Watch and See – My Favorite 101 Films: Part 3
Welcome back, to my continuing series of my top 101 films! In case you missed it, here’s part 2!
Welcome back to my continuing series of my favorite 101 films of all time, where you’ll encounter: wood chippers, tanks, “Nazi Julie Andrews”, Beauty and the Beast, something precious, whiskey, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whistled, Nabokov smiling, something too gay to function, the end of the world, memory problems, a smile, and two tragic heroines, who happen to be hookers.
41. Fargo (1996) Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’ve observed, tend to be neo-noirs disguised under some other sort of other genre clichés. However, their dark classic Fargo is just a straight up noir, studying the lives of criminals, a police officer, a mild mannered guy with a lot of debt, and the small town residents of North Dakota with their funny accents. The Coens described where they grew up as “Siberia with family themed restaurants”, and that description seems to be a good metaphor for the perfect blend of comedy and suspense. The film is dark and cold, but also completely hilarious. Fargo is perfect, dontcha know?
42. GoldenEye (1995) | Directed by Martin Campbell
I have always asserted that the best James Bond films are simply the best espionage films. It works outside of the series and can stand on its own. This is just as true as Martin Campbell’s first Bond effort, GoldenEye, which ushered in Pierce Brosnan as Double O Seven for the first time. Bridging the gap between the hokey escapism of the previous14 films and the gritty realism of the Craig era, GoldenEye works well because aside from a couple key scenes and the fact that, as per usual, Bond recites his name, it doesn’t feel like a Bond film, therefore not weighted by certain expectations. Even if the expectations were there, it would surpass them, and rightly so. GoldenEye was a fantastic way for Bond to enter the ‘90s.
43. In the Loop (2009) | Directed by Armando Iannucci
In the Loop is the Dr. Strangelove for the 21st century. The terrific film delves into the world of British politics and profanely satirizes everything. If it weren’t so gut bustingly funny, it would be deeply depressing to realize how incompetent some of these people are. The screenplay is incredible, its language so vulgar and funny that it shed new light on certain topics. And added some insults to my lexicon. (“Nazi Julie Andrews!”) Based loosely on the BBC show The Thick of It, In the Loop spectacularly mocks the fog of war.
44. Kill Bill (2003/2004) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Kill Bill was Tarantino’s pop art collage. Stealing (or borrowing, whatever you prefer) everything under the sun to create a fast paced, frenetic film, it’s a playscape for the senses. The visceral thrills are second to none, as Tarantino shows off how much he knows about film, provides a badass female lead fantastically played by Uma Thurman, and seems to have an incredibly fun time.
45. King Kong (2005) | Directed by Peter Jackson
If there has ever been a contemporary remake that’s been done right, it is this one. Peter Jackson’s gorgeously realized film is a stunner in every way. The level of detail, the characterizations, and the look of the film. The best thing about it is, though, the Beauty, Ann Darrow (a charming Naomi Watts) and the Beast, Kong (Andy Serkis is a genius, did you know that?). The love that Kong feels for Ann is so beautiful and so real that the ending breaks my heart every time. Animated with integrity, Kong’s fall from grace is painful and beautiful all at once. No one brings me to tears more often than the utterance of “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
46. Kuroneko (1968) | Directed by Kaneto Shindo
This Japanese horror film with a feminist twist features some of the most stunning cinematography in a horror film. Deriving much of the action and movement from traditional Noh Theater, the stage is lit for ghostly shimmers, as a vengeful woman and her mother, who sometimes appear as cats, rip the throats out from samurais. Its plot is fine, but it is undoubtedly a showcase for the presentation, from the beautiful costumes and sets to the dreamlike cinematography. Spectacularly creepy, it’s like dancing with the demons in the pale moonlight.
47. The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
This seems to be Hitchcock at his jauntiest. He may have made other light dark comedies, and even one deliberate comedy, but The Lady Vanishes is his frothiest film yet. Some of the techniques that would become Hitch’s trademark are featured in the film, but whatever the sense of foreboding; it is driven away by how amusing and funny it is. Its romance and the “opposites attract” would actually leave a little bit of a legacy, with Carrie Fisher quoting the film in When Harry Met Sally… (“You’re the most contemptible man I’ve ever met!”) Hitch keeps the audience entertained by both the comedy and the mystery, but even noted film historians have started watching the film with the intent to analyze it heavily and given up, lying back, and relaxing their ride on Hitch’s train.
