Saturday, June 28, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 15-11

Now we're getting down to the nitty gritty as they say...exactly who says that besides sportscasters I'm not sure, but it's a saying. Anyway, with these five selections I am finding myself struggling more and more with trying to stay on task and keep these write-ups short. There is so much to talk about with all of these movies, that really all i can keep saying is that if you haven't seen any of them yet, do yourself a favor and start making a list. We're almost to the top 10. Here we go:

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15) Heat
dir. by Michael Mann

Heat is one of the all time great action films. If Martin Scorsese is the master of the East coast crime saga, then Michael Mann certainly can be called the master of the West coast crime saga. In what is his most fascinating and technically impressive film, Mann gets two giant actors to come together on screen for the first time ever in a clash of noble policeman and noble criminal. It's really one of the last times either Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro were any good and they play each character to perfection. Of course by now everyone has certainly seen the famous 'sit down' scene where the two iconic actors share screen time for the first time ever.

It's not just that these two great actors are playing this scene, and their characters, to perfection, it's the fact that they succeed in making stock characters (the out of control cop and the suave criminal) interesting again. Credit has to go to DeNiro and Pacino for this, but also to writer/director Mann who is always interested in the softer side of the male who inhabits a world of violence. Look at any Michael Mann film, whether it be the sympathetic killer in Manhunter, the crook who wants out in Thief, the philosophical hitman in Collateral, the emotional Mohican surrounded by a bloody wilderness in Last of the Mohican's, or the strictly platonic (maybe) relationship between Crocket and Tubbs in Miami Vice. Whatever film it may be Mann has a distinct style and a distinct way of directing the male characters in his movie; and no movie is more male than Heat.

It's not just an action film with brilliant shoot out scenes, but also a character study of the types of men that live these lives and the choices they must make. For example, Val Kilmer's character is doomed throughout by his relationship with Ashley Judd, he constantly is costing the group of criminals (headed up by DeNiro) some kind of anonymity. But what happens when Kilmer's character screws up and his girlfriend kicks him out? He stays with DeNiro, who lectures him on how this will hurt their next job, but sympathizes with him anyway, because he has never felt what Kilmer describes (DeNiro's speech about what an old mentor of his said about being able to walk away, is brilliant). It is this longing and loneliness that separate Heat from your standard crime film. Sure, the action is exciting and exact and sometimes thrilling, but it always heightened because of the amount of time and effort Mann and his actors have put into making these generic crime characters three dimensional. And I haven't even gotten into how good looking the movie is...seriously, Michael Mann is almost always unmatched in American cinema when it comes to visual flare. See all of his movies.

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14) City Lights
dir. by Charles Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin's City Lights was my favorite film all through High School. It has dropped some on this list simply for the fact that I have seen more and more films since then. But it's power and beauty still resonate with me. It's a film where you will laugh and laugh and laugh (loudly I might add) and then you will weep and weep and weep. A feat that only Chaplin could really pull off. As is evident in the scene above (the last scene of the film) Chaplin knew how to tug at the heart strings with his pantomime. It's a beautiful thing to watch, and really there is rarely another film that will consistently make me tear up by the end.

City Lights is essentially the greatest romantic comedy ever made. The film is about Chaplin's classic character the Tramp down on his luck (as always) and wandering the streets. He happens upon a beautiful flower girl who he learns is blind. They make conversation and hit it off, but when a wealthy man gets in his car outside of where they are talking, the blind flower girl thinks that the Tramp has left. And this is the very simple (although not for Chaplin, he agonized over this scene of mistaken identity for days) set up for what is the greatest silent film ever made. If you are not familiar with Chaplin's work than I highly recommend you start with City Lights. It's classic Chaplin comedy (the boxing sequence is still one of the funniest things I have ever seen) and a wonderful example of how you don't necessarily mind being sentimentally and emotionally manipulated by a director when the manipulation is done so well. Just a great classic American film.

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13) JFK
dir. by Oliver Stone

If you appreciate editing in movies, then this is the film for you. Holy crap this must have been a nightmare for dual editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. Director Oliver Stone throws every trick he has into this film: archival footage, different lenses, high-key lighting, black and white film, 16mm, and a loose canon style that gives the film its much needed maddening pace and feel. It's one of my all time favorite films as I was hypnotized by Stone's "study" of the assassination of John F. Kennedy at a very young age. When the film came out on video in 1992 I watched the film almost every other weekend. I couldn't quite put my finger on it at such a young age, but every scene felt so fresh and alive with it's kinetic editing and different shooting techniques, I was totally enthralled by the picture. The film clocks in well over three hours, but it never feels that long as you are totally enthralled by the details of the investigation.

It's one of the greatest procedural films ever made, and even if you no interest in the conspiracy theories or Oliver Stone's films, you should still see this movie for its epic scale. It's not just the editing that's the amazing feat -- although it is the star of the film, just watch the opening credits and then watch the clip above, yes the acting is good, but the pacing of that scene is perfect. It's an intense scene based solely off of archival footage and oddly shot scenes in grainy 16mm and silhouette -- the cast is amazing as well.

