Stranger Than Fiction

Watch and See – My Top 101 Favorite Films: Part 5

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And a big thank you for joining me in the final installment in what is undoubtedly the most arduous post I’ve ever written. Hope you enjoyed!

Thanks for bearing with me on this trip down my personal memory lane and through my favorite films of all time. For the final installment, you’ll encounter: silence, sin, singing, greed, comedy with a hint of nihilism, a Mark Twain quote and comedy and tragedy, a shave, loneliness, an exposé, post-Cold War allegories about reunification of Europe, oil, jealousy, cosmos, commentary on reality TV and horror’s impact on society, 191 screenplay pages in a brusque 92 minutes, men and women being friends (or not), more neo-noir, adolescent adults, and a couple song and dance numbers, including “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. And now, drum roll please….

81.          The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Directed by Jonathan Demme

Arguably the greatest thriller ever made, Jonathan Demme’s part procedural, part look into the mind of a monster contains some of the greatest performances in the last three decades. The confidence exuded from Jodie Foster makes her newbie FBI agent Clarice Starling convincing and real. Anthony Hopkins’ performance as the sociopathic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, meanwhile, is simply unforgettable. Demme’s is a film that somehow taunts the audience. Lecter looks into the soul of the audience and asks, “Have the lambs stopped screaming?” For us, Demme’s film has left such an enduring legacy who knows when we’ll finally hear the silence of the lambs.

82.          Sin City (2004) | Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

Sin City is probably the best adaptation of a comic book we’ll ever get. Visually inspired by the series as well as taking its own cues, it’s a style that drips with the same nihilism as the original series. Rodriguez adds his own spin to things, but he remains faithful. It’s harsh black and white recalls film noir, but the splashes of color make the film thrilling, even disturbing at times. It’s a garish and artificial environment, a sadistic tribute to film noir.

83.          Singin’ in the Rain* (1952) | Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen

I recently got to see Singin’ in the Rain in theaters and on the big screen, and it reminded me of how much I adore this film. It was my first time viewing the big, colorful sets, the outrageous and incredible musical numbers, and the impeccable choreography projected on the big screen. Seeing it again made me realize it is truly amongst the greatest musicals ever made for the screen. The film utilizes a specific element, even gimmick, to perfectly portray a changing time in film. Silent films are becoming a thing of the past, and when people began to experiment with sound, they wanted to do musical revues. Taking some of those same songs from the time make the effort utterly fantastic.  It’s a gimmick that works specifically in its favor. The musical numbers are, of course, unforgettable; from the hilarious Donald O’Connor doing “Make ‘Em Laugh” to the iconic rain drenched title song, there’s never a sour note in Singin’ in the Rain. And, oh, what a glorious feeling!

84.          The Social Network (2010) | Directed by David Fincher

Every time someone calls The Social Network the “Facebook Movie”, I have a strong desire to… poke them, really hard. With an ingenious script from Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher takes what could easily be a boring, childishly soapy topic and makes it memorable. The film is so character and dialogue driven, you can track the development of every character merely by their lines. Although Fincher’s direction is clearly there, he takes a back seat, utilizing restrained, understated techniques and letting his characters tell the story. I don’t think I’ve ever been as upset as when The Social Network did not win Best Picture at the Academy Awards when it was nominated a few years ago. Kudos to Jesse Eisenberg for portraying an egghead douchebag who may or may not have stolen an idea and making him relatively sympathetic as a character. Though, my favorite part is at the beginning, when Rooney Mara breaks up with Eisenberg. “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster.” Priceless. Well, more like it’s worth a billion. And that is indeed cool.

85.          Some Like it Hot/The Apartment (1959/1960) | Directed by Billy Wilder

Although Wilder may have been better known for some of his darker, fairly nihilistic films like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, both Some Like It Hot and The Apartment are his human masterpieces. Even though it took several years for Andrew Sarris to finally admit that Wilder qualified as an auteur, Wilder’s humanistic characterizations of the people in his films are all present in both of these films. Some Like it Hot is the most overtly hilarious, with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag and a delicious Marilyn Monroe with a ridiculous name. And while the jokes come fast and furious, the sense of foreboding is still there, while gangster chase after the two male leads. Meanwhile, Wilder examines loneliness and adultery in The Apartment, where Lemmon returns and plays a solitary sap that lets out his apartment for his philandering colleagues and bosses at work. Although it can be incredibly romantic, Wilder’s trademark nihilism is always there, more prominent in The Apartment than in Some Like It Hot. Regardless of the darkness of these films, both are masterpieces of pathos, comedy, and tragedy. But, hey, nobody’s perfect.

