Monday, July 21, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies, #1: 8 1/2




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1) 8 1/2
1963
dir. by Federico Fellini
imdb

In the interest of keeping this somewhat short and not overly analytical, I am going to use the bullet format to showcase some of the famous imagery and moments that make this my favorite film of all time: the masterful, beautiful, poignant, elegiac, sexy, and highly influential and innovative 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini. Fellini said that when he made 8 1/2 he wanted to create a film that showed the three levels upon which our minds live: past, present, and conditional. There isn't another film that I have seen that is both so pleasing and wonderful to look and still has the ability to move me every time I watch it. Most films will always have the aesthetics down, but the power of the film erodes after each viewing (think a film like The Bicycle Thief). Not so with 8 1/2, I still get a little choked up at the "audition" scene where all of Guido's sins are being displayed in the form of screen tests...but more on that later...here are the bullets, in a somewhat orderly matter:


Opening Sequence/Traffic Jam: An almost ethereal experience as some form of gas fills up Guido's (the main character played by the awesome Marcello Mastroianni) car and he can't seem to escape. The film is definitely an exercise in self-reflexive art. Guido is indeed Fellini (Marcello often represented forms of Fellini in all of his films) and in this opening sequence you can see Guido being suffocated. But then he appears out of the car and floats away...only to be pulled down ("down, for good.") by a man who is in control of the string attached to his leg. The metaphor is clear: the camera is the creative force, the liberator, and you have the producer, the money-man, pulling the director down from his heights to dwell in reality -- or rather what people will pay money to see. This is the dilemma for Guido (and Fellini who often said he "winged" it on the set of 8 1/2) as he cannot think of a way to get his film (read: life) started and on track. Guido is like any good Italian man...he loves women, and when he invites Clara the mistress to come to the shoot instead of his wife Luisa, that's when things get even murkier and more confused for the cheating Guido. And simply: it's one of the most amazing sequences I have seen in any film. The crazy and frantic opening shots, the compartmentalized imagery of arms hanging from a bus and quick shots of faces. There is such a weird feeling to the opening, and so much to see and admirer, that you may have to stop the film after the dream sequence is over, and start over again.

The Thermal Spa
: What's great about this scene is the use of music that accompanies the great tracking shot. It's one of the first films to use an already-composed piece of music as the guide track for the scene. Also, this introduces the always beautiful Claudia Cardinale as the woman of the spring, the muse Guido seeks all film. It's an amazing one-take tracking shot.

Framing/Blocking/Lighting/General Symbolism through mise-en-scene
: Throughout the film there are brilliant examples of mise-en-scene especially in the hotel sequence where Guido wanders the halls keeping watch on all of his production assistants working, but he has nothing creative to add to the process. Also, the scene where young Guido encounters Saraghina and the punishment from the priest that follows (and the tracking shot of young Guido and the portraits of all the priests on the wall) as he confesses, but decides to return the seductress Saraghina rejecting the sacred for the profane. Later in the film there is a masterful use of lighting as Guido sits in a car with his muse; she fully lighted, Guido dark except around the eyes, as if in a confessional booth. The moment is brilliantly executed. There are too many examples to share about blocking and lighting and so on...so I will just say, the entire film is a feast for the eyes. Visually, there is nothing boring about this film

The Women: Fellini always employed beautiful women to star in his films, and even though most of them are regulated to being ogled at; Luisa is one of the strongest female characters in a Fellini film. Played by the gorgeous Anouk Aimee, she isn't fooled once by Guido and his cheatin' ways. Her scene with Guido after the embarrassment of the screen tests is so sad and so telling of how Guido (Fellini) treats the woman he is supposed to love and be faithful to. The famous Harem sequence is also a hilariously overblown wet dream for Fellini, as all of the women in Guido's life come together to serve him, and when they are revealed to be too old or from a time too far past, they resorted to the "upstairs" where they are more Madonnas and caretakers than sexual objects; which means Guido will pay them no heed. It's a brilliant scene, hilarious and awful all at once, and very telling of how Fellini felt about women.

Shades/Glasses: A common image found in Fellini's films. Marcello wears shades in most of Fellini's films; representing a blindness to what is around him. Whenever Luisa is around or when there is some confusion about the plot of the movie, he puts the shades on, as some form of escapism and voluntary blindness. Luisa is the only woman seen without shades. Her normal glasses make her look "unattractive" (she really isn't), but they are clear lenses, able to see into Guido what he cannot. They are mirrors adding to the self-reflexive themes of the film. The screen test is just another example of what the glasses represent: mirrors. Also, by the end of the film when Guido has his epiphany, he is wearing clear lenses rather than shades.