48. Lady Vengeance (2005) | Directed by Park Chan-wook
I always go back and forth between this and Oldboy as to which is better. Both are part of a thematic trilogy from Chan-wook, and on days when the Lady takes the cake, she really takes it. The emotional resonance in this film is extraordinary. A beautiful study of revenge and redemption, Lady Vengeance sticks out for its lush colors (or not, if you watch the excellent Fade to White version, in which scene by scene, the film desaturates) and its very Murder on the Orient Express-like conclusion. The treatment revenge has in this film is, in a way, less harsh than in Oldboy. Out protagonist comes to realize what she’s doing and how revenge itself is changing her far more quickly and halfway through the film, her motivations change slightly. It remains one of the most beautiful thrillers of the last decade.
49. The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (2001 – 2003) | Directed by Peter Jackson
There is not very much to say about Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy that hasn’t been said before. Though the pacing is at times problematic (how would you deal with the material?), it’s extravagant and amazingly huge in scope. If anyone could ever tackle these tomes and bring them to life, it was Jackson.
50. Lost in Translation (2003) | Directed by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola is an expert at capturing the meandering reality of loneliness. She did it, probably in a flashier way, with The Virgin Diaries, she did it with more focus on the costumes than on the plot in Marie Antoinette, but she explored the topic perfectly in Lost in Translation, which won her an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Two lonely people in a place where there is a significant language barrier meet and… do not sleep together. Instead, they find in each other kindred souls and a kind of intimacy that is unmatched with merely sex. The exploration of strangers in a lonely place offering solace to one another is pitch perfect in every scene. It turns out that existential ennui translates perfectly for the screen.
51. M (1931) | Directed by Fritz Lang
Having seen this film several times, there is no way that I will not think of Lang’s noir-ish crime thriller M when I hear the foreboding notes of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Whistled faux-innocently by the ever creepy Peter Lorre is the first sign that nothing good is to come of this. Almost a critique of the police procedural as we know it, the deliberate pacing, sparsely framed shots, and beautiful chiaroscuro all add up to what is an indelible experience. (And, yes, I do consider it a part of German Expressionism).
52. Manhattan* (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
I’ve gone back and forth between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan for what feels like ages, but I decided the latter would be in my top ten. More the comedic drama than Annie Hall’s dramatic comedy, the bittersweet tale of unrequited love and intellectuals in New York is a masterpiece. The film’s one liners are perfect, but underneath is the pathos and feeling of desire that everyone feels in the film. The Gershwin filled score adds to these tender moments of drama and romance, aiding the tone perfectly. And, of course, the film features some of the best black and white cinematography ever on screen by the Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis. While some may love New York, I, myself, love Manhattan.
53. The Manchurian Candidate (2004) | Directed by Jonathan Demme
Here’s another remake that was very successful in terms of quality. Though, re-adaptation seems a little more appropriate. Demme re-appropriates the themes of the original film, which circled around Communism, and used them in a contemporary context. Taking place after Desert Storm, the film gears in on various medical testing and the state of terrorism in the real world. It makes for an effective and taut thriller. Live Schreiber and Meryl Streep are incredible in the film.
54. Mean Girls (2004) | Directed by Mark Waters
You may think it odd for me to have this film on my Top 101, but I truly adore it. Tina Fey’s acute study of the teenage girl in high school and the desire for popularity is one of the smartest teen films to ever be made. Endlessly quotable, its astute observations (as I mentioned in my lengthy review) are more than true. Even at the small school I go to, there are things that have happened that have reminded me of Mean Girls. Part of this realism is that the film is based on a nonfiction book, the other part being just good writing. Mean Girls is supported by outstanding performances from its cast, including Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Caplan, and Rachel McAdams. Yes, I’m going to say it: This movie is so fetch!
