The Men Who Weren’t There: The Unreliable Narrator and His Effect on Audience’s Perception of Reality and Truth in Neo-Noir
This essay asks how first person narration in the genre of neo-noir affects the audience’s perception of reality, particularly in the films Memento and American Psycho. In both films, the narrator plays a pivotal role in influencing the structure of the story. With a brief examination of film noir, its aesthetic origins, (the classic cycle beginning with The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941]), and the transition to neo-noir. I then examine the films Memento and American Psycho and briefly justify their place in the neo-noir canon.
Memento’s protagonist has anterograde amnesia, and his inability to create new memories thrusts the film’s structure into a uniquely non-linear format. Writer/director Christopher Nolan employs a technique where the film is told in reverse, while the protagonist attempts to make sense of the world around him, identify himself as a person, and find his wife’s killer, and all the while narrating his own tragic story. American Psycho’s protagonist is a product of his environment, where decadence and greed reign supreme. Unable to withstand the pressures of the yuppie society, his insanity leads him to murder. The protagonist’s self-awareness presents a nihilistic narrator, whose insanity skews every event in the film to an extent where the audience cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy.
The essay then compares the two protagonists, both in their style of narration and their awareness of their flaws. A certain amount of psychoanalysis is applied to examine the two characters. Through analysis of key scenes in each film and quotations from their screenplays, this essay asserts that first person narration in neo-noir is the driving force in how the audience perceives the way the story unravels and that there is a clear manipulation and exploitation of events within it.
“We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are” (Nolan 226). The closing lines of the complex neo-noir film Memento present the thesis of this essay, with our protagonist questioning his own reliability as a narrator. As Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) narrates his own story, we are presented with the elements of first person narration and the audience’s perception of reality. The presentation of first person narration or internal monologue within neo-noir has a drastic effect on this understanding of truth, altering sequences and twisting the audience’s perception of the story to an extent where all is manipulated. It is narration that drives these stories and thus affects the audience’s perception of truth and reality. Combining the elements of traditional film noir and postmodernism, the “problem” of narration in neo-noir adds complexity to a genre which already explores the intricacy of human nature and the nihilism of American popular culture. Narration plays a critical part in the two films that will be examined. With Memento, due to the character’s own memory fallacies, the narration is not only self-aware but provides a map for the audience as to what is occurring within the film. In American Psycho, the narration allows the protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) to reveal his own narcissism. Thus, his perception of events within the film shape the entire story, his method being his madness. Within these scenarios, the audience is at the will of the narrator. However, this is noir, a genre that is a nucleus of anti-heroes and human monsters. Both of these films make the same comment on American nihilism and retain the same themes of classic noir: pessimism, corruption, desire, and, of course, darkness.
What is Film Noir?
The cyclical nature of the debates about film noir’s classification within cinema history and its nature as a style or otherwise is as maddening and perplexing as the noir films themselves. Their inherent cynicism and narrative complexity are what make these films fascinating. The very argument, as simplistic as it seems, is whether noir is a style, genre, or movement. “Film noir [….] is a fabrication” (Bould 2), its very existence an enigmatic odyssey into the bleakness of the American soul. Because much of the debate around noir is whether or not it qualifies as a genre, it is best that genre be defined within a cinematic context. Genre is defined as “semantic approaches that catalogue ‘common traits, attitudes, characters, shots locations, […]’” (Bould 6, Altman 1999:219). Trying to define noir may be futile, as Bould concludes: “Film noir, like the femme fatale, is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always out of reach” (Bould 13). Regardless of what noir actually is, its elements are instantly recognizable.
Coming from the term Série noire, a series of Marcel Duhamel crime novels from 1945, noir was coined to describe these kinds of hardboiled novels in pre-WWII France in “right wing press vs. left wing culture” periodicals (Bould 15). This term would then be used to describe the novels of Dashiell Hammett, used by Nono Frank in 1946. The first film critic to use the term film noir was Jean–Pierre Chartier, labeling Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Lost Weekend (Wilder, 1945)) as film noirs. He described them as “pessimistic, misanthropic US films” that were “driven by a logic of sexual desire that the public simultaneously required them to suppress” (Bould 15).