The real vs the fantastic
: I have already mentioned the Harem scene, one of the most fantastical of the film, but also the whole nature of the film is a revolt against artistic reality -- remember Fellini began working right around the time Italian Neo-Realism was huge -- for artistic freedom. The film fades in and out from reality to fantasy (the influence here on Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is obvious) often times making it hard to tell which is which.

Control: Young Guido vs Mature Guido. Who controls what by the end of the film. 8 1/2 is the greatest film about a film ever made, and with that comes the importance of the director; the person who controls things. The entire film we see that Guido has little control over his film (read: his life) and by the end when we hear the words: "life is a celebration, let's live it together" it is an epiphianic moment, he may not change his womanizing ways, but he is inviting Luisa to join him in celebrating life, and he too for the first time will enjoy life with her. Guido has realized that he can't control everything, and that he should just live life and make films and enjoy everything as it comes. The dance around the spaceship structure at the end of the film is a beautiful image: the opposite of what Bergman portrays with his dance to conclude The Seventh Seal. Hear Fellini is interested in a dance of life, rejuvenation; a celebratory moment of reverie, keeping with the films dreamy feel, the end just lifts you up both emotionally and physically as you cannot help but get up and want to cheer for Guido. There is no way you cannot be moved by the end of this picture. It's simply the perfect example of narrative and aesthetic working together to create the most beautiful moments in film. It's why film is such a wonderful medium, 8 1/2 has the power to change who you are. Just like Guido the viewer is invited to use the film as a mirror to reflect on their own life and the choices they have made. It's a perfect example of the power of cinema.


Fellini invites you to participate with him in reexamining life and what it may mean for you. It's like the end of another Fellini film La Dolce Vita (clip is above for context), the symbolic "dream girl" turns to the camera and smiles: asking us whether or not we do indeed see. It's not a matter of if we hear the words over the breakers, it's whether or not we are able to see that her lips, her actions, are signaling for us to cross the threshold, take that first step towards the sweet life. She is physically uttering the words: "Come with me, I will usher you into a better life, a life of celebration; a life worth living." If you can see, then the dream girl, or whatever that may represent for you, is obtainable...but you have to be able to see. Take the shades off and see what life offers.

8 1/2 is such a beautiful film, not only asking us to reexamine as look in the mirror, but also inviting us to laugh. When Fellini was making the movie he kept a note on the camera that read: "Remember, this is a comedy." Reminding the viewer too that it's okay to laugh and enjoy life. There is no other film that moves me, makes me feel the poignancy and that special deep satisfaction and clarity -- a rare state of reverie, when you know you have just witnessed something special; something that leaves you speechless and in a a state of awe -- that is what 8 1/2 does to me every single time I watch it. It's something special and something to behold. I am glad I am able to talk about it and share it with you all. This is what film is capable of doing and this is why I am so passionate about it.

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies, #2: Pulp Fiction




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2) Pulp Fiction
1994
dir. by Quentin Tarantino
imdb

Yeah I know. Pulp Fiction. Obvious, huh? I mean what 26 year-old film buff doesn't love this movie? But I don't really care if this is a somewhat predictable choice. Quentin Tarantino's masterful interpolated tale of seedy gangsters, their wives, sadomasochists, boxers, and inane drug dealers is still one of the freshest films I have ever seen. The film has been somewhat watered down due to all of the parodies and aped wannabe films that followed, but it was a rite of passage film for me; a film that was like a ferryman taking me across the river of casual film admirer to fully evolved film buff.



It's the first time I re-watched a film twice in one day. I remember it vividly, because I was never allowed to see the film, and I was staying over at a friends house (I think I was in like 6th grade or something) and we watched it -- shocked by what we just had seen -- we had to watch it again. There was no other choice...I mean, did that really just happen? Did we really just see what we though we saw? Wait is that the end of the film? These were the questions we turned and asked ourselves after the initial viewing. From that moment on, whenever anyone would ask me what my favorite movie was; I would mention Pulp Fiction. Whenever I was asked which film inspired me the most to leisurely write about film, I would mention Pulp Fiction. Whenever anyone would ask me: which film do you recommend for us tonight? I would answer Pulp Fiction. By now most everyone has seen the film, its influence on pop culture is well noted. It's a masterpiece of postmodern filmmaking and it pretty much introduced the world to the bizarre mind of Quentin Tarantino.

