Here's what I've covered so far...
4- Three Kings (David O. Russell)
3- Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
In a decade (specifically the years 1998 and 1999) most memorable for the new wave of American filmmakers, Martin Scorsese reminded all of us that even though the kids (Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell) may be sitting at the adult table, this old master won't be relinquishing his seat at the head anytime soon. Bringing Out the Dead is one of Scorsese's most memorable and manic pictures; filled with countless energy and the director's particular élan that reminded me of his 70's films that introduced the world to a crazy actor named DeNiro, needle drops, and a new way of looking at editing and camera movement. I admire a lot of Scorsese's films of the mid-80's (After Hours, King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ) and early 90's (Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Casino), but it seems like Bringing Out the Dead is (arguably) his most energetic film since the 70's, and (again arguably) his most misunderstood and underrated film of the past 20 years.
The film is a manic two hours of smash cuts, zip pans, crazy tracking shots, an energetic soundtrack, and crazy performances…surprisingly not by Nicolas Cage. Cage gets a bit batty in some scenes as the overworked Frank, but for the most part he dials it down here as he plays a weary paramedic who is haunted by a pregnant teenager that died on his call. Throughout the night he rides with three different partners (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore), each crazier than the last. Scorsese and his screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) decide to script the film with any "real" plot, as the paramedics often have no real beginning or end to their long days on duty. This tactic works well in making us not just feel the craziness of the job, but also Cage's weariness as he is often bathed in shadows and donned with makeup that makes his eyes look sunken in.
Like any good Schrader/Scorsese collaboration the film is rich with religious allegory (the number three is prevalent as Frank has three co-pilots – or personalities – and we follow Frank through three days of his life, each inhabited by a different partner; and Frank befriends a drug addict named Mary, played by Patricia Arquette, who is shot in the Madonna pose at the end of the film comforting Frank), and one can't help but think that the writer and director aren't trying to evoke the same feeling they did with another film of theirs that took place in dingy streets of New York City, Taxi Driver. Like that film Bringing Out the Dead also has its lead actor narrate the story and lead the viewer through the streets of Hell's Kitchen, giving us an inventory of the destitute and hopelessness that inhabit the streets. Frank is like the river man, ferrying people to hell. However, even though the similarities are there, Schrader himself stated that the film wasn't exactly a sequel to Taxi Driver but more of a "bookend".
The aesthetic is typical Scorsese: harsh lighting, sped-up film, disorienting editing techniques (this is some of the best editing his longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker has done), and ethereal scenes that appropriately displace the viewer because the characters often don't know what's going to happen next. One of my favorite ethereal moments is where Frank, after taking some drugs, hallucinates that he is helping all of the ghosts of the people he's seen die rise up from under the ground. As that scene ends Scorsese then gives us a drug-induced flashback to the one person Frank couldn't save, the aforementioned pregnant teenager Rose. Scorsese employs a neat trick here where he films the scene backwards so it looks like the snow is fluttering towards the sky, instead of falling on the ground. I couldn't help but think of James Joyce's "The Dead" during this scene, and Scorsese is obviously going for the same kind of effect (just in reverse): as Frank tries to save her life he is trying reverse death, hence the "backwards" snow.
In another one of my very favorite moments Frank is sitting next to Mary's dad who keeps dying but is being ordered by the family to remain "alive" because they want to "believe in miracles", even though it would make more sense to let the man pass on without the pain of having to be shocked back to life. Frank can see that the man doesn't want to live anymore and to make things worse he begins to hear the man talk to him telling him to quit resurrecting him with the defibrillator. Frank has had enough and seeks to ease Mary's pain that comes with waiting for such a miracle. When Frank looks at her father one last time (Scorsese evokes another literary master who wrote about death, Dylan Thomas, by giving the scene a green hue to it) he finally lets him go in a scene of great power. Scorsese does something very subtle at first in this scene that compounds on the powerful moment: he dims the lighting on the old man and keeps the same lighting in tact on Frank. It's a masterful way of shooting someone's passing on, and at first I didn't quite notice it until I realized the scene had gotten darker, but when I went back and watched it again you could see Scorsese slowly dimming the lighting in the scene. It's a great effect that reminded me of the superimposed zoom he did in Goodfellas where Liotta and DeNiro are talking to each other in a diner and at first the scene just seems kind of "off", but then we realize that the characters are staying in the same shot in the foreground, but outside in the background the image is being zoomed in. It's moments like these that make Scorsese the king.
Bringing Out the Dead is the embodiment of what made 1999 such a memorable year. The film is teeming with energy. It's a joy to watch because like Goodfellas we're never quite sure where the camera is taking us and we're almost always energized by the music that accompanies each scene. The film has appropriately manic performances delivered by Tom Sizemore and Ving Rhames (there's a great scene where Rhames "resurrects" someone) and one of the better performances by Nicolas Cage as a man who clearly is burnt out and tired of a job he took because he thought he was going to be saving lives, not losing them. Scorsese shows Frank and his partners as glorified taxi drivers at times, and at other times they play a role that is more "consoler" than "life saver"; and that's what fascinated me about the film: it gave me a glimpse (a heavily stylized glimpse, but still a glimpse) into the night-to-night operations (the film is based on a book by Joe Connelly who was a NYC ambulance driver) of a profession I knew nothing about. It's one of Scorsese's most entertaining pictures, and I think it's a crime that it often goes forgotten when people discuss the great films of the master's oeuvre. It's the last great film Scorsese has made, and even though I know he has another great one in him, nothing has come close to the energy of Bringing Out the Dead.