 

86.          Star Wars* (1977) | Directed by George Lucas

After Jaws, Star Wars paved the way for the epic blockbuster movie. I guess, despite my loyalty to the series, Star Wars is to blame for the impulsive, mindless adrenaline fests that are so often produced today, over films with thought and integrity. It may be a little ironic, because as big budget as Star Wars may seem, Lucas imbues his film with the same kind of mythmaking and psychology found in Joseph Campbell’s  study of mythology and the hero called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Lucas also alludes to one of his favorite directors, Akira Kurosawa. The epic space opera still retains the same thrill and excitement it gave back when it was released in 1977, and has left an enormous impact on my life.

87.          Stranger Than Fiction* (2006) | Directed by Marc Forster

It took me three years to formulate a coherent essay on Stranger Than Fiction, because there was so much I wanted to say about it and, unlike me, I was not able to fully articulate my feelings. Had I been reductive, it would have amounted to “All the feels!” The story of a man who happens to be in a story offers itself to philosophical discourse, but just as much as that; the film explores the creative process. This is thanks to Zach Helm’s absolutely brilliant screenplay (which I on my bedside table). I commend Will Ferrell for his lucid, raw performance. Yes, people, the man can do drama, and damn well. But, hey, the entire cast is outstanding. Emma Thompson’s struggling writer, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s one of a kind anarchist baker, and Dustin Hoffman’s extraordinarily unique literature professor are all incredible in the film. To delve further into the mind of Ferrell’s Harold Crick, his thought process is illustrated on the screen by way of a computer generated user interface. Almost as if Apple made him, ever neuroses, quirk, and decision made is shown on the screen. Stranger Than Fiction is a rich, beautiful portrait of creation and life, with the right mix of comedy and tragedy.

88.          Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) | Directed by Tim Burton

Is it a horror film? Or is it a musical? Whatever it is, it’s brilliant. Tim Burton takes Stephen Sondheim’s dark comedic Broadway hit and creates a Gothic masterpiece, nightmarishly realized, and led by a powerhouse performance from Johnny Depp. There’s a deep, dark soul to this Sweeney Todd, and the film is eaten up by the bleakness and morbidity. Towards the end of the film, though, there is true emotion and pathos. The music is as engaging as ever, retaining the wit Sondheim intended. The darkened, desaturated palette adds extraordinary mood to the film. Pieced together, Sweeney Todd is one of the best films Burton has ever brought to the screen.

89.          Taxi Driver (1976) | Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s portrait of a ticking time bomb is one of the most memorable films of all time. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader together created one of the most disturbed characters on screen. An icon of loneliness and manifestation of mental seclusion, Robert De Niro’s legendary role of Travis Bickle remains one of the most lauded performances of all time. My best friend wrote an essay about the use of sound in the film. For Scorsese utilizes everything in his power to accentuate the feeling of loneliness and solitude. The isolation penetrates the heart, a success on the filmmakers’ part. It’s a masterwork on loneliness.

90.          This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) | Directed by Kirby Dick

I know it’s kind of a shame that this is the sole documentary on the list, but you end up being rather limited. Despite being fairly one sided, you can’t deny that Kirby Dick’s expose of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board is provocative and extremely entertaining. Part of it is a history lesson on the MPAA, going through the many films that have been denied certain ratings, have been given certain ratings because of content bias, etc. And the other part is a fun expose, as Dick and a private detective attempt to unmask the anonymous “regular parents” on the board that advises you what to watch. Terribly fascinating and eye opening, This Film is Not Yet Rated is a very funny look at the restricted and the general.

