Burn After Reading
Creating a “definitive” list of your favorite 101 films is a task unto itself, and one that I spent many hours compiling and weeping about. Only those who have also made similar lists know what it feels like to take off one of your favorites in order to fit the constraint of 101. I do have a larger, more random list, but, like most people, I was prompted to do this with the recent release of Sight and Sound’s 50 Greatest. The films that follow may not be the greatest, but they are most definitely my favorites. From the hilarious to the somber, to the “I want to go kill myself”; I think every film on the list has something to recommend it. Every film has a special place in my heart and I have unforgettable memories sparked by these films. I suppose the best way I can describe this list is the best of my favorite written like an objective list. Sort of. I hope this list sparks a little debate and some conversation! (The films are listed in alphabetical order, but the ones in bold would be in my top 10.)
- 12 Angry Men/Anatomy of a Murder (1957/1959) | Directed by Sidney Lumet/Otto Preminger
It probably goes without saying that 12 Angry Men and Anatomy of a Murder are the essential courtroom films. Lumet’s film deal exclusively in real time, studying the dozen men of the title and their motivations. Their personal ethics are on trial for the audience as they themselves must decide the fate of a young man on trial for murder. Lumet’s masterful direction and the tight, often claustrophobic cinematography center in less on the case itself than who these men are as people. Meanwhile, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is like the best episode of Law & Order times one hundred, with more focus on the latter. Taking you through nearly the entire process of a trial, and its noir0ish tendencies forcing the audience to question the legitimacy of, once again, the ethics of the cast of characters, Preminger sets the stage for a slow burning but hot mystery. Both are on a similar subject, yet handle the matters differently; with the former concentrating on the ethics of the men who will play god and the latter on the ethics of those on trial.
- The 400 Blows (1959) | Directed by François Truffaut
When one of his mentors challenged him to make a film since he had such a bad reputation as being an incredibly harsh critic, Truffaut’s first feature, and one of the first of the nouvelle vague, made him the John Hughes of the era. Adolescent angst tends to look really foolish and preposterous on screen, but Truffaut tackles the melodramatic woes and misfortunes of his protagonist, Antoine Doinel, with sympathy and nostalgia. This may partly because that Doinel, played excellently by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the events in the film are heavily based on events and experiences that occurred in the auteur’s early life. And like John Hughes, Truffaut is able to present normally ridiculous and unsympathetic actions on the screen so that, without making Doinel seem like a martyr, the audience can gain insight into how the angsty adolescent feels. Certain lines resonate with any kid who has told a lie or tried to make their parents proud and failed. The adults around Doinel are not, surprisingly, made out to be monsters, but simply strict adults who, like in reality, may sometimes lose touch with who they once were. Truffaut’s touching film is the perfect coming-of-age story.
- A Christmas Story (1983) | Directed by Bob Clark
Based on memoir-esque essays by the film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is one of the most perfect slices of nostalgia to ever grace the screen. Taking place sometime in the 1930s in the Midwest, the only thing little Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with all the fancy accessories. One kid’s quest because our delight. Its quaint, fun period setting and detail, and the nature of narrative structure make the film incredibly fun to watch. Told in vignette-style episodes, each segment really seems to be a slice from Ralphie’s life. It seems that, rather than assume the duty of creating a very long arc and narrative to what would, undeniably, be a far less interesting film, the episodic style makes the actions more quick paced, reminiscent of old sitcoms and radio shows. Were they to ever adapt David Sedaris’ work to the screen, they should look no farther than A Christmas Story.
- Alien/Aliens (1979/1986) | Directed by Ridley Scott/James Cameron
Alien and its sequel Aliens are very different films, but both are equally entertaining. While simultaneously nearly inventing the modern sci-fi film and subverting it in the same breath, Alien is, at its core, a haunted house movie with a crew aboard a ship that also contains a large monster. It combines the older clichés of that subgenre, recalling some stylings of Vincent Price, yet its characters aren’t always stupid. This is a nice change. Some very memorable thrills occur in Alien. Its sequel is different in tone and style, with James Cameron at the helm and his “no holds barred” style coming with him. More overtly an action movie, Aliens is more “exciting” than its predecessor, but that is merely because of the style change. All the while, the two films present curious ideas regarding pregnancy, birth, and feminism under the first layer of skin. As they say, though, in space, no one can hear you scream.
