Wednesday, June 10, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now so it is for me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned….

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