The film is still fun to watch too; time has not made the film easier to look back on be dismissive towards it. Yes, the buzz for the film and its merits were huge when the film came out; the kind of buzz that usually spells doom for the film five years down the road. However, Pulp Fiction still holds today with its weird pop-philosophy (see the clip above, which is actually quite moving), nostalgic postmodernism (the Jack Rabbit Slim's scene), outrageous violence ("I just shot Marvin in the face"), and quotable dialogue (there's too many to list here, but come on, who doesn't know the foot massage discussion, or ask anyone, even if they haven't seen the film, where the "Royale with cheese" line comes from, and you will always get the right answer). The film is also famous for the revitalization of John Travolta's career (damn you Tarantino, because of you we had to endure Mad City, Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Michael, The General's Daughter, and of course Battlefield Earth), but it also has tremendous and star making performances from Samuel L. Jackson -- who it seems to take a lot of roles that want him to be a different version of the Jules character he plays here -- Uma Thurman, and Ving Rhames. It's also interesting that this film, even after repeated viewings, is never not interesting. It still has the ability to make you laugh and squirm and sit on the edge of your seat (especially in the virtuoso scene of Vincent injecting a comatose and OD'd Mia).

What else can I say about the film. It's one of the best ever made, and its influence on the genre and film in general is immeasurable. Yes, there were a lot of horrible Pulp Fiction rip-offs (2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) but it also made films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Tarantino's later film Jackie Brown more accessible to a larger audience. And anytime you can flood the cinema with something a little edgier and a lot different than the usual Hollywood crap that comes out, well then, we should all thank Pulp Fiction for that. Truly one of the best films ever made...ah...but there is one that is better. As I grew up even more and enriched my palette I found a film that excels in both narrative and aesthetics in a way that no other film I have ever seen has. That would be my selection for my favorite film of all time which is...tune in tomorrow to find out.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 5 - 3

It's been awhile since I posted on here, so in lieu of a really long post about my top five favorite films, I will just post the top three for now, and then save the top two for tomorrow. Also, I have been real busy this week, so there shall be more blogging this week (mostly because Tieryn is gone for three weeks, so what else am I going to do) as I have reviews to put up here for Speed Racer, Hellboy, Indiana Jones (finally!), and Mad Men: Season One. Also a book review for Martin Amis' The Second Plane: September 11 Terror and Boredom. A brilliant collection of essays and two short stories by Britain's greatest author. Plus...much much more comin' your way here as I plan to finally get out the theater again regularly (the theater sabbatical was looong, as is evident by the fact that it took me two months to finally see Indiana Jones a film I was waiting on pins and needles to see...) and see Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, The Strangers, and the brilliantly titled Midnight Meat Train. On with the countdown!





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5) The Godfather
1972
dir. by Francis Ford Coppola
imdb

What can one say about The Godfather that hasn't been said a million times, already? There is no real point in trying to give insight or praise the films many merits, because that has already been done to death. People a lot smarter than me have looked at Coppola's masterpiece frame by frame and dissected the film in ways I could never do justice. The film is a benchmark -- one of those films that you know you need to see, but you are never quite sure why until you lay eyes upon it -- a masterpiece of the crime saga that looks at all other copies in its rear view mirror. There will never be another film like The Godfather -- the closest anyone has come is Sergio Leone with his masterful, yet overly-long, Once Upon a Time in America. Coppola evokes so much nostalgia with his film that even for someone like me who obviously wasn't born then, feels a part of that nostalgia. It's the first truly 'classic' film I ever watched...and everything about is classic, there is really nothing monumentally groundbreaking about the film, but it never disappoints, and it paved the way for so many pretenders to try and be as poignant and violent, cruel and sincere as The Godfather.

But other crime films fail at creating a world where those dualities are so seamless, and oddly enough, even inviting. From the opening moments of the wedding scene, the viewer feels a part of the Corrleone family. A sly trick that Coppola uses (and later Scorsese would use in Goodfellas) in letting the viewer feel a part of this community; that way it's easier to dismiss the violent acts they commit and still view them as sympathetic characters. Coppola's film doesn't glamorize organized crime or the life they lead (especially the way they treat women), but they certainly look good doing it, and the films photography and sets and costumes are so authentic that the film truly does emit a genuine American Classic film aura. Even though it was made in the 70's, I cannot help but think of The Godfather in the same terms that I think of Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other landmark American film classics.

Plus...just look how awesome the cross-cutting is during the scene posted above. It's an ultimate (read: authoritative) and timeless textbook for any aspiring filmmaker.