- Annie Hall (1977) | Directed by Woody Allen
Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s most obvious change in style, as he had slowly transitioned from “joke after joke” in Love and Death. This film, though, presents Allen not only as the comic, but as the artist. Using humor to illustrate the nuances in a relationship, Allen surprisingly allows us to get to know Alvy Singer and Annie Hall intimately. Despite the film being told mainly from his perspective, we become connected to Singer’s amour as well. The non-linear style aids this and accentuates those nuances. Eternal Sunshine would copy this method of retracing a relationship through memories, but in a way, Annie Hall does it, if not exactly better or more effectively, then just differently. The lack of straightforward linearity is the reproduction of memory, jumping to the moments that stand out to you the most in no particular order. The breaking of the fourth wall seems to prove it: Annie Hall is a walk down memory lane.
- Army of Shadows (1969) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
While better known for his gangster films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s WWII neo-noir is an intricately plotted escape plan, drawn up to thrill like any of his other films. The difference between this and, say, Le Cercle Rouge, is that a real emotional connection is made. The dark palette and tenseness of the film drives the viewer to the edge of their seat, rooting for every character in the Resistance to get away. It’s a shattering film about the dangers of political resistance, as well a triumph of personal beliefs and heroism.
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) | Directed by Frank Capra
Amongst the first films I ever watched, Arsenic and Old Lace holds a very special place in my heart. Theater critic Mortimer Brooster’s two old aunts invite old, lonely men into their home and poison them, burying them in the basement. These goodhearted, decidedly Christian women are kind of like Dr. Kevorkian, but for the old and lonely. Mortimer’s older brother, who would have made both Boris Karloff and Jeffrey Dahmer proud, comes home one night and, as one would guess, antics ensue. Playing with primarily one set and the conventions of comedies and mysteries, Capra’s screwball comedy is listless and fun. The journalistic roots of Cary Grant’s character (who is, unshockingly, perfect) present an opportunity for the film to subvert certain filmic elements in a self-aware way. It isn’t meta-humor exactly, but it understands what it’s parodying. The wonderful John Alexander’s perfect portrayal as Teddy (Mortimer’s other brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt) is so pitch perfect, it would end up impacting my personal political views.
- La Belle et la Bête (1946) | Directed by Jean Cocteau
If I tell people that one of my favorite films is Beauty and the Beast, I always have to annotate my statement with “I mean the Jean Cocteau one”. For this majestic adaptation makes singing teapots and dancing clocks seem quaint and even, gasp, dated. Cocteau was one of cinema’s greatest magicians, and his camera tricks are gorgeous to see on the screen. Far more reliant on the older German version of the tale than the Disney film was, Cocteau’s splendid adaptation makes the Beast seem more human than ever. This is a tale of unrequited love and reflections of the human spirit. I think it was Greta Garbo who exclaimed, upon the Beast turning into the handsome prince, “Give me back my Beast!” It’s that kind of beauty that fills the screen and fills our hearts.
- Being John Malkovich (1999) | Directed by Spike Jonze
I often credit Jonze and screenwriter extraordinaire’s head trip for helping me grasp the concept of “existentialism”. For what else is this film other than trying to understand one’s self by experiencing it through another’s body? The film is genius visually, conceptually, every way. With unrecognizable John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, the lines are fast and smart and the concepts tricky yet entertaining. Spike Jonze’s music video sensibility does not, contrary to assumption (and a little thing called Chaos Editing), hinder the film’s artistry but enhance it. It is not cut to music but the beats of action, mood, and dialogue. It’s visually inventive (“Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich…”), complex, and thoroughly entertaining.