91.          Three Colors Trilogy (1993 – 1994) | Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski

Although hailed as masterworks of the art house world, Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, made up of Blue, White, and Red, the colors of the French flag, are far more entertaining than their daunting title would suggest. A lot of people hear “art house” and recoil, but Kieślowski’s films are full of splendor and capture the audience’s attention for their entirety. Blue, with an incredible performance from Juliette Binoche, is the anti-tragedy and the most moving of the trilogy; White is the anti-comedy, quaint and amusing; and Red is the anti-romance, lush and elegant. All three films will affect the way you look at life. Yes, they are life altering. Liberty, equality, fraternity.

92.          There Will Be Blood (2007) | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

There Will Be Blood was the first film from Paul Thomas Anderson that I saw, and even then, I knew I was dealing with a master. With Daniel Day-Lewis’ awe-inspiring performance as a greed driven oil man, There Will Be Blood transcends cinema altogether at times. It’s enormous in its power, each frame and image burned into one’s brain after seeing it. The film is full of deep religious imagery, and Daniel Day-Lewis is totally uncompromising. There Will Be Blood is a drama that shakes you up for good.

93.          Toy Story (1995) | Directed by John Lasseter

A story of greed, narcissism, and attempted murder. Yes, people, I am talking about Toy Story. Underneath the sweet story of friendship is something very diabolical, even seedy and nihilistic. The film was originally fashioned and written as a much darker story, but Disney insisted it be happier. Woody was less likable, Buzz was more insane, and their constant head butting was more verbally violent. Even though it was sweetened up extensively for kids, there are still strains of the original darkness in there. Revolutionary when it was released because of the technology that was used, Toy Story is an exceptional film, not merely an animated one. Its story is tight and incredibly interesting, and the voice acting is exemplary. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are both perfect in the film and Woody and Buzz. For the time, the scope of the film is pleasantly huge. Tackling an entire world of play. Toy Story is absolute perfection.

94.          The Tree of Life (2011) | Directed by Terrence Malick

It seems far less important understanding or analyzing the film than it is simply basking in all of its beautiful, daring, and undoubtedly striking spell. At its core, the film may (or may not) be about a family in Texas, as a child begins to rebel against his strict father. But, throughout that story of man versus nature, Terrence Malick dares us to sit and watch as the universe comes together before our eyes. It can be a turn-off for some, but one has to admire his audacity and the sheer scope of the challenge. Brad Pitt’s fierce storm of acting and Jessica Chastain’s effervescent mother nature is a wonder to behold. Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life certainly is a wonder.

95.          The Truman Show (1998) | Directed by Peter Weir

As you might be able to tell, I admire funny actors who can do serious work. Evident in my selection of Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell stepped out of his goofy shoes and gave us a human character to be remembered (or, it should be, as the film, I feel, is tremendously underrated). Jim Carrey does a similar thing in The Truman Show, which has the plot of a very existential episode of The Twilight Zone. Truman’s life is a reality show, and once he starts to realize this, he encounters a crisis, trying to discover who he is and how much of his life was a lie (all of it, basically). It’s beautifully moving film, with a star turn from Carrey. Laura Linney, who plays his “wife”, is also very good in the film. But, again, it’s Carrey who, er, carries the film. Yes, the script is grand, but Carrey instills the character with pathos and humanism, only bouncing back to his usual goofiness when it serves the character. The Truman Show primarily pushes aside the obvious commentary on reality TV in favor of getting to the heart of its protagonist.

96.          Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) | Directed by Wes Craven

Even before the Scream films, Wes Craven was getting at the heady commentary of horror films and their impact on the public with the best film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Having departed from the series since the second film, Craven returns with a chilling and almost prophetic film. In a way, the humor and the story itself is even more self-aware and self-referential than even Scream. There are scenes that refer back to its own screenplay. Freddy Krueger comes back as a manifestation of the darkness that the films show, and the lead from the original, Heather Lagenkamp, worries about the effect the films will have on her son. It’s shockingly smart for Craven to explore this side of horror; the consequences of graphic violence seen at an early age and the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Flawed though the film is (its third act is kind of lackluster), it actually proves to be one of the most interesting horror films ever released.