Stone assembled a brilliant cast of supporting characters, a plethora of skilled veterans and character actors ranging from: Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker(!), Jack Lemmon, Laurie Metcalf, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, John Candy, Jay O. Sanders, Walter Matthau, Sally Kirkland, Donald Sutherland, Ed Asner, Brian Doyle-Murray, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Wayne Knight (his name is even Newman in the movie). Whew! Okay, so the entire supporting cast is amazing, but this is really Kevin Costner's show amongst the actors, as they surround him with great performances he is more than up to the task. Never before or since has he been as good as he was in JFK. The final monologue at the end in the courtroom is as an amazing piece of acting as you are likely to see. It's a long speech, and Costner nails it, making us care and making us realize that when he isn't directing himself, he's a pretty good actor. For it's insane editing (that Stone would make even crazier with his next two films the very good Nixon and brilliant Natural Born Killers) and the amazing acting by Costner and the entire supporting cast, Stone has never made a movie as interesting or engrossing as JFK. If you liked All the President's Men, The Insider, and Zodiac, then you need to see JFK, the best procedural film ever made.

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12) Glengary Glen Ross
dir. by James Foley

I need not say much about this film, it can do its own talking...seriously, just watch the clip above. For all of the great actors and the competent director James Foley, the film belongs to the words penned by David Mamet. The man is a genius. A writer who requires certain actors say his words. They have a beat or rhythm to them, and he can write profanity like no one else. Glengary Glen Ross is so funny in its creative use of profanity and dialogue, that sometimes you forget just how good it works as a unconventional Noir film. All of the elements of the Noir are here in James Foley's film and he has a wonderful cast to help him translate Mamet's play from the stage to the screen. The best scene of the movie is the clip I posted above, it almost has become a part of pop culture now (thanks to the Simpson's) and is the cliche for any kind of business or corporate moitvational speech. Ed Harris and Al Pacino are the loudest ones in the movie, and because of that they get the most laughs (although it's when Pacino is quiet and talking to Jonathan Pryce in the bar that he gets his best monologue in). But notice the quiet desperation of two very sad characters: Shelly 'the machine' Levine (Jack Lemmon in what may be his finest performance) and the fumbling George (hilariously played Alan Arkin), these losers are exactly the kind of desperate, down-on-your-luck type characters you come to expect from a Noir film.

There are so many great scenes, scenes I won't ruin by explaining them do yourself a favor and see this movie. It's a perfect example of a movie where the dialogue drives the action. It has some hilariously pathetic characters, and just some plain pathetic characters (Lemmon's performance as Shelly Levine is like something Ricky Gervais would think up; brutally awkward yet you cannot look away). It's also one of the most quotable movies you will ever see. Every now and then I find myself, for no apparent reason, saying things like "yes, boots!" Or, "have you made your decision for Christ!" You may be scratching your head after reading those two quotes, so really the best thing for you to do is to make some time for yourself this week and watch Glengary Glen Ross.

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11) Robocop
dir. by Paul Verhoeven

Good 'ol Robocop. I feel a certain affinity towards this film. I don't remember how old I was when I watched it (that is to say, how young I was), but I have fond memories of this brutal and violent movie growing up; I always joke around that this film was my favorite babysitter growing up. The movie is a masterpiece of violence. It plays stupid with cardboard cutout good guys and bad guys shooting up the streets in the fight for territorial supremacy. The territory is futuristic Detroit (see because Detroit in the 80's was like Oakland today) and it's a bad place to be if you're a cop. The plot leads us down some familiar territory, but really, is the story going to surprise anyone at this point? It's in the action and the violence that this movie (still) shocks and surprises.

When I was younger I couldn't believe the amount of violence in this movie, and later on in life when I was in college, I bought the X-rated directors cut on Criterion DVD, and it became even more of a favorite. At this point in my life though I didn't just enjoy it because it was an awesome blood-soaked futuristic action movie. No, now I was old enough to see what made the film so great. See, not only is it an enjoyable campy sci-fi action film (like most of Verhoeven's work, see Total Recall and Starship Troopers), but I began to recognize how the film doubles as a wrly comic vision of a dystopia run amok by the postmodern and cyberpunk imagery that was so popular at the time. The film can play dumb (if you look at it on its surface) or it can play smart (dig a little deeper and you'll see the humor), either way you get a great movie.

It's a pivotal sci-fi movie as it introduced some state of the art special effects , and to a lesser degree, explored the human/robot (android) dichotomy. Wait...what? Oh yeah, and it rules because there is a guy who is covered in toxic waste and is hit by a car, Ed-209, the dad from That 70's Show is the head villain, and the movie just revels in how blood thirsty it is. Yes, you can take a serious look at the film and some of its postmodern imagery, and I have no doubts that director Verhoeven had some of those ideas in mind when he was making the film. But man, as a pure action film from my youth...this movie rules and will always be one of my favorites. I am sure Troy will have it much higher on his list, after all, he introduced me to it. What a great big brother eh? Oh and for those of you wondering just how the picture above pertains to Robocop...all I can answer with is...I'll buy that for a dollar!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 20-16

Woo Hoo! Here's selections 20-16. Troy has is up on his blog, check 'em out. I have come to realize that this list is getting harder and harder to write about and rank. I mean, all ratings are arbitrary anyway, because I would gladly take any of these films to a desert island with me. But I keep finding myself reshuffling all of these selections and moving them around into different slots. Well, at least number one has stayed the same, but I found myself with these selections moving a Bergman film out of the top 10 and into the number 16 slot. Please don't smite me Lord Bergman, you are still the best filmmaker to ever have's just...well these are favorite,anyway...I'll explain later. Enjoy!

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20) Casino
dir. by Martin Scorsese

Remember how I talked about the difference between best and favorite? Well this is a perfect example of why this list was so hard to come up with. Certainly not the best Scorsese film (Raging Bull is) or even the most radically unusual or visually appealing of his films(I love the underrated Bringing out the Dead), but Casino is a film that I just kept coming back to.