- Bicycle Thieves (1948) | Directed by Vittorio De Sica
De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece rolled in that wave of films that look at the harsh realities of the common people. The simple storyline of a man who is finally able to get a job, but has the bike he needs for it stolen is more heartbreaking than you could ever imagine. Is it the fact that, as most neorealist films would do, the film used nonprofessional actors, making the tragedy more real? Is it the cinematography, with the frame always tight with the social problems of Italy, that makes the film compelling? Or the angelic face of young Bruno, who must grow up in the conditions, allowing all the motion in the film to pour out of his cherubic eyes? Bicycle Thieves is a tearjerker without the melodrama, something that feels real and painful and undoubtedly one of the most incredible films ever made.
- The Big Lebowski (1996) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
There are few things as memorable as Jeff Bridges as The Dude. And there are few films as quotable as the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (“Vagina.”). The Coens’ ear for dialogue, eye for scene construction, and sensibility for story dominate the film. This wildly unique neo-noir takes its plot loosely from the classic noir The Big Sleep, but its endlessly colorful cast of characters is the best thing on display. The dialogue in particular is the most interesting thing about the film. Combining surfer/stoner/slacker vernacular with articulately constructed lingo, it’s commonplace to hear phrases throughout the film like “Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian–American, please”. The Coens bowl a perfect set with this one.
- Black Swan (2010) | Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Part intimate character study, part psychological thriller, and part art house horror film, Darren Aronofsky’s enigmatic Black Swan is all enthralling. With the strains of obsession and quest of perfection found in The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue, Aronofsky’s ode to those who would willingly go insane for their art is chilling and intriguing. Natalie Portman’s childish and virginal Nina is contrasted by her understudy Lily, darker and more elusive. Revolving around a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Portman and Mila Kunis represent the respective swans in the ballet, Portman’s quest to be able to emulate and portray both with Kunis out of her way. Aronofsky’s presentation, with mirrors all around and various tipoffs to Nina’s character, is exemplary. The handheld cinematography forces the viewer to see the events from Nina’s point of view, making Nina’s descent into insanity more thrilling and chilling. It’s a grand film, with a gorgeous score from Clint Mansell. For Nina, her experiences can be summed up in an exchange from the classic The Red Shoes: “Why do you want to dance?” “Why do you want to live?”
- Blue Valentine (2010) | Directed by Derek Cianfrance
There are few films as heart wrenching as Derek Cianfrance’s portrait of a romance, from its beginning to its end. Realism takes a front seat here, to an extent that much of the dialogue was improvised and the film’s stars even lived together for a month. Every frame of every scene seems genuine, which makes the experience of watching the film even more romantic and subsequently crushing. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are absolutely incredible. Their chemistry, making love or arguing violently, is palpable. With its story overlapping with memories, the past and the present have distinctly different looks. Blue Valentine doesn’t feel like film at all; merely the portrait of two people who fall in love and fall out of love.
- Brick (2005) | Directed by Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir is unlike any high school movie you’ll ever see. Everything is pulled straight from the classic film noirs of the Pre-Code Era and even the dialogue is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammet. Johnson, though, is no fool. Though his plot is complex and his intention is to reinvent both the neo-noir and the high school movie together, he knows that just making it like a labyrinth and having funky lines won’t be enough. Brick is just as inspired visually as it is in literary terms. And while this is Johnson’s first film, he handles the material like a pro, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt perfectly fit as a high school hooky playing amateur gumshoe. Brick turns out to be a fascinating appropriation of those classic noir techniques set in high school, without the gimmick and with all of the thrill.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935) | Directed by James Whale
Yes, Whale’s Frankenstein brought German Expressionism to American horror, and yes, it was good, but it didn’t have the heart and soul of Bride of Frankenstein (which may or may not be a tad ironic). Although mob mentality and the psyche of a mad scientist are explored in Frankenstein, no attempt is given to understand the Monster. Here, not only does the Monster demand a mate, he demands to be understood. James Whale offers up a perfect examination of the kindness that can lie within the Monster’s heart. (There were bits shown in Frankenstein, though not to this extent.) Elsa Lanchaster’s iconic scream and Karloff’s reaction shot with the words, “She hates me” is one of the most memorable scenes in film history. Bride of Frankenstein works incredibly as the study of the monster and his broken heart.