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4) Blade Runner
1982
dir. by Ridley Scott
imdb

Reprinted from an essay I wrote for a film class. The paper was on film noir, so the essay may make references to other films, but for the most part it involves most of what I find so fascinating and hypnotic about my fourth favorite film Blade Runner. It's beautiful, sad, poetic, exhilarating, and a rare film that will always leave who in contemplative state after viewing it (all experiences one feels in the moments of the scene posted above, all of which makes so much more sense in context, but watch it anyway). Just an amazing film. Now for the boring essay excerpt...enjoy!:

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner reverses this notion I have been discussing with Chinatown, the idea of what Jameson introduces that to look into the past, filmmakers are saying something about the present. With Blade Runner, we get the opposite, a look into the future to show the over consumerism and consumption of mass commercialism. So is Blade Runner a film noir? I would call it a cyber-noir, or postmodern-noir, with stylish elements that allow the viewer to think deeper about some of postmodernisms key ideas. Many critics like Roger Ebert, simply say that it is all style and no substance, a film that is only interested in its grandiose set design, and not in explaining or elaborating on the rich and complex storyline created by Philip K. Dick. I disagree with Ebert though, I think that if one looks at the film hard enough they can see the noir elements that are there as well as the ideas of one of postmodernism’s most influential thinkers, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard introduces in his book Simulations the idea of a “hyperreality” (2) and the “loss of the real” (25), copies become what we associate with real and Blade Runner seeks to explore these deep questions in two ways: one is through the idea of escaping this world and living a better life on the “off world” a kind of hyperreal existence, and looks to the characters of Roy and Pris replicants created by the Tyrell corporation, to see if we as a society can rise up against the corporations that look to control us through commercialism. The other way which the film explores Baudrillard’s thinking is through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. Baudrillard’s claim can best represent all of the films discussed when he says: “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (12).

One of the first shots of the film, and one of its most famous, is of the city with its towering digitalized billboards (pictured above) and a voice that can be heard telling people to escape to the “off world” where there are no problems and you can start you life over, away from “reality.” This is a place where your “dreams can come true.” These are the sounds of an, “easy money,” get rich quick mentality that was rampant in the 1980’s. All of life’s problems go away if you run away from them. The voice is head over the city, a city that has turned into a large scale, run-down Chinatown. This “off world” idea is what Baudrillard is getting at with his idea of the simulacrum, the copy without an original, life is good and life is easy if you leave the “real” world for your own that you can create. This is the idea behind Baudrillard’s mention of the “reality” of Disneyland:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. (25)


So, this “off world” vacation that is offered to those who live in the Los Angeles of 2012, is the same that is being offered to those who live in the present of 1982. This loss of the real and hyperreality show how Blade Runner is unlike any other noir, it is dealing with the questions of consumerism through the realm of what has been called cyber-noir. And even though the noirish qualities of the film best represent the relationship between Deckard and Rachel one cannot ignore the films main point: that through commercialism and over-consumption we can alleviate all of our problems, we can let the replicants, or Others, that look so much like us, “expire” while we buy and consume anything we can to make ourselves feel more like men or women, and we equate this commercialism to happiness, when in reality we are just as the replicants are, and the film asks us if we can be like Roy and Pris and rebel against the Tyrell corporation, if we as society, can rebel against the commercialism that plagues our society, that is turning us humans into robots. This leads me to my next point about the film, the “reality” of its characters, especially as it is seen through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel.

When the film was initially released in 1982 it had Ford’s narration guiding the viewer through the story, also providing a traditional nostalgic homage to the great noir films of 40’s and 50’s. The ending was left ambiguous, in fact, in the 1982 version you weren’t sure whether or not Deckard was a replicant or not. Creating an even bigger dilemma with him having to “expire” Roy and Rachel and the other replicants. When the film was released years later in a “director’s cut” the narration was axed and a happy ending tacked on. The ambiguity was gone, Deckard and Rachel leave for the “off world” and live happily ever after. In the original film you are never quite sure if Deckard is a human or not. For instance, the scene where Deckard kisses Rachel, before hand he keeps her from leaving his apartment and traps her by the window, the way Deckard moves is robotic, and when they kiss, Rachel shows more emotion than Deckard. In another scene we see Rachel crying, where Deckard, it seems, is incapable of emoting anything. Of course the problematic 'signs' of humanity are the crux of the film, built into the very images used to forward the story. I think it very telling that it was the aspects of Blade Runner that most challenged ideas of humanity that were cut or altered. In particular, the removal of the Unicorn Dream sequence also removed the most obvious suggestion that Deckard was a replicant. And Deckard's voice-over telling us "Rachel was special - no termination date," changes the impact of Gaff's final line: "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?” In the original release Gaff is seen as outsmarted, as opposed to philosophically correct in the Director's Cut. I think these changes give the film less impact at the end.

