of Fortune contestant to solve the puzzle, and the other's recent performance in a role-playing computer game. This amiable but rudderless banter continues for several long (and semi-famously improvised) minutes -- at one point Damon even stops to have a pee against a fallen log, with no directive from the script: he just had to go -- after which the two decide that the best thing for a pair of well-established mistake makers to do, in a wilderness preserve in the middle of the high desert, is to get off the path and take a short-cut. After which... well... after which either nothing happens, or everything happens, depending on whom you ask.

Van Sant has said on many occasions that he drew his inspiration for this and many of his other contemporary works (including Elephant) at least in part from the high guru of post-modern minimalist cinema, Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr (Family Nest, The Outsider, The Prefab People), and it certainly shows. Never one to have fashioned pictures whose narratives hurried us along, Van Sant in his later years has evolved into a sort of mainstream-Hollywood equivalent of the European avant-garde movement, with achingly long takes, a total absence of foley sound, and virtually no plot-points with which to crutch the holding of our interest.

The gasp-inducingly gorgeous landscape is framed to maestro perfection by cinematographer Harris Savides, reaching deep within the highest play-it-as-it-lies traditions of his craft, the fickle light and weather serving as a droning reminder that these two young men -- boys, really -- are into this matter far deeper over their heads than they are capable or willing to admit. Meanwhile Arvo Part sweetens the broth just that little bit with a hauntingly beautiful and appropriately reductive score, both in its complexity and its playing-time. Indeed most of the film consists entirely of uncircumscribed production sound, with no musical accompaniment and, more to the point, nary a line of spoken dialogue.

This is what we notice most palpably, at least after having found ourselves already deeply frustrated by compounded errors in decision-making (some of them obvious to us even before-the-fact): It's not bad enough that these things have happened, now we must endure the force-multiplying agony of the two Gerrys' collective unwillingness to rationally de-construct or for that matter even really acknowledge their predicament. It is not true that Gerry and Gerry do not speak during their long and increasingly harrowing trek across the wilderness; they just don't talk about -- at least in anything like a macro-constructive fashion -- the only thing they should.

Most people will not have the resolve or the desire to sit still for the lengths of time necessary for, or be willing to feel so un-entertained by, the taking of what is supposed to be a work of entertainment, and in consequence very few among us may connect on anything like a profound level with this mysteriously intoxicating and eerily terrifying film. Indeed most people will give up on it long before its startling (and yet thoroughly genuine and un-gimmicky) conclusion. But that's too bad, for it is somewhere in all the deep rough of all that internet piffle about whether Van Sant, Damon and Affleck were playing some sort of elaborate joke on the motion picture industry (they weren't), where the flawless diamond that is this picture truly lies. There is no magic punch-line to the question of what this movie is about; there is no "about." There never is, at least in the real world. Things happen. Old friends go to wilderness-preserves to hike trails together, stop to have a pee, and opt for short-cuts.

As any of my friends will surely tell you, I’ve never been one to pass at the opportunity for self-inflating pomposity about much of anything. “You talk around the house as if you were constantly being interviewed for a PBS documentary,” is how one former girlfriend put it, in words that have yet to be improved upon. But in this one matter I’ll have to insist, snickering eye-rolls be damned: Anyone who watches this movie with me will be asked to commit in advance to doing so in total, goose-bumped silence. Thanks to the peerless efforts of all involved, we’re out there with Damon and Afleck as they pull their Total Gerry—and the only way the experience can be appreciated, is to give one’s self to it totally: To. Be. Out. There. With. Them.