Yeah's Goodfellas-lite; so what? The wonderful performances and dialogue, the shiny and beautiful cinematography amongst all the brutal violence, the sheer madness and fun Scorsese and lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker have splicing this thing together. It's just a blast to watch. Every time it's on tv, I end up getting sucked in for 15-20 minutes, especially when Joe Pesci is edited for television, which adds a whole other element of funny to the film. It has all of the classic Scorsese moments with its quick cuts, brutal violence, lush cinematography, whooshing cameras, long tracking shots, great soundtrack, and a wonderful and completely over the top performance by Joe Pesci. It's not as good as Goodfellas, and not even close to as perfect as Raging Bull, but give me the option of which three to watch, and I would go with Casino.

I don't know what it is about the movie that I like more than Goodfellas except for the fact that maybe you can see Scorsese and his cast playing it more for comedy than they did with their previous outing, which was better at the drama part. Casino is funny and violent, and anytime James Woods and Don Rickles can steal the spotlight from Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro, then you know you have something special.

The clip above is something that is found all throughout the film (and Goodfellas for that matter) as Joe Pesci's intensity makes a simple conversation spiral into something so tense and oddly funny that you are not only caught of guard by the subtle and quick change of tone, but by how subdued he is in his threats. It's so uncomfortable, but you can't look away. It's something that Scorsese has mastered, the art of directing Joe Pesci. Because really, he hasn't ever been this fun to watch. He takes this scene and turns it into something special by slowly leading up to all out insanity, any other actor would want to jump right into the threats, but for awhile, Pesci's character has you thinking he might be cordial, and then before you know it, you'll find yourself being stabbed in the neck with a pen. The man plays crazy like no one else. And he is the main reason why Casino is so entertaining.

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19) The Killer
dir. by John Woo

I was first introduced to this fine film when I was in 7th grade. I used to rent this movie all of the time. I was in awe of the poetry in which John Woo portrayed violence. It was as if his actors were in a ballet of blood and bullets. Also, I was obsessed with Chow Yun Fat as he was a total bad 'A' in this and in Hard Boiled. It's too bad that he never clicked in American action films, because he was an icon of the Hong Kong action thriller. The story is irrelevant as it was typical John Woo soap opera mixed with some of the most amazing action sequences you'll ever see. The film is based on Woo's favorite film, Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, a story about a hitman who is betrayed by his own mentor. The scene above is an homage to the classic scene from Melville's film, one that Woo said inspired him for all of his Hong Kong action films.

The film holds a special place in my heart because it was one of those films that first got me interested in what inspired a director and the films he liked. When I read about Woo's love for Melville's film, I went out to all the video stores and tried to find it. When I finally did come across a copy of it, I was at first bored, because it was nothing like a John Woo film. How could this director I like so much like such a boring movie? Surely there must be more to it, more to why he likes it so much? So I watched it again and dug a little deeper, which was hard for a 7th grader (now going on 8th took me a year to find the movie), but I persevered and found what it was that Woo loved about the film. The idea of the lonely hitman and a film interested in the personal/emotional conflict of the hired killer, instead of the physical conflict. Well Woo meshed those two ideas together beautifully in the best Hong Kong action film ever made. The last scene at the church may have the most bullet to gun ratio I have seen in any movie. It's just insane. Truly a fun movie, and it will always be one of my favorites. Plus, the films popularity and cult status started the trend of a guy needing to have two guns, because it looks cool (its popularity referenced by Samuel L. Jackson in Tarantino's Jackie Brown) and establishing the two-shot of the bad guy and the good guy pointing their guns at each other at the same time -- also referenced by Tarantino in the final scene of Resevoir Dogs.

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18) Fletch
dir. by Michael Ritchie

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen, Fletch still holds up today for its sheer lunacy and irreverence, and its rapid fire one liners and gibberish uttered by star Chevy Chase. Chase cracks wise whenever he gets the opportunity and he's also good here when he has to be semi-serious. The films iconic score still gets stuck in my head, and whenever I hear it I always just laugh and smile and start quoting lines to myself. "I'll have a bloody marry, a steak sandwich and...a steak sandwich." "I'm Dr. Rosenrosen." "Moooon river." And well...I don't want to ruin the best ones if you haven't seen it yet, but my favorite exchange:

Pan-Am clerk: Mr Stanwyk, you are confirmed on Pan-Am flight 441 to Rio de Janiero tomorrow evening eleven PM first class.
Fletch: That's terrific, thank you.
Pan-Am clerk: You re-confirmed this morning.
Fletch: You bet I did. I'm a bearer for detail. I hope there's nobody sitting next to me. You see I always travel first class and I er, take both seats up. I'm in bridge-work, construction. These fold-outs take a tremendous amount of space up and I need the space.
Pan-Am clerk: I'm afraid there is someone sitting next to you.
Fletch: Oh for God darn, darn! Who is it? Mr Sininlinden?
Pan-Am clerk: No, the name's Cavanaugh.
Fletch: Cavanuagh. Ah, is that Maurice or Pierre?
Pan-Am clerk: Sally-Ann Cavanaugh.
Fletch: Sally-Ann? Well, terrific.
Pan-Am clerk: In fact, you purchased the ticket for Miss Cavanaugh.
Fletch: Doesn't mean I want her sitting next to me does it?