The themes/meaning behind the film changes, the ambiguity is gone, and all of the mystery of the replicant/human dilemma seems to be removed. That haunting last line loses all of its power. However, the form/techniques used to introduce these themes are as strong as ever. Especially the lighting in the film, the heavy use of backlighting, hard lighting and light coming through moving objects – fans – make the film's grim future alive. The lighting also adds to the feeling of film noir. Many science fiction movies are shot in an unnaturally hard light, as if they were shot in a hospital (for example Stanley Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey). In Blade Runner we have a vivid feeling of dark alleys, sinister rooms and chambers, which is essential to old detective stories. These lighting techniques also introduce us to the ambiguous love affair between Deckard and Rachel. Notice how Rachel and Ray are usually lit in bright light, and how Deckard and the other humans are always in darkness. The opposite is used in most film noir. Ridley Scott’s idea to light the film this way is brilliant as one can see though the still shot provided, Deckard looks nor more “alive” than the replicant Rachel. By looking into the future, the film questions the state of the world in 1982, a time when this kind of postmodern thinking was starting to be embraced. Simulations was published a year after this film was released, but already the short stories of Philip K. Dick were introducing people to these postmodern ideas.

All of this to say: Blade Runner is the quintessential neo-noir. It has been called neo-noir, cyber-punk, and postmodern, but it is the perfect example of how a filmmaker can take a genre like film noir, and create something completely new, something that is completely elevated above every other kind of noir picture. Only Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet succeed in taking the noir genre and elevating it into high art.





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3) Vertigo
1958
dir. by Alfred Hitchcock
imdb

Vertigo just may be one of the rare films that will transcend all time. The film was made in 1958, but for me it is timeless. An always creepy tale of deception and obsession, it also plays as a self-reflexive psycho sex-thriller. Yes, that sounds like weird description for a film from the 50's, but Hitchcock did something amazing with Vertigo, he got it made in the 50's. I have no reason to believe he came across any kind of trouble making the film, I mean he could make anything he wanted and he had the All-American Jimmy Stewart as the films star, but I wonder what audiences thought as the film unfolded into a bizarre tale of obsession. It's one of the creepiest films I have ever seen, and I remember being younger and watching it ready to not be impressed, because obviously, some old movie from the 50's wasn't going to scare me. Boy was I wrong.

The film is hypnotic, from the first images of the vertigo you are sucked into the film and have given yourself to its powers. Watching it then I realized that the film was great because it held my attention at such a young age; watching it now, I am amazed at how much Hitch was allowed to get away with, and just how much of himself he put into this film via the Jimmy Stewart character. It was well known (and obvious when you watch his films) that Hitch loved certain actresses, especially if they were blond. Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and in Vertigo Kim Novak. It is also known through numerous books and documentaries, that he was somewhat living vicariously through his characters who were in love with these blond beauties. When one views Vertigo through this self-reflexive lens, the film takes on a whole other exhibitionist angle (not nearly as much as Rear Window); an angle that reveals a director who is not only particular, but almost creepy in how demanding he is about the particulars. Look at the scene above; I think it's safe to say that that could be Hitch and his actresses over the years.

But more than anything the film is classic Hitchcock with its tense mystery surrounding amazing set pieces and good looking actors. The film is not as heralded as Psycho (innovative) or Notorious (classic filmmaking), but for me it's the apex of Hitch's career, and a decade that saw him make his best films: I Confess, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Vertigo. A productive year that showcased his comedic side -- by making the fun To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest -- which would give way to his darkest film a year after his best decade: Psycho. I like to think of Vertigo as the foundation for what we would see in Psycho and the later films like Frenzy.

In Vertigo he created a film that must have been taboo for the era, a film that spends a lot of time on the topics of obsession and sex. What Hitchcock wanted to do with these always interesting topics (and usually the number one and two cause for murder) is show how easy it is for an innocent to get sucker punched by them. When the big reveal comes along about half way through the film, you breathe easy because you think you have all of it figured it out. But then Stewart's character, feeling embarrassed for having left himself so vulnerable, spirals into madness and takes his obsession to a level rarely seen in a movie theater in the 1950's. It's a perfect film, and is easily the greatest work Hitchcock ever did.


Friday, July 4, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 10 - 6

Oh boy...here we are with the top 10...pretty exciting. Well this list was extremely hard and it's taking a lot longer to put this thing together than I thought. So instead of having both parts up today I opted to wait to reveal the top 5 either one by one (read: pad my blog material) or post the top five on Monday. Either way, we are nearing the end. All of these films are must-sees and really, if you haven't experienced any of these films, you have yourself the starting point for a great DVD rental checklist. Anyway...on to the list...here is the first half of my ten favorite movies. These are movies that are for me both extremely well made and have unlimited re-watchability. They all exceed in both being narratively and aesthetically sound. These are my favorites. Top five coming next week. Enjoy!