The genre’s aesthetic roots are in the German Expressionism movement with The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari (Wiene, 1919) (Bould 26) with its tilted angles, oneiric set design and chiaroscuro and its realism taken from the French, from such films as La Bête Humaine (Renoir, 1945), where “poetic realism diffuses such energy […]” (Bould 35). Its sinister stories are taken from the hardboiled crime novels and Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930’s. In essence, aesthetically and stylistically, noir is an amalgam of established genres that revitalized certain elements to wipe off the shiny veneer of truth and sanity in American cinema and culture.
While noir began with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the last film of the noir cycle is Touch of Evil (Welles, 1956). Shock Corridor (Fuller, 1963), would launch the sub-genre of neo-noir. The clearest difference between classic noir and neo-noir is that the latter is completely self-aware and self-reflexive in its nature. However, the classic elements noir have made classifying a film as neo-noir overly simplistic. While there would be more authentic neo-noir films like Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), other films would be too easily defined as neo-noir when they were only distantly related to the genre, like Kill Bill (Tarantino, 2003).
Neo-noir takes the themes established by classic noir and builds upon them, exemplifying post-modernism. In classic noir, there is the protagonist that suffers from the problem of identity. Neo-noir adds a twist, like a temporal memory problem, making the character deeper and, in a way, more representational of the American male in the modern world. With neo-noir, the same American nihilism that was prevalent in classic noir is thrust into the contemporary culture filled with materialism, consumerism, technology, and a post-modern use of the styles that influenced today’s cinema. Neo-noir literally means new blackness, the kind of darkness audiences cannot help but explore.
Memento: Telling the Story Backwards
Christopher Nolan’s Memento revolves around a man in search for his wife’s rapist and murderer. However, when the film begins, it seems that he has already found the perpetrator. The immediate beginning, however, reveals the unique and iconic structure of the film. The protagonist, thus far unnamed, is holding a photograph as it undevelops and fades into bleak whiteness. His environment rolls backwards, as if the film were played in reverse. With this minimal amount of information, the audience begins its journey to truth and the murky state of what is real with the protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce).
The film cuts to Leonard sitting on his bed in a hotel room. Unlike the previous scene, which was in color, this scene is saturated black and white. It is in this scene that the narration begins and Leonard starts to establish himself and, less reliably, identify himself as a person. With noir and neo-noir’s themes of identity, Nolan’s protagonist, it seems, must start from scratch, as he begins, “So, where are you? You’re in some motel room” (Nolan 106). This is not explained, keeping the viewer in the dark as to why Leonard must explain and establish himself with such anonymity. The anonymity of the person is articulated metaphorically when Leonard says, in respect to the room, “It’s just some anonymous room” (Nolan 109). Leonard then begins to explicitly speak of himself: “You know who you are and you know kind of all about yourself” (Nolan 2:37).
This abstruseness in structure and narration makes this film qualify as neo-noir. The film’s protagonist, Leonard Shelby, suffers from a condition where he is unable to make new memories called anterograde amnesia, this having been caused by the same assailants guilty of his wife’s murder. There are now two factors that skew the way the story unfolds, as told subjectively from Leonard’s perspective: first, the story is subjectively told from Leonard’s point of view, and second, he has the “condition” he refers to innumerable times. However, Nolan utilizes another element: Memento is told in reverse. Memento is iconic for its unique non-linear narrative, in that all of the color sequences are edited in reverse with the black and white sequences working as interstitials. Similarly from Leonard’s perspective, the black and white sequences are seen in a linear format. With these three obstacles, astute attention paid to the film is paramount.
While a subjective and non-linear/linear narrative is uncommon, the viewer is not distanced from Leonard at all. Leonard’s narration makes the film a personal diary for himself. The narration brings in the audience closer to the character and the film, making it so that his journey to self-identification and exploration into his wife’s murder is just as much our passage.
The narration is not always present, but is included in key moments. For a while it is included primarily in the black and white scenes, but once Leonard begins speaking on the phone with someone shrouded in anonymity, that conversation narrates his background for us, explaining who Sammy Jenkis is. Thus, the narration switches to that of the uncertain temporality and is called into action when an instinct berates Leonard’s consciousness during the color sequences. When he reads the back of a Polaroid photograph (which acts as a clue) it is as if he is reading this evidence to himself. The film’s climax is technically its beginning, and just before Leonard kills the man he thinks killed his wife, he tries to make sure he is right by reading the back of the polaroid of the man is he is about to kill: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him” (Nolan 107). The cold tonality of those words reflects the complete conviction of Leonard, who does not always understand he cannot trust himself. Nor can he trust anyone else, including the film’s femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), who uses Leonard for her own bidding. He cannot remember, even when she is perfectly explicit about her intentions. He cannot trust anyone, not even himself.