55. Melancholia* (2011) | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
56. Memento (2000) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough art house film is an incredible exploration into memory, denial, and crime. A gloriously fantastic neo-noir with a tight script, amongst the things that make this film extraordinary is the nonlinear narrative. Yes, my friend, linearity goes out the window, as it is played backwards. If I didn’t love this film, I wouldn’t have written my extended essay on it. Guy Pearce plays a damaged man searching for his wife’s killer, but as we go further back into his mind and into the past, the things that are revealed are chilling yet incredibly human. Nolan starts playing his games for the big time in Memento. Stunning in every frame, Memento is one of the greatest film noirs ever made.
57. Midnight in Paris (2011) | Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
58. Modern Times (1936) | Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin avoided sound for as long as he could, and nearly a decade after The Jazz Singer had premiered with its revolutionary synchronized soundtrack, Chaplin was still holding tight keeping his Little Tramp’s lips sealed. The film is not completely silent. Modern Times incorporates some sound effects and probably half a dozen lines spoken by minor characters. And while Modern Times is undeniably hysterical, heartwarming, and as good of a showcase of Chaplin’s pantomime abilities as any of his films from a great filmography, Modern Times provides some interesting social commentary about consumerism, labor workers, and the industrialization of America. The film also ushered in the classic jazz standard “Smile”, which would be famously sung by Nat King Cole. With its ambiguous, but happy ending, Chaplin would move forward with technology and social awareness in his films.
59. Moon (2009) | Directed by Duncan Jones
Duncan Jones’ debut feature is a about a man on the moon, who mines, and feels lonely. Yes, the existential crisis of loneliness in space. It sounds rather trite, but with sharp visuals, a gorgeous and atmospheric score by Clint Mansell, and absolutely stunning performance from Sam Rockwell, Moon is a star amongst emotional dramas. Sam Rockwell’s performance of Sam Bell is the “every man”, a man who has been working and mining for the last three years on the moon. When his time on the moon is about to close and he gears up to head back home, he realizes that he has become so attached to solitude, he does not understand how he will cope with the change in environment. It’s a beautiful, subtle, and at times fantastically suspenseful film.
60. Nights of Cabiria/Vivre sa Vie* (1957/1962) | Directed by Federico Fellini/Jean-Luc Godard
The prostitution of society, religion, magic, celebrity, emotion, and money are the subjects of two of the greatest films ever made. I see Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Godard’s Vivre sa Vie as companion pieces, both dealing with similar subjects, both dealing with similar tragic protagonists, and both ending in similar ways. In Fellini’s film, Giulietta Messina inhabits the outspoken, down on her luck prostitute Cabiria. She aspires to be something bigger, but men constantly, habitually take advantage of her. In Godard’s film, framed around twelve tableaus, Anna Karina plays Nana, a Parisian girl who aspires to be an actress, but soon is relegated to being a prostitute. Both films take place in beautiful places in the world, and show the decrepit nature beneath the façade. Both films are directed with integrity and mastery of the medium. And both films are heartbreaking and tragic. If you don’t cry, or at least shed a tear, at the end of the films, you are a robot or a sociopath. Containing two of the greatest performances by women in cinematic history, both films, exploring complex characters, are the best the world of cinema has to offer.
The Artist is Present (And Well Aware of It): The Artist
There are few things I like less than a gimmick. Hence my vehement (former) hatred of 3D, as it was simply used to rake in cash while it was masked as a more immersive experience. Masquerading as something more than it is may be the worst part, for when you take away the veil, the only thing you have left is a lousy and sloppily written story. That’s what gimmicks do; that’s their purpose. The same goes for the short lived reemergence of scratch and sniff cards at the movies (they gave me one all the way back during Rugrats Go Wild), which obviously did not last long. But what happens when a gimmick disguised as a “loving tribute to a bygone era” sweeps audiences and critics off their feet, gallivants on the red carpet at international awards shows, and takes home the Academy Award for Best Picture? Ladies and gentlemen, you have Michel Hazanavicius’ smug load of fluff The Artist!
I consider myself a mild enthusiast of silent film, especially the comedies. I have certainly explored the romantic dramas, such as G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, the seedy horror of expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the experimental, like Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Comedies, however, are my forte. I was enamored of Chaplin and Keaton when I was young and hold them close to my heart in a nostalgic way. So, you would think I would initially be excited that a silent film would take center stage again in world cinema in such a year of highs (The Tree of Life) and lows (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) as 2011. I was indeed very eager. It was nice that a silent film should garner such attention from such a large audience. Though, it took me forever to find out what they were talking about, and the lauds from everyone’s mouths were words blinded by the whimsy and garish light of the grey scale, clearly bedazzling them from the fraud of a film that it is.