But, yeah, the movie never fails to make me laugh as all of Fletch's disguises are brilliant and hilarious and actually further the plot, instead of just providing quick humorous site gags and lame jokes. I have always been a fan of Chase's smart ass humor and his cynicism, and he has never been better than he is here in Fletch. It's too bad that so much went wrong in the Chase's career. Aside from Christmas Vacation and a brief, hilarious bit role in the Norm MacDonald comedy Dirty Work, he has been pretty much forgot how to bring the funny post-Fletch with awful films like: Cops and Roberson's, Snow Day, Man of the House, Nothing but Trouble, Spies Like Us, Vegas Vacation, and yes...I'm sorry but I have to say it...The Three Amigos. It's just not that funny. Especially when you compare it to Fletch. Plus, I mean really...we would all like to forget Caddyshack II. Poor Chevy Chase, at least we'll have has Irwin Fletcher to look back on as the pinnacle of your career, a character that is one of the most memorable and most quotable in any comedy.

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17) A Nightmare on Elm Street
dir. by Wes Craven

Wes Craven's seminal horror film still gives me the willies. It was one of those rare moments in horror (especially for the 1980's) where the director decided to go for atmosphere over gore[edited to add: okay okay...I mean gore in the sense that it is meant to look real, and gross you out like todays torture porn horror films. I realize that the clip above has a TON of blood, but in no way is that meant to be taken seriously]. Everyone knows the story of burned up child murderer Freddy Kreuger terrorizing the kids of Elm street in their dreams, so there's no real point in rehashing the major plot points. What's so great about the film, and one of the reason it still holds up by today's standards is the way that Craven used the gimmick of dreams to create a surreal horror experience. With rotating rooms, bizarre special effects, nonsensical moments (like a goat in the high school highway), there were almost always key signifiers telling you that the character was now in the dream world and something bad is going to happen.

Craven also evokes a certain amount of fear because really, who hasn't at one time been afraid of the bogeyman? That's all Craven is doing here is taking the basic bogeyman storyline and setting it in the middle class neighborhood of Elm Street. Much like what John Carpenter did with his teenagers in Halloween, Craven too uses normal looking kids who seem like they would be just your average teenager. Even by todays standards to special effects still seem creepy; scenes like the latex wall, Freddy's arms stretching longer and longer, and Freddy's tongue coming through the phone.

The most famous scene of the film (the clip above) is still one of its best, even though I have seen it about 100 times. The end of the movie still rules and I can only imagine how truly surprising that was to have a horror film that had no clear resolution by the end. I mean, at least Halloween and Friday the 13th you knew you were still in the real world, even if the villains got away at the end; not with A Nightmare on Elm Street. The final moments evoke even more uncertainty and an overall sense of eeriness because it suggests that the whole movie was a dream. Nothing was to be believed.

The film was also successful because Freddy was portrayed as a scary bogeyman type character. After the success of this film, New Line Cinema wanted to make as much money as possible and decided to turn Freddy into a wisecracking sardonic killer, appealing to the college demographic, the studio was no longer interested in marketing Freddy as a scary monster, but rather someone you would like to hang out with. When Craven came back to the franchise ten years after the first film with New Nightmare, he made Freddy scary again, and built off the end of his original film, where nothing is quite as it seems and we are not supposed to believe anything is safe. A truly classic American horror film, especially considering it came out during the heyday of crappy slasher films.

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16) Cries and Whispers
dir. by Ingmar Bergman

I don't want to write too much about this film, because really I could write all day about it. What I will say is that it may still be one of the scariest films I have ever seen. When you watch Bergman's film about the pain of the past and coping with your demons, you just want to hide sometimes. The film is brutal and blunt, and yet its heavy themes are juxtaposed by some of the most beautiful and colorful imagery Bergman ever filmed. I don't know how often I can revisit Bergman, hence making it hard to justify putting one of his films on my favorites list. But he is my favorite filmmaker, the one who resonates with me the most. Every time I watch a Bergman film I am a better person because of it. His films have changed the way I have looked at life. He is like a great religious philosopher who instead of writing, picked up a camera and decided to visually present moments of genuine catharsis.

If this were a list of 'best' films, then this would be in the top five. Visually I don't think Bergman was ever this good, although Persona is a very close second. It's as powerful as anything you are likely to see. It came out the same year as The Exorcist and is just as unsettling. The opening scene (in the clip above) is a perfect example of how Bergman uses silence to suck you in to his films. His films are a meditative and contemplative experience unlike anything any filmmaker (save for Fellini) has ever tried to create. He is hands down the greatest filmmaker of all time, and Cries and Whispers is his best film , and the one I revisit the most.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 25-21

Here are places 25 - 21. Each film will have a nifty little video to go with it. I hope you enjoy. You can expect the next installment Wednesday. Troy has started his list too, so head on over to his blog and check out his entries as well. Alright...on with the show:

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25) Open Range
dir. by Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner's western is the best modern entry into the genre since Unforgiven. It is a call back to the kind of western that Raoul Walsh would have made, a film that is conventional in plot, but unconventional in its execution of the plots action. I put this film on here because I like a different Eastwood western more, so I decided to leave off the obvious pick of Unforgiven and go with a pick that maybe some of you haven't seen. The acting is superb, especially by the veteran Robert Duvall who owns this movie from beginning to end. What's even more interesting about Open Range is the detail that Costner put into the film. I have read interviews where he talks about how he was interested in the loudness and abruptness of violence (evidence by the final shootout scene in the clip above), and how the towns had to deal with this. He mentions in the same interview that he saw pictures where there were bodies everywhere, obviously someone had to remove those bodies. He was so used to watching westerns growing up where the bodies just seemed to disappear, and the town rejoiced with piano and whiskey as the bad guys were now banished from the town. But Costner was more interested in showing how a town has to deal with the aftermath of a shootout, and what kind of closure does it really bring anyway?