The film’s real climax is where it is revealed that Leonard has already avenged his wife’s death, and that Teddy, the most suspicious man in the film, is actually a cop. Narration plays a critical role in this climax. Teddy tells Leonard his entire history, that Sammy Jenkis never existed, that his wife’s assailants were caught, and that he has been going around town killing other people because Teddy is a corrupt cop who pitied him, and decided, with Leonard’s condition, he could make some money on it. Leonard is shocked, and in his madness, writes on the photograph of the man who just told him the truth: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him”. He slumps into denial, and Leonard performs his monologue:
“I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. But do I? Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?! Yes. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” (Nolan 225-226).
This monologue is critical, as it explores the ideas of identity and its main purpose in the film noir genre. It taps into the existential layers of the genre, deconstructing the American antihero in a species of film which is known for its crimes and misdemeanors. The film’s philosophical aspect relates to Locke’s Problem of Identity, or whether memories actively create a person (Smith 2007, 35-44). Because Leonard is only left with the memory of his wife, he has transformed into a monster. Every time he closes his eyes, it will be as if he has to wake up from something else, with no memory of what just occurred. Leonard, as much as he knows that “we all need mirrors”, has no mirror he can use.
The way the film unfurls, the story’s structure is reliant on Leonard. Though the narration may flow in and out, the audience is always at his bidding. Nolan compared the narrative structure to a “Mobius strip”, the impossible shape that twists and turns in a serpentine way, with no discernible beginning (Spicer 2007, 59). Like the Mobius strip, Leonard cannot discern his own beginning; only what he thinks is his inception. His narration, personable\ and worthy of empathy, seems to be completely responsible for the audience’s trust in him. Even at the genesis of the film, while he is narrating a montage of his routine, he says, “You kinda have to learn to trust your own handwriting” (Nolan 110). He says this as a way to establish a system, some sort of semblance of sanity. But he cannot. He cannot even trust his own handwriting.
American Psycho: Vanity and Insanity
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the equally divisive American Psycho does not immediately strike one as neo-noir. It is less of a noir pastiche compared to Nolan’s Memento, but the film is able to attain a certain naturalistic feeling of film noir without the distracting self-awareness. American Psycho is deadly satirical of the yuppie consumerist culture of the 1980s. Instead of the Red Scare being the source of social anxiety, it is rather failure and alienation in yuppie culture. The social anxiety is less of a political motivation, but the motivation of a generation to be greedy, vain, and self-indulgent. This consumerist point of view is stressed throughout the film, and mirrors the American nihilism and apathy the same way that classic noir did, but with the appropriation of materialism. Its dark, cunning protagonist would make this film classified as “criminal noir”.
Patrick Bateman is a man who, underneath the layers of “Valentino Couture”, “water-activated gel cleanser” and “exfoliating gel scrub” is no human being (Harron/Turner 8). He is a mad man, one whose insanity drives the entire film and its plot. His internal monologue shares his apathetic and vain personality, revealing the paltry depth of his humanity.
A product of the 1980’s culture, Patrick Bateman is fully aware of his “flaws”. He fully admits that he may or may not be sane. Over a montage of his daily routine, focused on physical beauty, he says, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping you […] I simply am not there” (Harron/Turner 8). With this in mind, the film progresses, with Bateman intermittently commenting on his life, like a stream of consciousness.
The method of introduction, sentient of his insanity, obtrudes the viewer into a world where there is no strict dichotomy of reality and fantasy. The viewer thus shares the inability to discern reality with Bateman. Only in a few moments is there a hint of some boundary between reality and fantasy that is demonstrated to the audience. While at a night club, Bateman tries to pay for a drink with a ticket, but the bartender says that they are not valid anymore and asks him to pay the price for his beverage. When she turns away, Bateman, talking to her but facing a mirror, he says, “You are a fucking ugly bitch, I want to stab you to death and then play around with your blood” (Harron/Turner 8). She does not notice this and it is as if the disclosure had never happened. However, in terms of definite contrasts into Bateman’s ability to perceive reality, this is the only pronounced indication that the audience is given until the end of the film.
