NBC’s Hannibal is not your average mystery show or procedural. It’s not even your average television show. It is cinematic in the best ways possible, aesthetically, narratively, and its primary characters are novelistic in how well they are written. What sets Hannibal apart from shows like Law & Order, CSI:, and NCIS is not necessarily its high production value, but how it’s never about the killer and always about the killer in any given episode. The show is as much as representation and visual metaphor for who Dr. Hannibal Lecter is as a character as anything: it plays mind games with you. And it may be the best show that NBC has aired in years.
Developed by Pushing Daisies helmer Bryan Fuller (which is, for the record, one of my favorite shows of all time), Hannibal works as a partial prequel to Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. Though inherent to the television format, the show is episodic; it still sprawls like a good book, or even better, a great film. But, the characters and stories in this show are not married to either Harris’ source material or to Michael Mann’s film adaptation Manhunter, or even to Jonathan Demme’s seminal thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Sort of like the rebirth of a comic book hero or a character of a big budget franchise being rebooted: this is a new and fresh interpretation that at once utilizes its source material for inspiration yet diverges from it to give the story, and the characters that inhabit it, new life. So, Fuller smartly uses things only mentioned in passing in Red Dragon as some of the focal points for each episode, such as some of the killers his good guy, Will Graham, must track down. Yet he changes the sexes of some of the characters, making tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds and psychiatry professor Dr. Bloom women. Does this change matter? Yes and no. Yes in that these characters are well written, insightful, intelligent, etc. No, in that the change does not inherently affect how good the characters are. Every divergence that Fuller makes, however, enhances the story. It makes one wonder, however, that since the series is working in chronological order, prior to the events of Red Dragon mind you, if it should actually follow the story to a point where the show will become a serial adaptation of the novel.
The most striking thing about the show, though, at least what immediately springs to mind is how it looks. It might be the best looking show on television, at least on one of the major networks. The cinematography is atypical for a television series, even a good television series. Its precise use of colors, texture, slow motion, etc. is more reminiscent of two things: a show you would find on pay cable, like HBO or Showtime, or of a very specific kind of genre show (but a good one), like the teen-noir Veronica Mars. In some ways, the visual aesthetic of Hannibal is marriage of the mind of both Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter: sinister but exact in its filming, as Will would have it, and artfully, psychologically executed as only Lecter would have it. I say psychologically because so much of what is on screen recalls myths, literature, opera, film, yet connected into the dark interiors of the mind and subtext of such elements. Its visual style could be compared to the gorgeousness of the films of Park Chan-wook: Bergman-esque in its ties to psychology and morality, but painted so expertly on film.
But so much of what makes the show interesting not how gorgeous it is, but how set it is on seeping into your mind long after the episode has ended. Hannibal is, in this way, the perfect representation of its character, Hannibal Lecter. It wants to play the same mind games with you that make Dr. Lecter such an enticing character to begin with. It creeps into the psyches of all of its characters, peering into the nooks and crannies of the mind. Hannibal is less concerned with catching the killer the way a normal procedural show would and more concerned in analyzing and deconstructing what makes that episode’s killer tick. It is also supremely invested in understanding how its two characters, who will, if the chronology continues, begin a cat and mouse game, and how their minds work.
For Will, this is done explicitly. By introducing Hugh Dancy’s character immediately as “on the Autism spectrum” and closer to “Asperger’s”, the audience is given some sort of identifier. But when the cinematography and the scene itself jump into exactly what Will is thinking – that’s when the show gets interesting. Although the weakest aspect of the show is probably its dialogue (which sometimes tries too hard to be either meaningful and/or eerie), the phrase “this is my design” does work strongly within context. Graham is characterized not stereotypically via lack of social cues, a la The Big Bang Theory, but by genuine empathy, which is executed by the “design scenes”. To visualize exactly what is in Will’s mind is an interesting tactic to get the audience to empathize with will. His empathy manifests itself in the recreation of the crime, but not as a third party observer, but as the killer themselves. With the swinging, swooshing of a clock or metronome hand, each of these Design scenes has a particular tempo which they follow. It’s all precisely executed and shown, again, showing exactly how matched Graham and Lecter are together. Dancy portrays Graham with achingly powerful subtlety, never overplaying his hand either in the drama department or in the tortured soul department. Look deep into the character’s past in the novels and Graham is a damaged person, but while this damage is retained for the show, there’s less exposition and not the same back story. Instead, the show is the opportunity to explore Will’s mind.