The logistics of the final scene mixed with the aforementioned loud and abrupt violence, make the final shootout scene one of the best ever filmed. It's great how the camera sweeps in and out of corridors and buildings throughout the town. But above everything is Robert Duvall's performance as Boss. The way he tries to rehabilitate Charley (Costner), a former hired-gun from the Civil War into a functioning member of society. And watch his speech in the tavern the first night they go into the town, and the concern he has for a cat floating down the street via a flash flood. He is just so fun to watch in this role, and it's a shame he was never properly recognized for it. A great, great movie.

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24) The Beyond
dir. by Lucio Fulci

Ah Fulci. God bless you, you blood thirsty lunatic. If that scene above made you laugh more than cringe, well then, The Beyond is the movie for you. In typical Italian horror nonsensical fashion, The Beyond is a movie that is impossible to explain. It has something to do with an artist in the 1920's not being liked, getting quicklimed, which apparently unlocks the gates of hell. What's fascinating about The Beyond is to see what the movie could have been if its producers weren't so interested in just trying to make back their money (hey I know it's their job, but still, artistic integrity is something you don't find in Italian horror films). You can see glimpses of odd eerie brilliance lurking in every frame of Fulci's best film. It has its camp factor, which for Troy and myself is one of the reasons we revisit it constantly. But aside from the camp, and the jello/acid, the fake dog biting the fake ear off a blind girl, the killer spiders, and the random appearance of zombies at the end, the film is actually pretty spooky.

Okay, I know I know, there are too many caveats in that last sentence, but The Beyond is a wonderful starting point for anyone who wishes to start watching some Italian horror, and more specifically Italian zombie films. The dubbing is awful, the synth music kicks much butt, and the violence, well Fulci would never again top himself. It's the only time the viewer ever got the sense that Fulci was really having fun making a movie, and not just hackin' it up trying to steal from everyone else and make lots of money. The inane storyline that drifts in and out of comprehension adds to eeriness of the film. It's a film that should be experienced by any horror buff as it was truly the last great film Fulci ever put his name on.

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23) High Plains Drifter
dir. by Clint Eastwood

Another reason that I couldn't put Unforgiven on the list (remember we can't repeat directors) is because I tend to like High Plains Drifter a lot more. It's a western that is ultaviolent and interested in how the audience weighs vengeance vs justice; a philosophical debate that is also broached in Costner's Open Range. High Plains Drifter concerns itself with a small town who is afraid of the pending return of three outlaws, jailed for their brutal murder of the local sheriff (they whip him to death). A stranger comes to town though, and after an unsuccessful attempt by some of the local toughs to kill him (the scene above) the town tries to woo the stranger into staying and protecting them from the returning outlaws.

It's a dark western compared to the cheesy and campy Italian westerns Eastwood was making with Serigo Leone. Those are great and fun films no doubt, but I love how Eastwood plays with the mythological in High Plains Drifter, something that the genre has always lent itself to. It is never made clear who the stranger is or what his purpose in the town is, but it was purposely left ambiguous by director Eastwood. Is the stranger the brother of the murdered sheriff, out for revenge on not only the outlaws who killed him, but the town for allowing it to happen (again, this isn't the most lighthearted of westerns)? Or is he a ghost, sent to amend the wrong that's been done, a mythological figure on horseback who has come to the town for revenge. There are so many great moments here, the aforementioned 'shave and a bath' scene (the clip above) and also the inspired moment when the stranger convinces the townsfolk to pain the entire town red, and rename it Hell in order to intimidate the returning outlaws (and adding to the mythological aspect of the film).

It's a great western that is often overlooked in Eastwood's long distinguished career, but I think it's the one film that let everyone know that Clint Eastwood was on the scene as a director, and that he would have a long brilliant career.

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22) Out of Sight
dir. by Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight is a film I probably watched once a week when it came out on DVD. It also was the first movie I ever bought on DVD, so it holds a special place in my heart. The film is another great Elmore Leonard adaptation, after Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. And, unlike a lot of films released at the time, Out of Sight felt fresh, a film that was inspired by Pulp Fiction to play with the same style of time shifting narrative and cool gangster speak, rather than simply aping it. Soderbergh also has a lot of fun with the style of his film. As is the case with all of his movies, he is always doing something with the cinematography (he shoots his own movies now, he learned on the set of Out of Sight how to be his own DP) and with the editing, both are crucial to the successes that Out of Sight has.

The movie is about Jack Foley (Clooney) a suave bank robber who finds himself in the trunk of a car with federal agent Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). This leads to all kind of hip dialogue and a plot that finds itself with the oddest of pairings: Don Cheadle and Albert Brooks. The casting for Out of Sight is masterful as there isn't a miscast person, even Steve Zahn is funny and not annoying like always. Foley and his partner played by Ving Rhames find themselves mixed up in a heist attempt with Cheadle and his buddies and in between the film tells the most unconventional of love stories between Foley and Sisco. The 'time out' scene, an opposite sex version of the scene from Heat, is so wonderfully acted. It's beautiful and heartbreaking the way they know it won't end happily, but go through with what they do anyway. The decisions to edit the sequence out of order and the use of freeze frames all add to the emotional effect of the scene, and aren't just neat little post production tricks.