The comments that Bateman makes about his coworkers and life are the same kind of mundane and pedestrian remarks others make. From being deathly envious of a coworker and his ability to get reservations at an expensive restaurant to his irritation at his betrothed’s insistence on getting married, Bateman’s internal monologue epitomizes the subjectivity of narrative storytelling. Everything he says is from his perspective and influences the way the audience perceives the world around him.
Bateman, though, seems to show some vulnerability in the film, which suggests a social commentary relevant to the era. Already driven by madness, the pressures of society seem to drive him insane. When asked by his fiancée why he cannot simply quit his job, he answers honestly, not only for himself, but for everyone around him: “I… want… to… fit… in” (Harron/Turner 13). His vain mentality is explained by the culture that surrounds him, in that the standards and expectations are unattainable without extreme stress.
American Psycho is not a proto-typical neo-noir, and seems more characteristic of horror, with its sadistic violence and generous amount of gore. However, the film’s inherent pessimism, satirical cynicism towards yuppie culture, and fatalism for its protagonist makes it a veritable qualifier for the sub-genre. After murdering Paul Allen, Bateman goes to his apartment to create his alibi. The narration in the scene begins like the archetypal criminal in classic noir. However, it regresses to Bateman’s typically narcissistic thought process. He says, “When I get to Paul Allen’s place, I use the keys I took from his pocket before the disposing of the body. There is a moment of sheer panic when I realize that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park and it’s obviously more expensive than mine” (Harron/Turner 30:14). Bateman is so blinded by greed that he can barely keep his focus on the murder. His purblind attitude towards everything is essential to understanding the plot of the entire film.
Patrick Bateman has not killed anyone. He has not even killed Paul Allen. It was all in his imagination. That does not mean he is sane. He manifests his blood lust in books with drawings of the murders he thinks he has committed. His sanguineous fantasies are just as much as ours as they are his. His blood lust is an addiction one that layers itself so that Bateman’s world is then deemed incomprehensible.
The morbidity of the film is one defined by the world that the protagonist lives in, an amalgamation of fear, desire, lust, and greed. Bateman’s awareness of his mental state is clear from his formal introduction, making his apathy for it all the more terrifying. Even if the film works as a confession, he admits “[…] there is no catharsis” (Harron/Turner 94). His entire perspective is non-compos mentis, poisoned to where he is unable to discern between reality and fantasy. This juxtaposition of self-awareness and lack of awareness of one’s environment deliberately misleads the audience’s understanding of what is happening. Bateman’s character is illustrated with complexity; his madness is imbued with every frame of the film. After all the events of the film, even he admits, “I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…” (Harron/Turner 94). Everything that has happened has only opened a door into his mind, even though, it really has not happened at all.
Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman: Two Narrators, Two Problems
Memento and American Psycho explore the noir-esque element of first person narration and its unreliability and effect on audience perception of truth. The methods of narration that Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman employ are similar, yet different. While both films are considered examples of neo-noir, they do not utilize narration the way that classic noir did. Generally, classic noir featured a narrator who told his story with narration and flashback, as the narrator himself tried to make sense of the events to make a coherent story. However, both Leonard and Bateman’s narration is more in the style of stream-of-consciousness, narrating what is occurring to them at that moment, as opposed to what has happened in the past. (Hollinger 1996, 243). Classic noir “[…] most often contain weak, powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the vents of their lives to their own design” (Hollinger 1996, 243-44).
Both narrators continue the tradition in that they are unreliable, but the difference between Leonard and Patrick is in the why. Leonard is a man who cannot trust himself because of his inability to do so. His ability to lie to himself and change the progression of the story is increased by his mental condition. Patrick Bateman, however, is just insane. He has the full mental capacity to tell the truth to himself, but refuses to, because he is completely blinded by the yuppie culture he thrives in. His insanity is not only a product of his own perversions, but also of the culture. At times, the consequence is that Bateman at times can be honest and objective about certain scenes, where Leonard is living a lie to the extent where it completely affects the entire film. Despite his temporal limitations, Leonard remains just as guilty as Bateman, as the self-delusion he creates is an act of deliberation rather than an accident of his condition. This aspect is where the two characters relate to one another in an unusual way; both are able to lie to themselves and to continue to live their lives, where they have no qualms with their actions.