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10) Raising Arizona
1987
dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen
imdb

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been two of the most interesting filmmakers of the last 20 years; their films are always a wonderful blend of comedy and tragedy. It doesn't matter what genre they dabble in, the truth remains that in all of their films you will laugh and you will think. Case in point: Raising Arizona. Their most ridiculous comedy (I refuse to count The Ladykillers as a Coen movie) is also my favorite film of theirs. Despite absolutely loving everything about Fargo and Miller's Crossing (the third best mobster film behind Goodfellas and The Godfather), or the recent existential thriller No Country for Old Men, no comedy has ever penetrated my daily life more than Raising Arizona. Only their second film, it's a spectacular example of what the Coen's would go on to achieve in their career with the aforementioned films.

I quote this movie just about every day, especially lines from the scene above ("Does the pope wear a funny hat?", "I'm crappin' you negative", "Not unless round is funny", "I'll be taking these Huggies, and whatever cash you have in the register", "I come from a long line of frontiersman and outdoors type", "You ate sand?,"T-I-G-ER!", "Say that reminds me..."), but it's not just the great quotable dialogue (a staple of all Coen films) that makes the movie one of my favorites. Look at this scene at the end of the film to see how the Coen's end the film on a thoughtful note that totally aren't expecting from a film that can only be described as zany and irreverent. Technically the film doesn't disappoint either. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld's a lot of fun with swooping camera shots, long tracks, and a frantic pace and shooting style that had to the films surrealness. There's also that wonderful exchange between John Goodman and William Forsythe as they rob a bank: "You hear that...we're using code names."

Yeah...these quotes may not make you laugh, but if you haven't seen this film yet then you need to do yourself a favor and rent it along with other Coen masterpieces like Miller's Crossing and Fargo. Those films are more serious, but succeed in the same surprises that can be found in Raising Arizona; an uncanny way to make you laugh amidst such violence and chaos (No Country does this as well). Raising Arizona flips it and causes you to think and ponder life, and how good it can be even amidst all the absurdity (and the film dwells in the absurd) we encounter every day.



Whichever genre the Coen's decide to work within I am always looking forward to their crooked take on life and some of the more existential quandaries. Both are found in many of their films (you have to look hard sometimes) and in Raising Arizona, they pull the ultimate Coenism with the final line of the movie (in the final scene above) where just when the viewer is beginning to tear up...they hit you with a subtle joke to end on, something to chuckle about as you sniff your nose and hold back the tears.






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9) Boogie Nights
1997
dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson
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Man...it was so hard not to put Magnolia here instead of Boogie Nights...but I opted for Paul Thomas Anderson's film about the rise and fall of pornographic cinema because no matter where or when, if this movie is on, I will watch it from wherever I happen upon it until the end. It is one of the most addicting films I have seen. A total homage to Scorsese's Goodfellas the film has an amazing cast and is one of those movies that I can remember everything about when I first saw it and the reaction I had after the movie was over. I couldn't believe what I had just seen. Everything about the way this film was made excited me and made the most mundane (he purposely makes the porn business look boring and unglamorous) little things interesting.

The cast is a big part of it -- this is where I first noticed John C. Reilly and became obsessed with his odd comic choices. I knew the minute I had seen him in this role that all this guy needed was a chance to showcase his comedic skills (just watch the clip above, it's no mystery why Will Ferrel has picked him two share screen time with him in two of his films). Other little touches that make this film great are the movies that Dirk Diggler (Mark Whalberg) makes and the trailers they put together for them...very 70's and very awesome. The movie is a lot like other PTA films where you find yourself laughing because you are witnessing emotions on screen that you aren't usually confronted with in film. Anderson loves to make the audience uncomfortable and often times with his films (especially Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood) all one can do is laugh, because just like in life, that's usually the only thing we can do (just like I mentioned above with Raising Arizona). The film is beautiful to look at. The reason Anderson was such a success story after this film because there was obvious talent on display here even for non-film people. The comparisons to Scorsese are justified. Notice the nightclub scene, a very obvious homage to the scene where Ray Liotta takes his date through the back way of a nightclub. The shot is one long take introducing characters that we will meet later on in the film, all the while vintage music is acting as the dialogue. Anderson's camera and his eye for great comedy and drama are the reasons the film is so hypnotic and just completely sucks me in any time it's on television.

Magnolia is the more daring film, so over the top and operatic with an ending that is beyond brilliant; but it's Boogie Nights that is the most accessible and has more of the "classic" feel to it. It's also the one PTA film I start with if I come across someone who is unfamiliar with his work. Not only is John C. Reilly great, but check out Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty and Thomas Jane as Todd...two of the best characters in any film of the 90's. Just a great freaking movie.