Out of Sight was the first film where you could really tell Soderbergh was let loose and just let his creativeness out for the first time in a bigger budget film. It's easy to see the sleek and sexy filming style of Out of Sight and see how he came to the point of a film like Traffic or the Ocean movies. Soderbergh was always a little bit on the outside of Hollywood looking in with pictures like King of the Hill, the Sundance smash Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and the flawed but experimentally interesting Kafka. With Out of Sight he had arrived, and was able to not only get the budget to films like the Ocean movies, but also more experimental stuff like Solaris and Bubble. He is one of the most important filmmakers in the business, and is often penalized by film critics for having too much fun with the cheesy Ocean films and not making enough films like Traffic. However, even though most people don't mention him when they mention some of the top directors in Hollywood, he is certainly at the top of the list, and Out of Sight is a great film to start with if you are unfamiliar with his pre-Ocean films.

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21) Crimes and Misdemeanors
dir. by Woody Allen

When Woody Allen decides to venture into the more existential and serious he usually makes his best films. As he did with Interiors and Husbands and Wives, Allen's well noted love of Bergman comes out in all of his most serious works. To me these are his best films, none better than Crimes and Misdemeanors; a film that has all of the elements of a Greek tragedy.

At the heart of the story there is Judah (Martin Landau), and eye doctor beloved by family and friends, a staple of the community, highly regarded by his patients, yet living another part of his life with another woman. This woman (Anjelica Huston) takes things a little more seriously than Judah would like and it gets to the point where she writes a letter to Juddah's wife explaining the affair. Judah reads it and burns it, afraid that his status and comfortable lifestyle is about to be shattered, he calls his brother (Jerry Orbach!), a mob affiliated henchman, to 'take care' of Judah's mistress. That is the skeleton for a plot that is fleshed out by wonderful performances by not only Landau but Saw Waterston as Ben, a Rabbi going blind (Allen, like Bergman is not very subtle with their religious metaphors) and by all three of the character who inhabit the comically tragic subplot.

In this sub plot Allen stars as Cliff, a documentary filmmaker who is always turning down chances to do better work for work that he feels is more important and useful. Lester(Alan Alda in a great performance) plays his brother in law, a rich television producer who has many Em mys, and is willing to do his wife a favor by letting Allen direct a documentary about how he goes about making a project. While filming the project, Cliff meets Halley (Mia Farrow) and they instantly have an intellectual connection when it comes to film (she loves his documentary about Philosophy Professor). The tragedy comes in the form of the typical Allen comedy character: the lovable loser. But, it's in the way Allen balances these two styles of tragedy and juxtaposes them against each other, until the final scene at the end where Judah and Cliff sit side by side at Ben's wedding and have a conversation that is simply put, the best thing Allen has ever written. The scene that follows (the clip above) is both heartbreaking (in the context of the film) and uplifting (in the context of life) and is something that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It's Allen's best film by far, he would later try to duplicate this kind of story and success in Match Point, but it was missing the comic tragedy to counter the more serious.

It's the only time I have ever seen Allen clicking on all cylinders (I've never been a HUGE Allen fan), with his religious metaphors (Judah's father being a Rabbi always talking about the eyes of God watching us, Judah as an eye doctor, the blind rabbi, etc.) and his classic dopey comedic hero, you have two of the best characters Allen has ever imagined.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Kevin's Top 25 Movies: Intro and Another 25

So Troy and I have decided to simultaneously post our 25 favorite films (later we will do albums) where each day we will post five entries. The formula was simple: don't repeat directors. Now, some movies may just look plain odd sitting next to each other, but isn't that how it usually is when we play favorites? We can't really justify a certain film about say, a cyborg cop, being placed next to the greatest film noir ever made (hint: it's Touch of Evil), but when we stop and explain each films merits and why they are our favorite and how they hold up on their own, and not against other great films, then I have no problem with Paul Verhoeven and Orson Welles sharing space together. Some movies may make you scratch your head, others will make sense, but keep in mind that for me, favorites and 'the best' are something different.

It was extremely hard for me to whittle down this list to a mere 25 films; I think I achieved what I wanted to with the list by picking movies that shed some insight into the kinds of films I enjoy now and the kinds of films that enchanted, inspired, and hypnotized me into the avid film-goer I am today. Also...films that just make me laugh for all the right reasons, which means that they are usually films that weren't intended to be funny or had their tongue so firmly placed within their cheek that when the film was released, most people missed the joke. You'll see what I mean when a certain Mike Nichols film pops up.

To see the distinction I have made between 'the best' and 'my favorite' click here. And as is the case with most lists like this there are inevitably films that are hard to cut, so in keeping with the tradition of copping out, here are the 25 supplemental films (call them all 25a) to my definitive list of my 25 favorite films, all in numerical order (because I am better than Troy) with comments on random films. So sit back and relax (sorry for the length of this post, the others won't be this long, we are only doing five movies per day) grab some popcorn, or if you're Brandon or Kyle, some form of sour candy, get a pen and some paper. DVD recommendations abound within:

50. Wolf (1994, Mike Nichols) -- Talk about your bizarre films. Mike Nichols makes a movie with Jack Nicholson and James Spader as werewolves. Uh yeah. However, the film works strictly as a pretty funny allegory for the world of publishing. Worth checking out just for the hilariously awful fight scenes at the end.

49. Leaving Las Vegas (1995, Mike Figgis) -- One of the most heartbreaking films you will likely see. Nicolas Cage's performance is amazing and the score the pain of both his character and Sera, the prostitute played by Elisabeth Shue. A film that his emotionally devastating, but has the amazing ability to actually be quite redeeming by the end.