- Bringing Up Baby* (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
I’m fortune enough that arguably the first film I ever saw just so happens to be an incredibly funny work of genius. Yep, the insane work of comedy was one of the very first films I ever watched. Howard Hawks’ screwball masterpiece will always unfailingly take the cake for my favorite film of all time. Sexual innuendo permeates the dialogue, and there’s always a sense of the battle between the sexes underneath all of the shenanigans. Once again, we have an incredible director subverting clichés, and in this case, romantic comedies. Though, this is the definitive romantic comedy, starring Cary Grant as a wonderfully naïve paleontologist and Katherine Hepburn as the waify socialite who falls madly in love with him and follows him around. This film was ravaged when it was first released, but has reestablished itself as a gem. Although the situations are familiar, their familiarity to the audience is deliberate, Hawks playing with what we know about romance. With some of the best line deliveries of all time (“I just turned GAY all of a sudden!”), and nary a dull moment, Bringing Up Baby is one of the funniest films ever made and my favorite film of all time.
- Burn After Reading (2008) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
While the plot is knowably a little complex, the sadly underrated Burn After Reading is in a way Fargo Lite. It received mix to positive reviews upon its release, perhaps because it was so drastically different in tone to the previous Brothers Coen film, Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. Nay, do not let that detract from seeing it! The familiar air of dark comedy is mixed with noir-ish espionage. And once again, it’s the cast and the script that shines. John Malkovich as a crazy ex-CIA agent and Brad Pitt as a dimwitted personal trainer are the highlights. As buffoonish as nearly everyone is in the film, it sheds an interesting light on the nature of surveillance and that, in this world, secrets never stay that way forever.
- Cabaret (1972) | Directed by Bob Fosse
Based loosely on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Cabaret is one of the greatest musicals ever made. It seems to be post-modern in its approach, almost shocking for a musical. While songs generally express the feelings of characters on stage, the song and dance numbers at the Kit Kat Club are utilized specifically to reflect the events of the play and the mirroring social and political atmosphere. The looming threat of Nazis is always in the air, and no musical sequence dares to detract from that aspect. In fact, those sequences are there expressly for that purpose: to remind you of that threat and fear. The Kit Kat Club is a fantasy in which all the players’ lives, the players representing the countries in World War II, are mocked on stage. Joel Grey gives an electric performance as the sinister Emcee at the club, his sweetly romantic “If You Could See Her” ending with the lines, “…she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!” But, come to the Cabaret, old chum!
- The Cabin in the Woods (2012) | Directed by Drew Goddard
It’s nice when people who like the same kind of movies, in this case horror, you like come to the same conclusion as you have: they’re getting dull and predictable. In one of the most original horror movies in recent memory, Drew Goddard and Joss “King of All the Fanboys” Whedon came together to pen a script which subverted the horror genre and its clichés even further than Wes Craven’s Scream did in 1996. Spoilerific though it may be, the film explores why we love carnage, and not in that obnoxiously pretentious way that Funny Games did. Clearly, the filmmakers like horror just as much as the audience does, and enough to want to serve up something new. Featuring a stellar cast, great comedy, and shocking moments, The Cabin in the Woods is the perfect horror film for the meta-humor age.
- Casablanca* (1942) | Directed by Michael Curtiz
How can anyone not love Casablanca? The best representative of the collaborative process of filmmaking, especially in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Casablanca is one of the greatest love stories ever set in celluloid. Political allegories notwithstanding, it’s the love story that captures everyone’s hearts across generations. Bogart’s outward bitterness and internal romanticism, Bergman’s effervescent beauty, and the doomed love between them are captivating for every second. The darkly lit cinematography, the atmospheric music, and the performances are splendid. It may be the greatest love story ever in film. There’s no need to tell us, “You must remember this”, because everyone who loves a good romance will without asking.
Making a good dramedy, or even black comedy, is not a science. Although, when watching them, one feels that it should be. Balancing out the drama and the comedic timing is often imperfect, but films like Gran Torino get away with it without pushing the audience way because it is not “serious enough”. It ends up being both impactful in an emotional aspect as well as a humorous one. The subject matter is also up for grabs, for as long as there is good writing and better acting, they can get away with murder (see: Fargo). Alexander Payne, whose last film was the critically acclaimed Sideways in 2004 which I have not seen) and before that About Schmidt (which I have seen), likes deadpan, dark humor. Probably a bit darker than even one of the darkest of comedies, Withnail and I. That means his films can often be a hit or a miss with viewers.