However, both men make the choices to lie to themselves, and thus remain unreliable narrators. Leonard asks himself, “Do I lie to keep myself happy?” (Nolan 224) This is a true statement for both Leonard and Bateman, but the latter does it deliberately in a sociopathic way. Leonard’s motivations are for solace and personal fulfillment. Memento is an example of a “neo-noirish revenge film” (Schmidt 13), where its main narrative purpose is for the protagonist to seek revenge. American Psycho is what one could consider a “criminal noir film”, where its protagonist is less of an antihero and more deliberately a villain. The film’s main goal seems to seek the opposite of redemption, and acts as a seduction of the viewer to the dark side. With narration, this allows Bateman to almost personally entice and seduce the viewer. The styles and uses of narration intensify the film, making each moment seem more personal and intimate. Whereas American Psycho deals with the identity of a generation, Memento deals with the identity of one man. This affects the viewer’s empathy for the character, in both positive and negative ways, and sends the narrative structure, and viewer’s ability to perceive reality, careening off the edge of conventionality to a point of no return.
The medium of film has always been able to reflect social atmosphere through characters and stories, film noir and neo-noir often acting exemplary models. The genres reflect the seedy darkness of American humanity. However, what make noir and neo-noir unique is the ambiguity that illustrates the classic archetypes: the antihero, femme fatale, and villain. Often, no character is the de facto good guy. As classic noir transitioned to neo-noir, the ambiguity was intensified with more graphic depictions of the sinister stratum of fear and loathing in the United States. The films Memento and American Psycho continue the neo-noir aesthetic and utilize voiceover to critically affect the narrative structure. The films exploit the subjectivity of the narrator with the interpretation of events. With Memento, the film’s protagonist is unable to create new memories, thrusting the viewer into a spiral as the film is told in reverse. This narrator is unlike any other, one who cannot even trust himself. In American Psycho, a film satirizing yuppie culture, Patrick Bateman views the world in a deathly nihilistic lens. His narration is able to portray his abilities to see the world in both an objective way, in observing his culture, as well as one blinded by madness and consumerism, the culture he so astutely observes. Narration is the driving force of both films, shaping the audience’s perception so that each film is understood as entirely subjective from the protagonist’s point of view, thus shaping the audience’s perception of reality. There seems to be no clear dichotomy between fantasy and reality, especially when both narrative styles seem to be a stream of consciousness. What is critical to both of these films is the audience’s ability to separate reality from fiction. Narration adds a very personal element to the films, in that the audience can never truly distance themselves from the characters. Thus, trusting the protagonist is vital, but proves almost foolhardy by the end.
While one character may inspire empathy, the other inspires repulsion. Yet both of these characters, holding the audience at their mercy, reflect the nihilistic American soul, presenting an unsatisfied and disturbed persona of a post-WWII people, all executed with a sinister framework.. In neo-noir, there is no light; there is only darkness.
American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. LionsGate, 2000. Blu-ray.
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If you haven’t checked out the website Movie Mezzanine, you should. Great website with smart writing and wonderful articles. Today, they released a column with several critics listing their top 10 films of the 2000s, so, naturally, I wanted to jump on the band wagon. This time, I didn’t cheat. So, enjoy, and let me know what you think. I’d write my reasons behind each choice, but a) I’ve done it all for each film in the past (with the exception of, like, two films) and b) I’m super lazy.
- Dogville (2004) | Directed by Lars von Trier
- Mulholland Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
- There Will Be Blood (2007) | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
- Memento (2000) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
- In the Mood for Love (2000) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) | Directed by Michel Gondry
- 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days (2007) | Directed by Cristian Mungiu
- Requiem for a Dream (2000) | Directed by Darren Aronofsky
- Pan’s Labyrinth (2007) | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
- The White Ribbon (2009) | Directed by Michael Haneke
Honorable Mention: King Kong (2005) | Directed by Peter Jackson
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.
I guess I might as well be honest while I am here: I miss indie-minded Christopher Nolan. I miss that stylized simplicity of Following, the complexity of simplicity of The Prestige, the non-linear emotional/cerebral rollercoaster of Memento, and the guilt laden suspense of Insomnia. That is not to say I don’t like his Batman films; in fact, I love them. All that independent, creative, and mind bending sensibility is definitely imbued in his Batman trilogy (to some extent, with a sledgehammer), but you can tell that both he, as well as some of his audience, cannot wait until he makes another small, non-humongous budgeted film. It is his desire to give his stories and characters layers that makes his Batman films so interesting. The fear and desire in Batman Begins and the internal conflict of vigilantism in The Dark Knight (with other political subtext, of course) are what make the films so compelling. Nolan’s grand finale to his Bat-Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is no different in its intentions, but, as I said, you can tell he’s ready to revisit his roots. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is incredible, but, perhaps to the fault of high expectations that could never be met, I left the theater a little let down.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, the third film in the trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne having turned into a rich recluse, the kind that the public would be quick to make a snark allusion to Howard Hughes. However, he comes out of hiding when Gotham City faces a new threat in the form of the hulking monster that is Bane. Bane is ready to destroy the entire city, blowing it to smithereens. And while there are plenty of explosive action sequences, the focus here, as usual, is on the story and the characters. Sort of.
While Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both handled large action scenes and even larger, more powerful scenes of drama and suspense, The Dark Knight Rises seems to have trouble reconciling the two. You either get scenes of great emotion and contemplation followed by a somewhat lackluster action sequence, or you get something rather trite and heavy handed followed by “action poetry”. Is it the running time or is it something else? It takes a while for the film to focus properly, balancing the two perfectly, allowing both drama and action to occur very closely together and balance well. But the film seems hesitant to make up its mind about not what to focus on but how to do it. You have a stunning prologue in a similar fashion to The Dark Knight’s Kubrick inspired first six minutes, and then for the next half hour, it seems, it’s all Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred discussing how much Gotham, and Wayne himself, needs “the Batman”.
While the trouble in focus is a problem, the presence of the weighty internal conflict is welcome. As heavy handed as it may be, the fact that it is there at all and the fact that Nolan gives us a protagonist, an iconic one at that, whom we can explore psychoanalytically is one of the blessings of the trilogy’s existence. If anything, it’s the realism and the psychoanalytic approach that make the films (greatly aided by Bale’s awesome performance), not the huge set pieces. Michael Caine also does quite well as the loyal and conflicted Alfred, trying desperately to motivate Bruce Wayne to do the right thing, which does not always necessarily mean become the Batman. Here, it’s all about the battle between hope and lost faith. But, what Bale does here, once again, is show that Batman is human and that every facet of desire and motivation is real. Bale’s realism and humanity in playing the character is stunning and one of the best things about this film in particular.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we are introduced to a new villain: Bane, a character who, in the past, was a steroid pumped demon, usually working under or with another villain. Here, embodied by Tom Hardy, he is like Bronson on steroids. Er, well, more steroids. The point being, he is more human than he has been in other iterations, yet still monstrous. As far symbolic representations go, you can draw comparisons between the maniacal and chaotic Joker and driven and deliberate Bane. The Joker likes to create chaos for the sake of chaos, both as a means of pure joy and pleasure as well as a way to turn Gotham’s finest into Gotham’s most twisted and evil. He is real world terrorism without motivation that the public can understand. The destruction he creates is as enigmatic and flamboyant as he is. Bane, however, has a very specific goal. His objective is socially oriented (which may or may not recall strains of the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement), so that he can bring Gotham down from within. He is the terrorism with a driven ideology, and one for all to hear. However, as good as Tom Hardy is, simply because Heath Ledgers performance has been forever embedded into our minds, his villain is not as good. Maybe because Bane has a definite objective, he seems less interesting than a villain without reason. Maybe mystery is sometimes the best thing for a villain. Regardless, even if he is not the best, Hardy plays him to the hilt, and the deep, electronically manipulated voice is effective once you get used to it.
The police have a larger role in the film, with two characters taking the leads: Commissioner Gordon, riddled with guilt about Batman’s exile from society, and newbie John Blake, a dedicated cop with a broken past. It really is nice to see Gary Oldman have a larger role here. Much the same way that Jude Law has done with Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Gary Oldman brings intelligence and pathos to a character for whom layers did not exist in the films prior to Nolan’s. Oldman is skilled and plays Gordon fantastically. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was in Inception, plays Blake with sensitivity and intelligence, though his character is often relegated to acting like a junior detective. However, once his character begins to take control, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is all the better and more interesting. He is able to side step some of the cheesiness that seems to be inherent in the script regarding his character’s past, but not so much that the audience would not be able to identify with him. In short, both actors do extremely well.