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8) Aliens
1986
dir. by James Cameron
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Here is another example of a movie that was extremely hard to choose. I think that Alien is the better movie, but I wouldn't watch it as much as I watch Aliens. Plus, I have given horror a lot of props on this list, and I wanted to do the same for the action genre. The action film is a hard film to make interesting, fresh, or exciting. I hate to say it, but the 80's were a simpler times with action films, and while Aliens may seem tame to younger audiences, the sheer energy and hold-your-breath sequences are unmatched by any action film I have ever seen. Action today rely almost all on CGI and explosions; leaving behind all traces of story or character development.

One of the reasons why Aliens works so well as a classic action/sci-fi film is because director James Cameron takes his time in developing some characters -- as stock and cardboard as they may be -- he tries his darnedest to make the most out of the relationship Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has with the fellow marines and the little girl she saves (and survivor of the Alien planet) Newt. This mother/daughter dynamic adds to the dramatic intensity of the movie (consider the scene where Newt and Ripley are left to fend off a face hugger alien or when Ripley gets an injured Hicks (Michael Biehn!) to safety); also it lets Weaver show off her acting chops and show some emotion and depth from an actress that you never saw in an action film then. Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award and proved that female could open an action film and rake in the dough over the weekend. It's pretty evident that Angelina Jolie owes a lot to Weaver as it is now more common for female leads to have big openings in genres other than romantic comedies. But I digress...aside from the acting and the crazy storyline and characters, why do I place a film like Aliens so high on my list? Because I never tire of watching it. This is a phrase and a reason you will see a lot in the top ten.

I just love Aliens so much, and thanks to Encore Action, I can watch it pretty much every night, and sometimes I find myself doing just that. The film was also pretty revolutionary. No director had tried to cram as much action into a film as Cameron did in Aliens, and you can see the influence on his later films like T2 and True Lies, also filmmakers like Michael Bay who make nothing but two-and-a-half hour long action films with non-stop action owe a lot to this film. It paved the way for the overlong action film (booo), but just because it spawned something bad doesn't mean it's not amazing to watch the film today and revel in all of its bloody, violent, and insanely intense glory. Roger Ebert said the movie made his sick to his stomach, that once the action kicks in at the 40 minute mark it never stops and left him feeling sad and depressed all day; still he praised the film for its technical achievements and recognized what a marvel it was for an action film to succeed so well at what it sought to do, which was unnerve and leave you breathless. Just watch the clip above...it's amazing how Cameron makes you feel exhilarated and uneasy at the same time. It's a one-of-a-kind action film, and one that I have probably seen at least 30 times. I never tire of watching it. It's a masterpiece in action filmmaking.





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7) This is Spinal Tap
1984
dir. by Rob Reiner
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Forget for a minute that you see Rob Reiner's name on this list...this is Christopher Guest's movie the whole way. No other comedy has been as influential as This is Spinal Tap, a film that I have to thank my brother for introducing me to. I had no idea what was in store for me when I first sat down to watch this movie, but this style of humor has shaped what I think is funny. Like any good comedy there is no point in trying to give a play by play of the film, I don't want to attempt to retell the jokes or spoil it for anyone who has not seen the film. What I will say is that this movie taught me what was funny in both high and low brow humor.

It also influenced every comedy writer who ever saw it. I guarantee that if you were to ask all of the The Simpson's writers almost all of them would say that This is Spinal Tap is beneath the surface of their writing. Also, if it weren't for this film and Christopher Guest's pseudo-documentary style of filmmaking, a show like The Office would probably have trouble getting green-lighted. What's so amazing about this film is that it doesn't age, because even though they are riffing on 80's metal bands, the joke still fits for whatever is popular at the time you are watching. Just insert generic crappy music band into the title and you have their story. It's a perfect comedy...one that will always make me laugh at its hilarious ad libs and asides and hysterical music numbers (Sex Farm and Cups and Cakes being my personal favorites). Another amazing thing about the film is the fact that no matter who I watch it with, they always laugh. Now that just may be because I have a weird and funny laugh, and when I watch the movie, I laugh loudly...but I attribute it more to the fact that the film is so good and so successful at its comedic moments, that it doesn't matter if you don't understand what it is that is being parodied. As is the case with almost every Christopher Guest film, the film still succeeds even if the satire goes way over your head.

That's the sign of a great comedy writer and great comedic actors. Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, who play David and Derek, the other band members of Spinal Tap, do such a tremendous job of making you care about these losers that you can't help but laugh when all the unfortunate events unfold. The surface level comedy works just as well as the more deep rooted satire, and that's one of the reasons why the film will always be funny and always make new audiences laugh at it. Aside from The Simpson's, it's about as perfect a satire as will ever be made. Like Derek's explanation of Sex Farm...it's sophisticated, but relatable.