97.          His Girl Friday (1940) | Directed by Howard Hawks

Although it’s been remade a couple of times, and itself a remake, His Girl Friday is a legendary screwball comedy. If you think you’ve heard fast paced dialogue, you haven’t heard His Girl Friday. It makes Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue sound like it’s going through a drive through at a fast food joint. The screenplay, based on a play called The Front Page, was somewhere over 190 pages, but its smooth 90 minute running time is thanks to the way Hawks directed the dialogue. Characters talk over one another, finish one another’s sentences, and interrupt one another. This fast paced realism is jarring at first, mostly because one doesn’t expect for the dialogue to be traded so quickly. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are perfect together; the former sabotaging the latter’s upcoming wedding. Through the dialogue, Hawks also examines the unscrupulous tactics of reporters all the while. It’s Broadcast News for the 1940’s!

98.          When Harry Met Sally… (1989) | Directed by Rob Reiner

Sometimes it is incredibly jarring how on the nose a film can be about a certain subject. When it comes to men and women, few films get as close, or as funny, to the platonic relationship as When Harry Met Sally…. Nora Ephron’s near perfect screenplay accurately and insightfully looks at the dynamic between men and women, especially when they are not in a romantic relationship. I watched this film on a loop last summer, as I found the subject startlingly relevant to my personal life. It made me wonder about my own platonic relationships with my female friends. One must be honest though; When Harry Met Sally, regardless of how well it was written, set up a majority of the tropes one sees in romantic comedies today. It’s really been copied too many times, and never in a satisfying way. (You can also thank Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night for some of those clichés.) Nevertheless, with incredibly witty dialogue, fantastic performances from Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, and some very memorable moments, When Harry Met Sally is a phenomenal romantic comedy. As to whether men and women can just be friends? I posit yes.

99.          Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) | Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Blending a universe all his own and a couple others that were already world renowned, Zemeckis took the opportunity to really experiment with technology and storytelling, and the results are incredible. Here, cartoon characters interact with humans, and while the comedy runs amok throughout the film, it is at heart an experimental film noir. The cleverness the film has to offer is fun and amusing, and it’s truly spectacular to see some of the most well-known staples of the cartoon universe pop up. Once again, story takes center stage, reminiscent of the hardboiled noirs of yore. Though, the technical aspects are outstanding. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Contains some of the cheekiest humor ever, and its technical aspects as well as its story make it a fantastic film.

100.        Young Adult (2011) | Directed by Jason Reitman

I sure as hell hope that I don’t end up knowing, or turning into, Mavis from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s righteous and darkly hilarious Young Adult. Charlize Theron has the looks to have played a high school bitch, and she fits right into the role, almost as if she’d been playing it since birth. Cody’s razor sharp screenplay not only contains painfully funny dialogue, but even more painful examinations of disappointment and maturity, or lack thereof. She is as stuck in the past as one could ever be, manifesting her desires in her dying young adult book series. Joined by a stellar Patton Oswalt, maybe these guys should have paid attention during history, as they ended up being doomed and repeating it.

101.        Young Frankenstein (1974) | Directed by Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks’ terrific parody of Universal Monster movies is amongst the greatest comedies ever made. Parodying everything from Dracula to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and, yes, Frankenstein, the film is an absolutely perfect tribute to those older films. Mel Brooks’ classic has an enduring legacy, and some of the greatest gags on celluloid are in this single film (“Frau Blucher!”). It plays with the sensibilities of the studio era, such as the ridiculous sets and the star system. Young Frankenstein is a classic to behold.

So, what do you think? Let me know! Thanks for reading!

Links to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Never Let Them Go: Everything Must Go

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As one of the few people I know who will forever admire Will Ferrell’s dramatic work in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, I was very pleased to hear that the actor, comedian, and recent recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, would be returning to some dramatic work in the indie dramedy Everything Must Go. If you are one of the scattered admirers of what wonderful Fiction Ferrell brought to the screen previously, his performance in Everything Must Go is just as good, if not better. Granted, this film is far sadder and generally more depressing, but no less powerful.

Based on Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, Everything Must Go is about a man whose life manages to spiral completely downwards in a period of about two days. On the first day, Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is fired from his job, at which he has worked for sixteen years. Apparently, his alcoholism got in the way of things from time to time. Upon returning home, freshly let go, he find all of his belongings on his front lawn, with the locks changed, no access to the house, and a note from his wife, notifying that she is leaving him and wants him out of her life. Essentially, every piece of life that Nick wants or could care about is strewn on his front lawn, and he does what any person in that situation would do: he gives up completely.