Here, Payne tries to balance the nuance of drama and the absurdity of comedy in The Descendants, whose working title could have been “White People Problems Starring George Clooney as a Handsome White People”. It is a family drama, one that begins with Clooney’s wife in the hospital after a water skiing accident and leads into Clooney learning he has been, as in all interesting familial dramas since Shakespeare’s Othello, cuckolded. His journey not only involves confronting the man with whom his wife cheated on, but also telling various family members of his wife’s now terminal condition and that, according to her will, she wants the plug to be pulled. The journey is taken with Clooney, whose character name is Matt King, as well as with his 17 year old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley), his 10 year old daughter (Amara Miller), and this dopey kid Alex knows Sid (Nick Krause). All the while, King, who is the sole trust owner of 25,000 acres of Hawaiian land that his ancestor had as her dowry, must decide to whom he must sell this humungous plot.
It all goes down in rather dramatic fashion. That, right there, is one of the main problems. Not only is it sometimes terribly melodramatic, there’s barely a hint of comedy in the film. That is not always because it is not in the screenplay, but the comedic timing of both the director as well as the actors is so poor, they can manage to turn something that could have been highly amusing into something middling and unintentionally annoying. There is no balance here. There is no contrast of the dark drama of human life against the absurdity of it manifested as humor, unlike, say, Woody Allen’s ambitious “comedy up against drama” film Crimes and Misdemeanors. Granted, that film is broader in its comedic format, but even the Coen Brothers, who’ve mastered the art of dark comedy, made something insane and dark like Burn After Reading into something hilarious.
Maybe it is because that the two aforementioned directors (or three, depending on who’s counting) are superb screenwriters, legendary for their wit, pathos, and dialogue. The dialogue in this film comes to a screeching halt. It’s almost as if the actors were not only speaking in clichés, which would have been bad enough, but had been taking them directly from Lifetime Movies. Lines as hard hitting like, “You really have no clue, do you?” and “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” and the tender, “I love my family; I love my wife!” pepper the film’s uninteresting yet relentless melodramatic scenario. That being said, the use of voiceover is actually nice. Creating that kind of nuance and introspection that the films of Charlie Kaufman have been able to do, Clooney’s voice over is calm and nice to listen to. But, like all good things, it does not last. It barely takes up 20 minutes of the film, and thus comes off as inconsistent. The voiceover never actually returns. Regardless of it being presented in the present tense, this inconsistency seems kind of lazy.
Clooney’s performance is nuanced enough so that you can see all the stress etched into his face and his eyes. But because one can normally rely on him having some sort of comedic timing, such as in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, his almost brute unfunniness is a shock and even a bit jarring. You often see him looking down at his shorts to something, contemplating why bad things happen to good people. The problem being, it takes too long for the film to get going for the audience to actually care about his situation. However, his performance, generally speaking, is very good. Just not great.
Shailene Woodley plays an angsty teenager, which is to say, to some extent, playing a character that is completely derivative. Her performance is unoriginal and unenticing. Being a regular on the ABC Family melodrama/teen soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Woodley is used to playing this archetype and also well acquainted with the concept of turning on the water works. Again, if only we (or I) cared.
Yes, the film covers a rather dramatic subject matter. But it all seems so trite and lazily done. There is to enough pathos in the film to render it believable or worthy, and it instead comes off as a movie about rich white people problems. With the cinematography being occasionally ostentatious (oh, hey, let’s punctuate each scene transition with pretty Hawaiian landscapes), the acting being pretty lacking with the exception of Clooney, and the dialogue being completely ridiculous, it’s kind of shocking how far off the rails this film went, when it could have been a moving, funny, and intimate portrait of a family going through a tremendous loss with scattered moments of humor. It ended up just being depressing, halfhearted, and lackluster.