The film begins with the premiere of a film, an element that is to begin the trend of wink wink moments directed at the audience. It’s 1927, and the only thing I could think of was, “Is that right? Are those filming techniques right?” George Valentin (Oscar and Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin) is the Douglas Fairbanks Jr.-esque character, successful in every action/adventure/romance/thriller he releases. The landscape of film is static at the moment, but there is to be a shift in the wind soon after. He bumps into a nobody extra named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), who shortly thereafter rises to stardom. Her rise to stardom, however, is marked by two things: 1) talkies have taken over and silent are quickly becoming a thing of the past and 2) this is all at the expense of Valentin’s stardom. Valentin becomes a forgotten piece of film history, and Peppy enjoys newfound fame, with the hint of obligatory guilt. You see, despite their short meeting, they’re in love. What ensues is a series of faux existential crises that manifest themselves if fairly delirious ways, and other fluffy moments.
Yes, I understand perfectly that this is a loving tribute to the silent film era, something that wants to be so authentic that the aspect ratio (1.33:1) is the same as most films between 1927 and 1931, the period that the film takes place in. The film is mostly silent. There are various allusions to other directors and styles (even the use of some music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo). This may supposed to be cute and clever, but it comes off as smarmy and anachronistic. Stylistically, Hazanavicius likes to jump the gun to show off how much he likes silent film and how much he loves to pay homage to it. This, however, makes it so that these seemingly minute details do not fit within the context of the film, making the seemingly minute into something rather important. If you’re going to make a movie like it’s 1927/1931, don’t fill it with pieces of style and content that came after it. Without that gimmick and anachronistic series of elements, there is honestly little to say about the plot. Too little visual storytelling happens, its reliance on the gimmick and on “talking”. It’s flat and tired, and can barely stand up for itself.
What’s worse is that all of this is seems incredibly smarmy and the self-awareness is overwhelming. Every time Dujardin winks at the camera – not so much breaking the fourth wall, but winking at the audience within the film – it feels like he, as well as the director, is winking at us, muttering amongst themselves, “Aren’t we cool, and cute, and amazing for making a silent film in 2011? Isn’t this the best?” This total self-awareness ruins the experience, making the gimmick seem even more glaringly obvious that it already was. Gimmicks are bad enough, but when the people in the film are in on it and smirking all the time, the audience is jarred beyond belief. I found them to be completely smug. I found the entire film to be smug.
What I found to be mildly ironic is that Peppy Miller, during an interview for an upcoming film, condemns silent actors to just mugging for the camera, essentially. There seems to be more mugging on the camera from Dujardin as Valentin than in any silent films I’ve actually seen. From Modern Times to The General, from The Last Laugh to Sherlock Jr., there may have been overacting to a point and some embarrassingly hammy reaction shots, but Dujardin really milks it for the camera. As to whether or not this is to prove Peppy’s point and satirize the issue itself or if this is really Dujardin paying tribute to the silent era. Whichever it is, it’s done neither convincingly nor enjoyably.
It occurred to me last night, while at the 60th Anniversary screening of the great musical classic Singin’ in the Rain (which was amazing, by the way), that The Artist is essentially a very bad loose remake of that film. It tackles the same ideas, the same issues; it has a very similar meet cute, and a somewhat similar conflict and resolution. Both films explore the transition from the silent era to the sound era and how worried studio execs were at how actors would sound on the screen. Granted, while similar in theme and plot to some extent, both films take on different routes. The Artist is far more overt and self-congratulatory about its tribute, while Singin’ in the Rain remains fairly modest, giving far more insight into the studio system than The Artist ever did. Most importantly, though, Singin’ in the Rain explores these themes and ideas with sincerity and real wonder, without the smirk or self-awareness. The Artist, with all its hammy acting, anachronistic stylizations, and thin plot, smirks through the entirety of the film. It ends up being too self-aware and even “meta” for its own good. If probably would have fared better simply as a period piece instead of a full-fledged silent project. If you’re looking for a film that accurately and sincerely looks at the transition from silent to sound sans gimmick, you’re better off Singin’ in the Rain.