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6) Touch of Evil
1958
dir. by Orson Welles
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The following is from an excerpt of a paper I wrote on Film Noir for a film class with an added edit:

In Orson Welles’ last great film, he constructed an influential crime film with all of the greatest elements of noir thrown in. We have the corrupt and seedy Sheriff Quinlan (played by Welles) and Vargas, the DEA who is committed to bringing the corruption of Quinlan’s town to an end. The interesting thing about Touch of Evil is that is doesn’t simply rest on its beautiful cinematography for it to warrant serious consideration as a great film, it is in the obtrusive and effective framing and blocking techniques, and the way the cinematography acts as dialogue that Welles best explains the themes of the film. The best example is in the virtuoso opening tracking shot that last for minutes. It is not as if Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, are showing off. It’s that Welles is saying that the film does not move in the traditional sense, the film is edited together in a jarring, sometimes disruptive fashion (in particular the torment scene of Janet Leigh in a hotel room) suggesting that the film and its characters and morals also do not move in a linear fashion. Rather, as the opening shot suggests, the film moves in loops and coils, and Welles and Metty trap their characters within the same shot. The effect is two-fold: we, as the audience, are introduced to all of the characters, and all of the characters intertwined in the scene to show how jumbled and disjointed things are going to be in this town. We are strangers in this town, and ironically Vargas, a Mexican, is a stranger too, in his homeland. The theme of displacement and disorientation fit perfectly with what Welles is trying to visually say with his famous opening shot.

(Edited to add:) The opening shot has been lovingly homaged by Robert Altman in his great The Player; but it has also paved the way for many 'look at me' type scenes that do nothing but technically impress (which is alright, but Welles is saying so much more with his opening tracking shot). You can see the influence of Touch of
Evil's opening tracking shot in not-so-good films like Children of Men and pretty good films like Atonement, a film that uses the long tracking shot to not only impress you technically, but makes you feel so much emotion and is a metaphor for the theme of the film. (Just watch the scene above to see how, even in 1958 it is so much better than the shot from Children of Men)
(End of edit)

Quinlan is a nasty character who embodies many of the traditional stereotypes and clich├ęs that are attributed to Mexican lawmen, while Vargas has many of the attributes of the stereotypical gringo. This ironical flip is another way we feel like Vargas is lost in his hometown. In one scene Vargas tails Quinlan with a radio as his partner is asking him questions. Now, watching this one cannot help but think that there had to be an easier way to go about doing this, but what is suggested again through the brilliant and beautiful cinematography is seen through the blocking and set design as Vargas weaves his way through the tangled metal of oil rigs and scrap yards and as the angles take us from high-up, from Vargas’ view suggesting authority and righteousness, to low-down angles, in which we see from Quinlan’s point of view, giving us the visual affirmation that he is the dirtiest of cops. The “tailing” scene is almost as masterful as the opening tracking shot. It is here that Welles has tremendous fun with dutch angles, obtrusive blocking and framing, set design, and lighting. Welles is using the camera to tell us what we cannot hear from Quinlan as Vargas is following him. The audio is so bad on the wire that Vargas’ partner is wearing that we have to rely on the visual language of the film to let us know what is going on; how perfect that the scene end with Quinlan in the mud.

And then there is Welles himself, playing Quinlan like a director of a movie. Orchestrating the investigation like a director orchestrates the filming of his movie. There is a sense, as it was with most of Welles’ characters, that this role is autobiographical. This is where Touch of Evil becomes something more than a beautifully shot, stylish film noir. It is in this character that we catch a glimpse of Welles himself. When one sees Quinlan the sheriff as Welles the filmmaker, the film takes on a whole new self-reflexive meaning. Welles was not that fat when he made the film, he donned tons of make-up and put pillows in his suit to make him appear bigger than he was. When Quinlan enters a room, you are aware of it because of how obtrusive his presence is – and it is not just his presence, but also his attitude – which is all captured beautifully by the framing of every shot Quinlan appears in. He is larger than life. He is the only, and often the loudest, authoritative voice in the room. Much like Welles, he is often misunderstood as a brute, and this is seen through the sympathetic loyalties of Quinlan’s cronies. Yes, maybe he is doing things the wrong way, but the result in Touch of Evil is always ambiguous. You are never quite sure if Quinlan was on to something or not, regardless of how unconventional his methods were (again used to show how he clashed with the culture of Vargas) he just might have been right. Welles loved to play larger than life characters who were brought down by hubris, and in Touch of Evil we see Welles portray Quinlan as a once brilliant detective, who is haunted by his past and has allowed his ego to bring him down. And that could be said about Welles himself.