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