48. The Awful Truth (1937, Leo McCarey) -- If I could go back in time and be one person, I would most definitely be Cary Grant. He was one suave dude, and real funny to boot. This is one of his best screwball comedies, only to be outdone, in my opinion, by a film that will appear later on in the list.

47. The Wedding March (1928, Eric Von Stroiheim) -- one of the great forgotten silent classics from a master who couldn't figure out who to work within the system. Which is a shame, because Von Stroheim was a rare genius who could manipulate the audience with the power of the pantomime.

46. A Decade Under the Influence (2003, Ted Demme)
45. Nightmare City (1980, Umberto Lenzi)
44. Dirty Harry (1971, Don Siegel)

43. Nosfertau: Phantom Der Nacht (1979, Werner Herzog) -- I acutally prefer this version to the original, with it's extremely long establishing shots, eerie silences, strange goings-on in the counts castle, and one creepy bizarre performance from Herr Kinski. What's so great about Herzong's retelling of the classic vampire story, is that it can work with the sound off too, and be just as eerie as Murnau's silent classic.

42. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) -- "Are you alone?" Those three words are at the heart of one of the best film noir's ever made. J.J. Gittes is a lonely character surrounded by a mystery he has no business being involved in. The drought is the perfect metaphor for the morally devoid characters that inhabit Gittes' world. One of Nicholson's best performances. I never get tired of watching this movie.

41. The Rock (1994, Michael Bay) -- yes you read that right...a Michael Bay film is on here. I still watch this movie at an unhealthy rate. Thanks to Encore Action I can pretty much count on catching at least some of it once every day. This is probably the last action movie that has a lot of the charm and lunacy of 1980's action films. It just never gets old. And seriously, any movie with Tony Todd and Michael Biehn sharing screen time with Sean Connery and Ed Harris is gold in my book. Gold I tells ya!

40. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999, Anthony Minghella) -- One of the best films of the 90's and the closest thing to Hitchcock since the great master left us with his last great film, Frenzy. Matt Damon and Jude Law have never quite topped themselves, and sadly, neither did Anthony Minghella who passed away earlier this year. He was at his pinnacle here, filming in beautiful locations with beautiful actors, until all of that beauty is shattered by one swing of an oar, in one of the most brutal and chilling scenes you will ever see. If you haven't seen it, you need to.

39. Dark City (1998, Alex Proyas)
38. Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawkes)
37. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Steven Spielberg)
36. Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)

35. Wayne's World (1992, Penelope Spheeris) -- One of those movies that as a kid, I never quite understood the jokes, but laughed anyway because my brothers and their friends did. To this day I still quote this film, dating me a bit, but I could care less. The movie has its inspired moments (like the casting of Rob Lowe and the scene with Alice Cooper) and its not so inspired moments (the plot is very generic), that Myers and co. hilariously point out and poke fun of with their multiple endings (the Scooby-Doo one being the best). The thought of the movie always puts a smile on my face. Probably the only good movie to ever exist based on SNL characters.

34. True Romance (1993, Tony Scott) -- Tony Scott should feel proud. I just placed his movie over Citizen Kane (mostly because I couldn't have two Welle's films on here, and I have always liked Touch of Evil more). True Romance is the perfect pairing of Quentin Tarantino's referential dialogue (I still prefer Christian Slater's opening monologue about Elvis to Tarantino's interpretation of Like a Virgin in Resevoir Dogs) and Tony Scott's visual flair. The film has all of the staples you come to find in a Tony Scott film: bright colors, cigarette smoke that has never looked so artistic, a kinetic pace to the action scenes, and lots and lots of bullets. The cast is amazing and sadly it was the last good movie Christian Slater ever made. He's just a lot of fun to watch as he works with Tarantino's dialogue. The film really stands out for three reasons: the scene with Christoper Walken and Dennis Hopper, just watch the way these two pros handle the scene, it's magic, and easily the best scene in the movie, also there is a wonderful and tense moment when Slater and Arquette are trying to sell cocaine to a slimy movie producer (Saul Rubinek) and just watch as one of the characters in the room has a bug on him as he tries to get information for the police...just wonderfully tense and funny. The third scene is worth noting just because it has Bronson Pinchot snorting cocaine and then getting it all over his face. Yes, if you have ever wanted to see Balki from Perfect Strangers snort cocaine, here is your chance. God bless you Quentin Tarantino.

33. Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest) -- One of my favorite films of the 80's. I first saw this movie because I worked in a video store with a manager who would always recommend that I see films from the 80's like Stripes and Caddyshack or Trading Places, etc. One of my favorite films he suggested to me at the time (I think I was 21) was Midnight Run. It's a great buddy/chase/road trip movie and the odd pairing of Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro works extremely well for both laughs and when the emotional stuff kicks in (a staple of the 80's action/comedy film). Martin Brest is an underrated director and gets some big laughs out of his cast (especially Dennis Farina). It's one of those films that is so wonderfully 80's (I can't explain it, except if you always find yourself watching Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon when they are on TV then you know what I mean) and just sucks me in every time I see it play on TV. A real fun movie.

32. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987, John Hughes) -- For my money this is the pinnacle of John Hughes' 80's comedies. It has all the requisite Hughesisms (awkward moments, gratuitous language, and of course the obligatory tug-at-the-heartstrings scene), and it was probably the last laugh out loud movie that John Candy made. Steve Martin has rarely topped himself since (aside from Parenthood, LA Story, and Bowfinger his comedies since this one have been terrible). The movie is worth seeing for the scene in the car rental lot alone, and the conversation about 'ball handling' that follows. Thankfully the film has a Thanksgiving theme, thereby allowing me to have an excuse to watch it every year.