Lounging in his chair, he befriends a young boy named Kenny, played by Christopher CJ Wallace (aka The Notorious BIG’s son), and befriends his pretty neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), and with them, he goes on a path of redemption! No, not really. Amongst the several things this film does correctly, everything Must Go first and foremost avoids cliché. With such a sad sack protagonist and a depressing, worthy of redemption storyline, it could have easily fallen prey to being your usual sappy drama. While it isn’t as cynical or dark as Young Adult, it does treat its protagonist in a similar way by not letting its protagonist escape from their flaws and mistakes, and instead uses them as an opportunity to see the character develop in their bizarrely stunted ways. Nor does the film allow to overdevelop and thus give way to extreme sappiness and cliché.

The performance that Will Ferrell gives in the film is of utter nuance. The character of Nick is not one of your typical slackers, usually played for comedy, but instead a legitimate depressive alcoholic, someone whom you would initially want to have sympathy for, but any sense of that is driven away by the character’s cynicism. Though, this is not completely true. Ferrell’s nature charm on the screen, almost in a Tom Hanks way, where you know that he must be a nice guy despite that these bad things are happening to a relatively good person, lets the audience have a certain amount of sympathy for him without making the audience regret having that sympathy for a generally unlikable character. Is it because the audience feels a connection with someone who is going through a midlife crisis? Or rather, a person whose midlife crisis has simply crashed down on that person? Why does this character inspire so much emotional response from the audience? What makes the portrayal so tender, so beautiful at times, and so worthy of a watch and, even at times, a tear? It is all thanks to Ferrell, who hones his dramatic skills not only as an actor, but as a performer. One never gets the sense that Ferrell is not taking his role seriously. Rather than a well-known comedian playing a sad sack, Ferrell, who has played the same kind of character for laughs before, inhabits that character and becomes him. That is, essentially, the best an actor can do. That is what acting should be. There is no discernible façade between Will Ferrell the comedian and Nick Halsey the man who is sleeping on his lawn.

It is lucky that one gets such a superb performance from Ferrell, as the story, while just as depressing as listening to Nick’s life story on audiotape, could have presented itself as something rife with genre tropes. There seems to be something around every corner that could have jumped out and made the film a “recovery movie” or a “redemption movie”, usually the province of cable TV. The film’s unsympathetic, un-cynical, and un-cliché look at Nick’s world affords itself a strange realism. If anything, the film presents very human characters whose responses are often irrational, unjustified, but still worthy of our attention.

The supporting cast is excellent, with Christopher CJ Wallace as the kid neighbor who indirectly inspires Nick to get off his ass. Yes, Kenny’s mother works, and yes, we kind of feel bad for him, but, again, the audience is not guilted into any of these emotions or responses; they just seem to happen naturally. The same can be said of Rebecca Hall’s “new in town, married woman next door”. Her husband works and she is there alone while pregnant, but there is enough distance for the audience to relate on their own without being forced to. It is this naturalism that writer and director Dan Rush imbues the story with, devoid of overt pessimism or optimism.

While most of the film is dramatic, and fairly depressing, there are light strokes of comedy brushed in that are definitely amusing. The style and sense of humor is not dark or black, per se, but balances the film out so that the drama and comedy juxtapose one another in terms of the tone in the film. Nor does it feel out of the blue or random in anyway. I guess the key word one could use to describe how good this film is is “natural”. Everything about it just comes together in a neat package, with the right rhythm and cadence.

Dan Rush’s dramedy is placidly paced and naturalistic in every way, from its story to its characters. Although it sometimes teeters on the edge of making the audience want to weep for a thousand years with a pint of ice cream at their side, it balances the sad story with mildly uplifting scenarios and amusing moments of humor. However, it is Will Ferrell’s excellent, almost perfect performance that makes the film worth seeing. Much like Ferrell’s previous venture into dramatic work in, this film that sometimes life is indeed stranger than fiction. Also, more depressing.

Grade: A-