12. City of God (2002). The first time I looked up the running-time on this picture on IMDB and found it listed there as two hours and ten minutes, I didn't believe that it could possibly have been that short—but that's a compliment to this sprawling multi-narrative about the desperate lives of a group of young men growing up in the deepest slums of Rio. Indeed I can think of no higher compliment to pay this epic-of-the-first-order film, adapted by Braulio Mantovani from the novel of the same name by Paulo Lins and directed by Fernando Mierelles. How Mierelles could have managed to immerse his audience in the tales of so many disparate characters, so completely and so sympathetically, and not rush anything or leave any threads twisting in the credits, all in just a few heartbeats over two hours, struck me the first time I watched it as such an unfathomable triumph that I had to put the disc back in the tray and fast-forward through the last scene to check the counter for myself.

Alexandre Rodrigues is "Rocket," the undeniable early-teen protagonist in this dozen-character effort (all of whom are played, as is Mierelles’ custom, by people cast directly from the streets of Rio). Indeed it is Rocket’s abiding dream of becoming a newspaper photographer that makes the picture, serving as it does as a saccharine-free substitute for his allegoric (if obvious) wider dream of escaping the ‘hood to a grown-up life that is clean and well-adjusted and happily middle-class. As we follow Rocket through a childhood fraught with third-person violence, petty crime, desperate choices, unrequited love, and eventually a terror-stricken gambit to flee, our journey crosses paths all but incidentally—just as it would in the crowded barrio of the title—with a host of far shadier and far more comfortably underground figures, some as young as Rocket; some, disturbingly, much younger.

By far the most shamelessly menacing and by that measure charismatic of Rocket's multitude of antagonists and would-be friends is Li’l Ze, a childhood companion whose preferred coping mechanism for the stranded choices before them at that younger age was to commit a stunningly pointless set of crimes—even by grown-up standards—thus setting himself on the path of becoming the barrio’s most hardened and cheerfully homicidal drug dealer, and the self-proclaimed boss of all the nefarious goings on in the neighborhood. Then there is Carrot, Li’l Ze’s counterpart, who wears his good-guy-of-the-neighborhood boss routine for as long as Li’l Ze will let him keep up the artifice by holding his own malevolence in check to avert a war.

Keeping the two of them separated is the assumed task of Benny, an improbably gawky redhead who walks and talks and dresses like a bourgeois kid from the suburbs, but who manages just enough pot-smoked edge, at just the right moments and in just the right places, to steal Rocket’s girl as an incidental trophy along the path of asserting himself as a trusted confidant and peacemaker between the bosses. As long as Benny is alive, Carrot and his rival manage to coexist in an uneasy truce out of shared respect for their common friend—with Rocket, still visibly smarting at Benny’s assertion of his primal entitlement to the object of Rocket’s love, swallowing his resentments and lobbying Benny for the chance to catch the competing gangs in action for a scoop photograph that could garner some professional notice for him at the city’s biggest daily newspaper (where he works, during this time, as a mere delivery boy).

There is also Knockout Ned, who earned his moniker with a small-time boxing career, but who when we meet him for the first time is a ticket-taker on a bus line. After Benny is accidentally killed and the gloves come off between Li’l Ze and Carrot, Li’l Ze takes a shine to Knockout Ned’s fiancĂ©e and humiliates Ned in front of her, then comes back to commit even more ghastly wrongs against Ned and his family, after which Ned transforms himself before our very eyes from a straight-laced voice of reason, into the self-appointed consigliare of Carrot’s suddenly and brutally violent gang.

And yet with all of this going crash all around us, our point-of-view keeps stubbornly returning to the tale of unprepossessing little Rocket, snapping photographs with his battered, second-hand camera, and ducking around corners to escape the line of sight of his erstwhile friend and now cold-blooded enemy Li’l Ze. In a lesson for all of us, Rocket checks his ego at the door of the newspaper in order to patiently, methodically cultivate relationships with the people he most wishes to emulate—fulfilling arrestingly mundane errands for them, right there on screen, while Carrot and Li’l Ze and Knockout Ned and the rest of the neighborhood rabble are cheerfully trying every trick they can think of to see each other brutally murdered.

