22 September 2014

Driving alone to a movie show: 15 films

My friend Diana Baxter did one of those “list 15 movies that stay with you, and why” things on Facebook the other week. There’s been that cyclical thing going around, you know how it is, where all these viral listicles launch themselves into your social media and breed like half-rabid rabbits (but which half?), and you wind up doing at least one because you’d feel like you got left out of all the fun if you didn’t, and besides your thoughts are important and MUST BE HEARD even if nobody listens (and hey, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, do you hear the sound of one Ewok with the clap, uh, clapping?).

I was going to do the book list and then realized I could NEVER confine myself to just ten. Then the fifteen films list came along courtesy of Diana and I thought hey, I could make something out of that. I could make a hat, or a broach, or*SLAPS SELF IN FACE*--sorry. Too much coffee.

Anyway, I decided to make a blog post out of it. So: in the spirit of Diana’s list, 15 movies that are always with me:

  1. Singin’ In the Rain--The king, the champion, the ne plus ultra of the American musical. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds (with some memorable support from the hilarious Jean Hagen) swing this one hard, and knock it out of the damned park. Of special note: O’Connor’s bravura performance in “Make ‘Em Laugh,” O’Connor and Kelly’s dazzling footwork in “Moses Supposes,” Kelly virtually FLOATING in the air during the “Broadway Melody” segment (see YouTube link below)--and of course the title song, which is everything pure and good and wonderful in the world, distilled into five minutes or so of joyous dancing. Also, Cyd Charisse’s freakin’ legs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YWBOfsXsDA

  2. Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut--Where to start with this move. What a feast for the eyes, from start to finish. The indelible images are what stick with me here: The unicorn dream. The ravishing flying car sequence. Zhora’s death. The first visit to Bryant’s house. Priss in makeup, followed by her horrifying demise. Sean Young, framed in smoke and shadow. And oh my god, Rutger Hauer. And at the last: “It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?”

  3. Ran--Of all the Kurosawa movies I have seen (and that’s almost all of them), this one is a standout among standouts. Kurosawa’s version of King Lear, filtered through a medieval Japanese lens, spins an epic tale that spirals down and down into tragedy after tragedy. And the last shot will stay with you a long, long time. 

  4. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey--No, I’m not kidding. As much fun and as funny as the first movie was, this criminally underrated sequel tops it in numerous ways. There is constant proto-metahumor, the hilarious/delirious multiple-negative-heinous and air guitar running gags, the show-stealing performance by Bill Sadler as the sadsack Grim Reaper. . . and that’s just for starters. Throw in a great cameo by Faith No More’s Jim Martin (“What a shithead!”), an awesome cameo by Primus, a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Taj Mahal, an unexpected and note-perfect parody of Bergman (daring, considering this is basically a sci-fi teen comedy), and an absolute refusal to take itself seriously at any step along the way, and you have a real winner. Yeah, it bogs down in plot devices at the end--but even then it manages to redeem itself with a delightful and-then-this-happened credits sequence. This is a movie with serious brass downstairs, that starts off fairly tame and then veers farther and farther into the most delightful weirdness imaginable. And I’m sorry to be spending so much time on this, but this is one of my all time favorite films, ever. So thppfffffttt.

  5. Paper Moon--Ryan O’Neal was never going to be the greatest actor in the world. But he was a damn sight better than people give him credit for being, especially when he was serving as a foil for someone. In this case he was an ideal foil for his daughter in Peter Bogdanovich’s winning Depression-era comedy-drama. By turns charming, harrowing, scary, and heartbreaking, this movie deserves to be seen more often. 
  6. The Maltese Falcon--It was the first movie John Huston ever directed, and the first movie Sidney Greenstreet ever acted in. It put Humphrey Bogart’s career on a new trajectory. It featured long tracking shots and low-angle shots that had rarely been used in cinema before. It featured what is probably the best Macguffin ever to be used in film. It even had Walter Huston in an unbilled cameo. This is one of those perfect films I can watch over and over again: for the performances, for the direction, for the set design, for the costumes, for Mary Astor, for Peter Lorre, for Greenstreet, for Bogie, for God’s sake watch this damn movie.