The women of Nolan’s Batman trilogy have faltered, mostly because there has only been one, and she did not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. The women of Batman’s world never really have, with few exceptions. Selina Kyle, however, is one of those exceptions. Played with verve, class, wit, and sex appeal by Anne Hathaway, Catwoman manages to be a rather compelling character in this finale. Given no real origin story, only alluded to as someone trying escape her past with a clean slate, the mystery surrounding he character, and the vulnerability that Hathaway is able to portray (without being too sappy or cliché) makes Catwoman even sexier. Her new suit is sleek, yet simple and minimal, as opposed to the dominatrix outfit Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns. Once again, the tension between Batman and Catwoman is palpable. You could cut the sexual tension with a bat ranger. Anne Hathaway surprised me because, as much as I adore her, I was honestly not sure if she would be able to pull off playing Catwoman. She did pull it off, and very well. Marion Cotillard, who worked with Nolan on Inception, joins the cast as well, also vying for Bruce Wayne’s heart. Cotillard does fine, if not spectacularly. She’s enticing, but her character, Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist, does not seem to be the kind of man that Bruce Wayne would legitimately fall for. She does not seem to fit with Wayne. Sure, she “stands” for something, but she never gives the impression that she would go out and do whatever it took to do what needs to be done, in the way that Rachel Dawes did, especially the way Maggie Gyllenhaal played her in The Dark Knight. For there to be a convincing love interest, he or she must be other’s equal, and Tate is not, even if the woman who plays her is one of the finest actresses around.
One of the film’s biggest flaws, aside its slightly plodding story and pace, is its setting. In the previous films, Gotham City, no matter how much it may have resembled Chicago or New York, always had a sense of anonymity about it. Gotham is supposed to be Any Metropolis, USA. Here, we are given New York City, plain and obvious. From sightings of specific bridges (Brooklyn, for instance) to Saks Fifth Avenue, the anonymity disappears from the setting and, in those moments, the films steps out of the limbo between Batman’s universe and reality and just sits in reality. It is extremely jarring to see locations that are supposed to exist generically and realize that not only do you recognize them, that you have probably been there. Here, Nolan’s focus again seems unbalanced. With the inclusion of a new, fun vehicle called the Bat, we are once again ripped form one realm and shoved into another. The Bat is like the Tumbler, but it flies. This, to me, seems silly. It reminded me of the invisible Aston Martin V12 Vanquish from the James Bond film Die Another Day, and they both don’t work for the same reason: for characters that are so rooted in reality (for their respective interpretations and approaches), the use of such a gadget seems counterintuitive. Obviously, things in the film would never happen, but even the carnage and destruction that goes on feels real because that is how Nolan has approached the films. All of a sudden adding what is essentially a flying Batmobile is a strange move. Here, in both cases, the biggest problem of the film is demonstrated, in that it does not know when to be real, when to be fantastical, or when to balance the two.
The Batman films have molded and conformed thematically to whatever the contemporary social and political atmosphere is. Here, we plainly see strains of various recent social movements, and again, it is the focus that trips up the pacing and the story. Nolan handles the socio-political material better than anyone else would have, but as clear as the extremism is in the film, it sometimes gets caught up in itself. Strains of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement stand out the most, with dialogue form characters that read out the conceits as obviously as the final speech in The Dark Knight. As soon as the lesson in political science is put on the back burner, but still present yet subtle, the representations that the characters become and their motivations stand for seem smoother and more easily digestible than some of the ham fisted and overt ideas.
The action, though, seems of a different flavor that one is used to. It still remains fairly coherent in its editing and execution style, but you get the sense that, once again, there’s difficulty in reconciling the action epic of Michael Bay proportions and the thrilling, almost poetic action to counterpose the emotional weight of the story. The final forty-five minutes, however, are very satisfying to watch on the big screen. Especially, in IMAX.
The film also seems to be more stylistically different than those from the rest of the series, but its ties to the universe make it so that the film would not be able to stand on its own very well. That is not inherently bad, but while the other two films can be their own entity, it is harder to compartmentalize and separate The Dark Knight Rises from its counterparts. The film, though, does nice tie some things together, and it ends up being a fairly satisfying ending.
As “disappointed” as I was, I will still contend to the fact that it is a pretty splendid film. Maybe it isn’t the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be, but with the sky high expectations, can you blame it? While the film is flawed in several ways, it is a pretty incredible and fantastic way to end a superb film trilogy. Though the film has trouble with its pacing and its ability to focus, its strengths in acting and pieces of its storytelling outweigh its weaknesses. Similarly, in the film, the light is able to makes its way through the darkness in Gotham, if barely.