But Mierelles isn’t satisfied with the Herculean parameters of the tone-poem he has thus far set for himself; quite the contrary—all that has gone before is merely the substrate upon which he plans to grow his most affecting social comment of all. For, it transpires, Rocket’s big break at the paper comes in the form of a single, stolen snapshot of Li’l Ze and his gang in the red-handed act of committing the singularly most brutal of all their myriad crimes, and thence paying-off the police to keep from answering for it.

The warning-shot being fired across our bows could not be harder to miss if it were painted on a bed sheet and hung out a neighborhood window: People don’t make it out of the barrios of Rio, we are intended to worry to ourselves right along with the palpably distressed Rocket, who realizes what he's done only after his snapshot turns up above the fold of the newspaper’s front page. No, we think to ourselves, people almost make it out of the barrios of Rio. And then, at that precise moment, they must be taken down by those who wish such happier endings for no one.

That the fourth and most complex act of this enormous film may- or may not fulfill our deepest sinking sensations about poor Rocket’s innocent dream of escaping his unhappy surroundings, and that we don’t know which it is to be until the movie’s final, stunningly unexpected moments, is the sort of takeaway after which it will be very difficult for new arrivals to this picture to suspend disbelief enough for clearing the flaws of any other film, from any genre, for quite a good long while, afterward.

11. Cast Away (2000). "Please tell me that your number-one favorite movie of all time isn't going to be something starring Tom Hanks," a friend of mine recently pleaded. To which I say, okay, I won't: My number-eleven favorite movie of all time will do nicely.

Pardon my redundancy, but it really does surprise and puzzle me that people manage to bring so much bile to their opinions of Mr. Hanks and his work. There is no one as versatile, no one as instantly sympathetic, no one who can act as well without acting at all, anywhere in Hollywood, as Tom Hanks. “How did you do the near-brawl scene in the space capsule for Apollo-13?” a young interviewer once asked him, to which he replied, “What do you mean? The line was, ‘We’re not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes because we’ll just end up right back here with the same problems,’ so that’s what I said.” Except, of course, that if you and I had read the line, it would’ve sounded like someone reading a line, and when he said it, he was at that moment Jim Lovell, desperately tying to hold-together his warring crew, telegraphing to us the unmistakable reality that their descent into squabble would signal the end of the emergency’s survivability, right then and there.

This time Hanks capitalizes on his thicker-than-water friendship with Robert Zemeckis to pursue what ends up having been a personal fascination of his and a promise to himself of very long standing. “Bob,” he asked Zemeckis in an out-of-the-blue telephone call in the late 1990s, “what would it really be like to be stranded, completely alone, on a deserted island? I mean, what would it really be like?” “That’s a good question,” Zemeckis replied, “let’s find out, and make a movie about it.”

Hanks is Chuck Noland, a relentlessly type-A business go-getter who lives and eats and breathes his job as a systems’ integration manager for Federal Express. Tasked with the (believably specific) job of turning around any of FedEx’s foreign transit hubs, whenever and wherever they start to slip, Noland spends his life six weeks at a time, in places as different from each other and as far from his home in Memphis as Rio, Moscow, and Kuala Lumpur. He’s blunt, he’s curt, he’s obsessed with making things easier and more profitable for his employer, and at the film’s outset he’s forty pounds overweight. Not a fiber is out of place, in other words, in this instant backstory of an IBM-meets-Genghis-Khan corporate swashbuckler—despite the fact that Hanks is playing against both type and inherent personality to an extent that most other leading actors would scarcely consider trying.

Meanwhile Helen Hunt is Noland’s love interest Kelly Frears (her last name chosen as a conscious hat-tip to admiring well-wisher Stephen Frears, who at one point even offered to put some of his own money into the making of the picture). Kelly, it transpires, is a nearly finished Ph.D. student at the University of Memphis, staring at a future that seems at a crossroads and, in consequence, finding herself gun-shy about committing to a man who has given so much to the obviously primary love of his life, FedEx. When Noland asks Frears to marry him, she responds, simply and poignantly, “I’m terrified.” Fair enough, thinks Noland, who tells her to keep the un-opened ring box until he can return to her for New Year’s Eve. “I’ll be right back,” he calls over his shoulder, as if in afterthought, on his way to the plane.