  7. Apocalypse Now--I could have gone for one of the two Godfather movies (SHUT UP THERE ARE ONLY TWO, TWO DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME), or The Conversation, or even Finian’s Rainbow (no, seriously check out the credits) but the Coppola film that stays with me, the one I return to more than any other, is this one: his big, sprawling, hallucinatory transference of Josef Conrad to the jungles of Cambodia. From start to finish this film, as episodic as it is, as big and sloppy as it is, as pretentious as it can be (and that is very), is greater than the sum of its parts, filled end to end with incredible scenes and sumptuous images, and utterly unforgettable.

  8. Wall-E--I could have picked several Pixar movies to go here--Brave, The Incredibles, any of the Toy Story movies (but probably the third one if I had to pick one), Up just on the basis of the first fifteen minutes alone--but this is the one that has a permanent place in my heart. Not because of the environmental message, or the anti-conglomerate message, or because of its sly (and not so sly) criticism of human foibles. The reason Wall-E holds that spot is because it is one of the best damn love stories I have ever seen. In fact the movie is all about love--about reaching out from loneliness, self-imposed and otherwise, to touch someone or something, and to in return have it touch you back, and by the act creating something so unshakably deep and living and true as to last beyond the eons. That Pixar couched this in the story of a slightly addled robot garbageman who goes to space and brings humanity back to an abandoned Earth makes it all the more remarkable an achievement. One of the best movies of the last ten years.

  9. The Last Unicorn--Another kind of love story, this one a love letter to the stories we grew up with. Rankin Bass’s superior adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel (from a screenplay by the man himself) is one of those movies you sit down to watch expecting a trifle--and finish having enjoyed a three course meal instead. The film is not perfect--Schmendrick’s secondary plot is cut, some of the subtext and some of Beagle’s proto-meta-awareness throughline is lost, and the duet between Jeff Bridges and Mia Farrow is maybe one step above cringeworthy. But these are minor things, and in some ways Beagle’s script flenses the book down even further to its truest essence: a fairy tale about fairy tale people who know they’re in a fairy tale, and what they do with it. Memorable for many reasons, most of all because of Molly Grue’s confrontation with the Unicorn--a strong scene in the book that, in the hands of the animators and Molly’s voice actor, becomes one of the most heartbreaking things you will ever see. 

  10. Forbidden Planet--This movie. This damn movie. It probably shouldn’t be on this list. I probably shouldn’t like it as much as I do. It has so many problems. It is sexist. The plot has numerous holes. The characters are mostly ciphers and/or cardboard cutouts. It uses Freudian psychology to express a Jungian concept. The soundtrack is simply fucking annoying. THE ROBOT GETS DRUNK. And yet. And yet and yet and yet. It’s The Tempest! In space! With Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon! And Anne Francis! And special effects that seem positively charming by today’s standards, but which at the time were the most awesome thing anyone had ever seen. And the frankly amazing matte work, which still dazzles today. And this sequence in particular, which makes up for any number of drunken robots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYFr3UyVpRA

  11. Away We Go--It received mixed reviews when it came out and it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes--it does have a certain I’m-judging-you-from-my-perfect-bubble tone in the first and second acts that can be very off-putting. But the exquisitely written third act (basically starting around the time the scene shifts to Canada at Chris Messina & Melanie Lynskey’s house) puts all that aside and shakes John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph’s characters down to their foundations, causing them to question first their assumptions about others, and then their assumptions about each other, and finally their assumptions about themselves. The final scenes are as wonderful as any I’ve seen in four decades of going to movies. Throw in some excellent acting from the principal cast (especially Messina and Lynskey, who are the astonishing pivot on which the movie makes its unexpected turn), and a simply lovely score featuring the work of Alexei Murdoch, and you have a wonderful little film that will surprise you into caring more about it than you think you will. 