The character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter has been written about and analyzed, certainly, and enough is known about the character where it seems that reinventing him would be fruitless. What else is there to know or care about him? On the contrary, Lecter’s complexities as a sociopath cum psychiatrist offer all the analysis one could ever want. The issue is, anyone playing him who is not Anthony Hopkins, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1991 for his portrayal of Lecter in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, will unfairly draw comparison between the new comer and iconic performance. Hopkins went on to play Lecter again in 2001’s Hannibal (directed by Ridley Scott) and again in 2002 in the prequel Red Dragon. Gaspard Ulliel will probably never be remembered for playing the brooding ninja in Hannibal Rising (you know, since no one ever remember that film exists), and Brian Cox, though giving a fine performance in Mann’s Manhunter, will be left in the dust behind Hopkins. It is Hopkins’ flamboyancy that has defined the character, a man who is unquestionably the smartest man in the room, even when he isn’t in the room. Always steps ahead of everyone else (except, perhaps, Will Graham prior to Red Dragon), but his persona has always made him the least likely suspect, even if has committed the crime. Who would ever think that someone who has a photographic memory and a penchant for sketching, a fine taste for French cuisine, all the knowledge of art, classical music, and personality disorders anyone could possess – who would ever think that that man was a sociopath, never mind a cannibal and murderer?
It’s the ability to capture the audience’s attention in the most exotic way that makes Lecter so appealing. At some points, even though you know Lecter is probably pure evil manifested as hyper-intelligent, you don’t care. You would love to have a conversation with him. That is how Hopkins portrayed Lecter for three films. Cox’s performance is significant more restrained, almost in a “barely there” quality to those who have been exposed to Hopkins before, but he taunts William Peterson’s Will more overtly and more like a bully than we would have assumed Lecter would, based on Hopkins’ performance. So, who, in this whole wide world, could possibly play Hannibal Lecter and leave us with an impression that does not include the phrase, “well, he’s not as good as Hopkins, but…”? Mads Mikkelsen.
The Cannes Best Actor winner for Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is best known for portraying Bond’s first nemesis in the 2006 reboot Casino Royale. His Le Chiffre was the much needed character that could outsmart Bond while leading the secret agent on into thing that Bond knows best. After years of the same formula, Mikkelsen’s confident portrayal was exactly what the series needed, and the perfect foil to Craig’s cocky, born-again Bond. He was also in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising as a nameless one eyed destroyer and in Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding as a man returning to the home he grew up. So, this man has had a rather varied and prestigious career, better known to critics for his strong portrayals in his native Denmark than for anything really American. But Mikkelsen’s versatility and ability to channel all the right characteristics without ever really bringing Hopkins to mind, well, that’s the sign of a great actor.
Mikkelsen, as evidence by Casino Royale, is good at mind games. And since the show is so reliant on playing those kinds of games with its audience, it is thus important that they acquire an actor that can do the same thing. Mikkelsen is thus able to seem sophisticated, intelligent, and completely confident. Rather, he embodies those qualities that Lecter is known for. The winning trait of Mikkelsen’s performance, though, is the fact that he always looks like he’s sizing you up for multiple purposes: competence, intelligence, and how tasty you’ll be when he serves you as the main entrée. Mikkelsen’s ability to get under the audience’s skin is perhaps the strongest quality of the performance, but it is accentuated by the fact that he’s able to perform this without being compared to the way Hopkins did it. Mikkelsen’s brand of psychosis is not Hopkins. He has been able to make Lecter his own. So, while the advantage to his performance is that there’s no comparison to other Lecters, to one issue is that, at times, Le Chiffre comes to mind. That is, primarily, because of the recognizable accent and, sometimes, the fact that both were known for their mind games. But Mikkelsen’s performance is bravura I just almost wrote “Lecter” instead of “Mikkelsen” at the beginning of the sentence. He has truly made the character fresh again and delicious to watch on television.
So much of the show, though, is focused on the minds of Will and Hannibal, so much so that you can sometimes not tell whose mind the show is investigating. Sometimes, it’s both at once. But that’s what makes the show unique: rare are the shows that care less about “solving the mystery” and more about deconstructing the psychosis and the motive. This method of storytelling, where sometimes the killer doesn’t even “matter” in the conventional sense, makes the series far more interesting than it may have played out normally. Instead, it sprawls cinematically, more like a mini-series on HBO than a regular television show (violence and all). Added by the inherent chronology that the show is following and the canon it is rewriting, watching each week is not like watching an episode of a television series; it feels more like seeing another chapter of the story unfold, filled with atmosphere, dramatic irony, and deadpan humor.
Each episode of Hannibal is named after a course in French cuisine. And so, it follows, each episode becomes tastier and more succulent to watch. With standout performances from the cast and incredibly smart writing, Hannibal is one of the most pleasing things on television. But it’s Mikkelsen’s superb performance, its high production values, and mind games that make the show worth a watch. How often does a show taunt you and get leave you stunned long after the show is over? It leaves a taste in your mouth that’s at once piquant and yet unsettling. It’s the most tempting thing on television today.
Please, NBC, pick it up for another season.
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.