And even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know what happens next: The FedEx plane aboard which Noland is hitching his ride to Malaysia ditches in the tractless mid-Pacific, hundreds of miles off-course after having deviated around a thunderstorm (and no, by the way, I won’t make any references to current events here, out of respect). The next morning Noland awakens, still in an escape raft, to discover that he has washed up on an island with no visible neighbors, no signs of human life, no fresh water and no obvious food source. All he has, at least at first, are his wits and his unflappable determination to work all of this out.

Escape proves impossible, thanks to a surf-boiling reef that encircles the island, whereby the risk of further injury at the hands of an impulsive mistake is communicated to the audience in a single scene at once imminently predictable and edge-of-the-arm-rest terrifying, at the same time. Everything—from the unseeing ship that passes along the horizon, to the mud-choked puddle from which he must drink at one especially low moment, everything about the situation—seems to be a conscious head-thump by the Gods Of The Fully Appreciated Present. Indeed, as if there wasn’t already enough pathos surrounding this karmically gotcha’ed middle manager, it turns out that he also has an abscessed tooth--its own nasty infection quietly festering into a soon-to-be-unbearable knot on the side of his jaw, perhaps the size of a gumball.

In due course, Noland surmounts the myriad challenges he faces—recurring and otherwise—to forge for himself something not unlike a routine, though it is of course a routine born of the precise opposite of all that has governed his existence to this point: a world without clocks, paychecks, beepers or bosses. A world, in other words, without any of the manufactured (and ultimately hollow) forms of validation with which Noland has been comfortably avoiding his relationships up to now.

I won’t tell you how long he spends out there on that island, but suffice it to say that it is not a short while; indeed it is long enough that, after a brilliantly handled transition, we see the “after” picture of him, bearded and sun-browned and, we notice with an involuntary startle, shockingly under-weight. The filmmakers, it transpires, shot the first half of the film with Hanks having intentionally put on a significant spare tire, then adjourned from the project for eighteen months (during which Zemeckis was making What Lies Beneath), while Hanks went on what must have been a life-shorteningly dangerous crash diet—the second of his career in service of a film role, after Philadelphia. And to think: there are still people who will roll their eyes if you try to say something good about the guy.

Quite aside from the masterful dispensation of any number of fascinating logistical considerations (How does one store fresh water, even when it rains? Where’s the food coming from? What of dentistry?), Noland’s gradual descent into deeper and deeper levels of acceptance of his situation is the brilliantly painted and easily missed thrust of the middle hour of the film—a transition emphasized by his insistence, at the beginning of his ordeal, on “sorting” the few FedEx parcels that have washed up on the island with him, to a self-steeled, bit-lip determination to open them and make some use of their contents, later on.

As for the packages themselves, it happens that the filmmakers sat around a table and brainstormed a list of the most self-evidently useless things a person could possibly find inside them, forwarding the resulting inventory to a survivalist training firm in Colorado—which in turn managed to cobble together the very uses for them that we in the audience then witness Noland gradually figuring out for himself. Every item in every package was written into something useful on the counsel of the survivalists after having been chosen for its uselessness. With one notable exception, that is.

The most famous package-content is, of course, the volleyball Noland inadvertently paints in his own blood and, finding the image of a face in the resulting stain, befriends as his surrogate for a conversation partner—the ubiquitous “Wilson” of all those countless parodies that have been made since nearly the literal moment of the film's release. This was not the junior-writers’ idea, but rather what just might be the happiest and most consequential accident of serendipity in Hollywood history: The head writer for the project, William Broyles Jr., was actually enrolled in a survival school on the Mexican beach for five days, for the purposes of getting the true feel of the thing--eventually finding himself befriending and talking to a discarded volleyball that had washed up on the beach near his improvised shelter.