  12. Schindler’s List--I know it’s not “hip” in certain critical quarters to enjoy Spielberg movies, especially his “prestige” pictures (Jonathan Rosenbaum, I’m casting a massive stinkeye at you), but honestly. Seriously. I defy you to watch this film and remain unmoved. Even Rosenbaum admits he was unable to do so. There is no cynical, licensing driven profit motive here, and while there is some emotional manipulation going on, it’s in the service of the story and of charcacter motivation, so it has a purpose beyond pulling at heartstrings. What we have in Schindler’s List most of all is a document, driven by equal parts sorrow, anger, and gratitude. The sorrow is in every scene, a deeply felt, powerful and overwhelming loss; those of us who have not experienced  the Holocaust can only begin to guess at its depth. The anger, as well, is in every scene--and for much the same reason. The gratitude? It comes to the fore in Spielberg’s powerful ending. I did not cry in the theater when Liam Neeson’s Schindler wept at how much more he could have done. But when I saw the real life Schindler Jews come up the hill and place their stones on his grave, I wept openly. And if that’s not hip enough for you, then screw it. One of the best movies ever made. 

  13. Brazil--Roger Ebert committed one of the few genuine flubs of his career by giving Terry Gilliam’s magnum opus a two star review, calling it senseless and hard to follow. (He seemed to have a thing about Gilliam--his review of The Fisher King was similarly lacking in patience and far too literal for that movie’s symbolic nature). Couldn’t agree less. Brazil is a marvelous tapestry of madness, equal parts Orwell, Huxley, Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison--with maybe a little Vonnegut thrown in for good measure. Jonathan Pryce shines in this madhouse tale of a midlevel clerk, prone to flights of fancy, who gets caught up in the machinery of the totalitarian civilization he himself is a cog in, and slowly comes apart at the seams trying to change . . . anything. Featuring Bob Hoskins as a vicious repairman, Michael Palin cast brilliantly against type as a smiling torturer, and Robert DeNiro in one of the best cameos in movies. Do yourself a favor and watch the uncut version.

  14. Duck Soup--”Remember men, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did!” It’s probably not an exaggeration to say it’s impossible to measure the effect The Marx Brothers had on the film industry, and on comedy itself, over the course of their careers...and beyond. Case in point: Duck Soup, the brothers’ last movie as a quartet, and unquestionably the craziest thing they ever committed to film. Barring a few establishing shots and sadly, Zeppo, there is not a moment in this movie that is devoid of laughs. Everything--Chico’s madcap malaprops, Harpo’s zaniness, Groucho’s armor-piercing one-liners--is spot on and fierce, waiting around every corner to tickle the bejaysus out of you. And of course there’s this crowning moment, one of the funniest things EVER committed to film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKTT-sy0aLg

  15. Pan’s Labyrinth--I have saved this one for last for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I have seen all the movies on this list multiple times except for one--this one. Yet it has stayed with me and in many ways haunted me since the moment I walked out of the theater. For another thing, it is one of the few fantasy films I have ever seen that understands what fairy tales really are, takes that knowledge and runs with it, and makes itself into something more than mere escapism. As my friend Ilana wrote on her blog, “The horrors [Ofelia] faces in her fantasy world are mirrored in the real world, and one could even posit that the atmosphere of torture and blood that pervades the lair of the underground monster is something she has sensed in the house of the Captain, without quite understanding what it was. The tasks that Ofelia must complete in order to become a princess, chosen and special, mirror her real-life struggle from childhood to maturity in a world where childhood innocence has been torn to shreds.” This is a haunting, beautifully photographed and sensitively acted film, that never once takes the easy path or fails to ask the harder questions. And at the end, you are not left wondering so much as you are left thinking. Seven years later, I’m still thinking about Pan’s Labyrinth. And that is nothing to scoff at.

And that’s my list. What are some of your favorites? Share them below. Or not. I’m gonna go rest my fingers.

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