Friday, July 4, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 10 - 6

Oh 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 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!

Click here to watch video (go to the 40 second mark to start)

10) Raising Arizona
dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen

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.

Click here to watch video

9) Boogie Nights
dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson
imdb 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
dir. by James Cameron

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'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.

Click here to watch video

7) This is Spinal Tap
dir. by Rob Reiner

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 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's sophisticated, but relatable.

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6) Touch of Evil
dir. by Orson Welles
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.


  1. Let's see what we can comment on here...

    Raising Arizona - I tend to like the Coen films that veer more towards serious subjects than I do their comedies (although they can write comedy well). That said, it's still a very good movie. You mentioned William Forsythe -- don't you wish there was still the system in place where American actors would go over to Italy to make low-budget horror/action movies. If that was the case, Forsythe would be this eras John Saxson. Oh well.

    Boogie Nights - I didn't find a way to get PTA on my list. I guess if I did have to pick one, though, it would be Boogie Nights. I always liked how he takes such a distanced look at the industry to make it seem like a very pathetic thing to ever get into and not much fun at all (which may well be the case). Also, Thomas Jane was good in a movie and it wasn't the Punisher. Shocking!

    Aliens - Agree on Alien being the better film, but of course, I found a way to get both on my list. I can't think of any sequels that work so well with the first film, yet are so extremely different. That's an impressive feat. Also, not many sequels are made seven years later. It's nice to hear that Cameron is going back to his roots and making a 3-D sci-fi/action movie starring Sigourney Weaver, in 2009.

    Spinal Tap - It IS the funniest movie ever.

    Touch of Evil - Sometimes it's easy to forget just how great Orson Welles was. Touch of Evil is probably a top 20 film if we ignore directors. I just couldn't put it above Citizen Kane on my list.