31. The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall) -- Neil Marshall's referential love song to the horror films of the 70's and 80's is the best horror film since Wes Craven's New Nightmare. The story on its surface is about a group of women spelunking, getting lost, and having to stave off weird creatures. But the heart of the film is the psychological. Drawing all kinds of imagery from films like Alien, Don't Look Now, Carrie, and even Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film is more interesting when thought of not as a horror film, but the psychological battle the main character has with trying to fight her demons and letting her husband and daughter rest in piece. The final image is both haunting and an emotional punch to the gut that you so rarely find in horror film. It's proof that the genre still can lend itself to heavy themes by being both artistic and exhilarating without having to be heavy handed. The title is the key the films multi-layered plot. A wonderful film that with time will probably crack the top 25.

30. Wild at Heart (1990, David Lynch) -- Certainly not the best David Lynch film (that would be Blue Velvet), but it is definitely the most fun. Where Blue Velvet's darker undercurrent makes it a lot harder to watch on a regular basis, the pure ethereal experience of Wild at Heart (seriously, watching it you feel as if you are on drugs) is something that I will never not want to experience. It's the typical bizarre 50's/punk-noir storyline that Lynch usually offers up. Great performances by Nicolas Cage (as Sailor) and Laura Dern, not to mention the bizarre and creepy Willem Dafoe. But nothing tops the bizarre relationship between Harry Dean Stanton and Diane Ladd, who as the overprotective mother is something that has to be seen to believe. Everything from the way the film is shot by Frederick Elms, to the editing to the music is meant to give you a sense of reverie. I can't explain it, but the first time I watched the film it was like I just had an outer body experience. A truly wonderfully weird movie.

29. Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento) -- One of the best Italian horror films of all time. It doesn't make the final cut, because I like the campiness of Fulci's The Beyond more than the seriousness of Argento's masterpiece. Actually, I prefer some other Argento like Opera and Tenebre to Suspiria, but it makes the list because I used to watch it so many times, in awe of what Itlaian horror offered that American horror didn't. I saw for the first time that beautiful filmmaking could mesh with squeamish horror visuals. The film is bloody, and bloody good looking. The opening to the film is one of the most famous in all of horror, and rightly so, it kicks your butt right from the beginning, and then takes a break for a bit, before spiraling into a kaleidescope of bright colors, eerie music, obtrusive set pieces, and lots and lots of gore. Oh, and Goblin scores the film. That's enough right there to see it. Modern horror films wish they could be this good.

28. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989, Richard Donner) -- Ah Lethal Weapon 2...where would I be without you? I so badly wanted to put this in the top 25 but I just couldn't find a place, plus there are more memorable and nostalgic action pictures that deserve a place on the list. This was probably one of the first videos that I wore out from watching so much (along with yes...Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Batman, and Last Crusade). I remember this film for a few things: a house on stilts, obligatory 1980's sex scene, Joe Pesci getting effed in the drive-thru, and a surf board decapitating someone. Man I loved this movie. True it doesn't have Gary Busey as the villain, but I think I just like the second one a tad more because of the element Joe Pesci adds to it. It's a funnier film with essentially the same action scenes and pacing. It's a toss up, but I have to go with part two as the better of the Lethal Weapon movies, but seriously, check em both out. They are the Citizen Kane of the buddy cop action sub-genre.

27. Pan's Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo Del Toro) -- Guillermo Del Toro's brilliant film blurs the lines between fantasy and reality so wonderfully that it deserves comparison to Fellini's 8 1/2. Although the film is only two years old, I would argue that it is easily one of the best films ever made. Much like the more serious horror films on this list, The Descent and Suspiria, Del Toro has fun with the conventions of the genre but seeks to excavate something deeper than just a generic shock fest. Also, much like last years The Orphanage (which Del Toro produced), Pan's Labyrinth shows that the Spanish horror/fantasy genre is interested in exploring the themes of fantasy as a means to pull yourself out of the harsh realities of the real world. I wouldn't dare spoil anything from the way the plot unfolds, but everything from the films score to its beautiful imagery draws you in and is truly a special film experience. He not only draws from the horror genre, but also fantasy films like The Wizard of Oz and Snow White, evoking wonderful Blake-like innocence and experience imagery. When the final shot of the film comes, you feel both the sadness and the joy Del Toro wants you to feel. Like any good director he succeeds in playing the audience like a piano, and when you realize what the film is really about, it only makes you want to see the film again and again.

26. Witness (1985, Peter Weir) -- Peter Weir's film is another odd hybrid like The Descent. A film that is a genre picture but seeks to do so much more with that genre. The film on its surface is nothing more than your generic crime picture with John Booke (Harrison Ford) having to go out of his comfort zone to protect a crucial witness who saw two policeman commit a murder. When Booke has to adapt to the Amish lifestyle is when Weir and his cinematographer John Toll shine. The films crime story takes a back seat to a more contemplative and poetic picture. The images are framed in a way to look like old oil paintings, nothing seems real, as the audience feels Booke's displacement as the alien in another country. The film is rewatchable for the wonderful cinematography, the great musical score, and the engrossing murder mystery. But most of all this is Ford's show. Never before or since has he been as good as he is in Witness. Weir is a very underrated director, and it was really hard to find a film of his that I wanted to choose because I like them all so much. the interest of cheating some more, also check out: Fearless, The Last Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Truman Show.