Had this not happened, Cast Away might yet have turned out to be a supurlative film—might even have made the list of the top-100--but surely would not have announced itself as the almost indescribably letter-perfect accomplishment it turned into, since it is this budding relationship (never mind the quote-marks; it really is a relationship) between Noland and Wilson, that propels the back half of his terrible imprisonment on that island, culminating with a climactic moment on the high seas that will leave even the most macho and pathos-wary filmgoer a blubbering gob of jelly. You don’t have my permission to cry, at that particular moment in this particular film: You have my solemn imperative to do so.

Zemeckis, too, is the right man in the right place and time to make this picture work—knowing without having to be told (by his long-time friend with the original idea) that this is a picture in which the lighter the directorial hand, the more believable the moment. “Camera’s gonna be on sticks,” Hanks once parodied Zemeckis for having said, meaning that there would be no cutesy hand-held bullshit or clever split-screens or any other devices that work so well in pictures for which an otherwise unbelievable situation needs them in order to be believed. Instead everything that exists in this film is in service of making this situation so matter-of-fact believable that we cannot help but believe it: The cinematography captures both the arresting beauty and inescapably imprisoning vibe of that nondescript little island (it’s actually part of an island in Fiji, with the rest having been CG’d away), and the clean lines of Chuck’s situation there on the beach are, even at the time, a palpable juxtapose with the messy entanglements to which he is trying against all reasonable hope, to return. Even the score doesn’t come in until the picture is over half finished.

Still, I am obliged to mention one other thing that needed to happen the way it did for this film to surmount so many other worthy projects and claim such a high slot: The company for whom Chuck Noland had unknowingly given away so much of his life had to be the real-life FedEx, with its real-life planes, its real-life color scheme, its real-life job titles, its real-life hub in Memphis. The premise would still have worked if Chuck had been employed by First Amalgamated Global Shipping (except perhaps for the logo on the airplane tails?), but at all events it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. …And what, exactly, did FedEx require, in return for total use of the company images and logos and unconditional access to its Tennessee headquarters? Nothing. No creative control, no financial commitment, no product-placement. Absolutely nothing. “I’m sure you’ll take good care of us,” real-life CEO Fred Smith told Zemeckis, even before he was informed that space was being reserved for him for a brief (and appropriately wooden) speaking part in the film.

I am pleased to own exactly one article of movie memorabilia (this seems just the right amount for an avid lover of movies who wishes not to bury himself and his net worth under a litter-pile of Hollywood flotsam) and I am even more pleased that this one, single article of film memorabilia happens to be a copy of the shooting script for Cast Away, autographed by both Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt. Does that mean that this particular choice of potential number-one film, should have been assigned the status of number one? Perhaps. But something tells me that Hanks and Hunt and Zemeckis will forgive me, on account of the sheer weight of my enjoyment of, and fascination with this picture. Ten other movies will score higher slots, but no movie in my entire collection has been watched more often, or shown to a wider assortment of friends.

Oh, and by the way: BEST. TRAILER. EVER. PERIOD.

And so to the top ten movies in my film portfolio. It's a bittersweet moment—considerably more so than I'd expected it would be—since from this moment forward, none of the other films we've discussed, including these five, will own such unqualified status. Forgive me if that sounds overwrought, but it won't be as easy as you might think for me to publish a next entry in this column that says, in effect, "The Lives of Others is not one of the top-ten movies of all time." Because it is, of course: They all are. That's what makes this whole exercise so difficult and so stimulating.

Stay tuned…


shabec said...

I, too, was surprised with your choice of "Cast Away" and Tom Hanks. I guess we all think of him as light-weight, but since you suggested that was the best trailer ever, I had to watch, and then the other things you-tube had to offer. I have certainly changed my opinion.

Dave O'Gorman said...

Now you have to watch it again! :-)