(Author’s note: apologies for not having posted a new list recently. But if you’re wanting to catch up, here’s Favorite Films #101 – 91, and Favorite Films #90 – 81.)
80. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
For the most part, Star Trek films have been pretty spotty affairs. J.J. Abrams’ reboots have been good so far, but…Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a crushing bore, The Voyage Home was a bit too self-reverential for its own good, and The Next Generation films…well, never mind. But there’s a gem in that collection, and it’s this one. Wrath of Khan feels the most like an episode from the original series (it’s essential a sequel to an episode called “Space Seed,” but you already knew that…), and its’ fast-paced story and Moby-Dick-esque subtext brings much zest to the festivities. But it’s the acting…or should I say OVERACTING…from both William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban that makes Wrath of Khan so memorable. It’s the one that reinforces my love for Star Trek, and the one film I turn to most when I want my Star Trek movie fix.
79. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
“I, the Wrath of God, will marry my own daughter and with her I will found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. We shall endure. I am the Wrath of God!“
There have been many outstanding actor/director collaborations throughout the history of the cinema. DeNiro/Scorsese, Mifune/Kurosawa, Dietrich/von Sternberg, von Sydow/Ullman/Andersson/Bergman, just to name a few, but none was ever as toxic, violent or artistically rewarding as the relationship between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog. The volatile relationship between the criminally obsessive Herzog, and the deranged, mentally unhinged Kinski made for outstanding cinematic drama, and, in my opinion, never captured as brilliantly as in Aguirre. Made under a miniscule budget – this was German cinema, after all, which for all intents and purposes vanished after WWII, but resurfaced with the arrival of Herzog and Fassbinder – in the Peruvian jungle, Aguirre tells the tale of a glory-hungry conquistador named Lope de Aguirre, played with controlled fury and horrifying madness by Kinski, who leads his search party into the depths of madness and despair in his thirst for the lost city of El Dorado. If the natives don’t kill you, the jungle will, and if the jungle doesn’t kill you, the insane Aguirre will, leading his expeditionary force towards an inevitable death. The struggle of man versus nature is a theme Herzog has explored in several of his films, including Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde and Grizzly Man, yet that metaphorical struggle holds greater depth and meaning in Aguirre; The final scene, in which Aguirre, alone on a single raft with only monkeys now as his charges, uttering a monologue of insanity,will haunt you for days, even weeks, to come. And that story regarding Herzog forcing Kinski to act by pointing a gun at his head? Herzog debunks that claim, but that lends much credence to the volatile, mutually destructive relationship both men shared, and one Herzog would examine in his documentary on working with Kinski, My Best Fiend.
78. Shawn of the Dead
“That was the second album I ever bought!“
Shawn is an amiable if directionless salesman who has something of a difficult time keeping his focus in life, while trying to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, sort out his issues with his mum and stepdad, and cope with his crude and childish best friend/roommate. Oh, and to make matters worse, a zombie uprising take place to further complicate Shawn’s life. Now that the entire zombie subculture has been infected (no pun intended) with the silliest kinds of mashups (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone), Shawn of the Dead now seems an even more original work of parodic art than it was probably intended. In any film that pokes fun at its subject (see Airplane!, for example), the fun is gentle, yet reverential, and that’s demonstrated in spades here, and you can see Simon Pegg’s and Edgar Wright’s affection for George A. Romero’s zombie epics (see Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead), not to mention the hundreds of references to other zombie flicks and pop culture miscellany. The scene that always kills me is the one where Shawn and his best friend Ed fend off a zombie in their backyard by raiding a milk crate filled with LPs and tossing them as weapons – “That’s the second album I ever bought!” – is a shining example of Pegg and Wright’s genius. In an impressive canon of zombie films now available for our viewing, Shawn of the Dead is one of the best of the genre providing both laughs and jump-out-of-your-chair thrills, and it’s easily the funniest of them all.
77. King Kong
“Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes…it was Beauty killed the Beast.“
In this, our CGI (and now 3D) saturated age, it’s easy to dismiss a film like King Kong with its stop-motion special effects, but to dismiss this film on those grounds is pure pettiness. Peter Jackson might have made it prettier-looking a few years ago, and the 1976 remake was bigger and louder (and lousier), but the 1933 original still retains so much of its magic and awe (and not to mention the larger-than-life personality Kong displayed in spades) that subsequent remakes have failed to capture. King Kong reminds me of a simpler time in my life, if there ever was such a thing, where my imagination was easily captured by such a thing as a giant gorilla named Kong who captures a beautiful woman and raises hell at the top of the Empire State Building. Even better still is how, as an adult, King Kong still manages to capture my attention and my imagination, and for all the stiltedness of stop-motion animation, the scene in which Kong battles and kills that pterodactyl sends shivers up my spine; that scene leaves me with a deeper understanding, appreciation and gratitude towards the animation wizards who, working with what they had, created what is still today the Second Greatest Monster Movie Ever (the Greatest comes in at #49; feel free to guess which one it is). And anyone who talks shit about how cheesy the animation is in King Kong needs to be locked in a dank cellar somewhere and be forced to watch Transformers 2 in an endless loop until their brains explode.
76. Before Sunrise
“You know what drives me crazy? It’s all these people talking about how great technology is, and how it saves all this time. But, what good is saved time, if nobody uses it? If it just turns into more busy work. You never hear somebody say, “With the time I’ve saved by using my word processor, I’m gonna go to a Zen monastery and hang out”. I mean, you never hear that.”
There are several reasons why I love this film. Maybe it’s because I have a penchant for talky films. Maybe it’s because the existential dialogues between the American Jesse and the French Celine, both sharing one romantic night in Vienna, spoke a lot towards the existentialist dread I was consumed with in my early twenties. Maybe it’s the ambiguous nature of the relationship between Jesse and Celine, one in which we’re asked to draw our conclusions as to how it will end or where it will go. Or maybe the idea of one man taking a chance and striking up a conversation with a beautiful woman whom he’s shared a moment with and making a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at a connection that appealed to the hopeless romantic in me. Whatever those reasons may be, I’m always drawn to Before Sunrise for very personal reasons, many of which I’d rather not go into. It was the right film at the right time for me, and it still is. Most telling for me is how a film that’s small in nature dares to embrace big ideas via smart dialogue and sharp acting, without the need for melodrama or needless subplots. And, yeah, it’s crazy romantic, in that way that makes my toes curl without any hint of self-consciousness whatsoever.
75. The Passion of Joan of Arc
“Will I be with You tonight in Paradise?“
One of the greatest films of the silent film era. And a miracle that the film even exists at all. Carl Dreyer’s original print was considered lost, until it was rediscovered in, of all places, a Norwegian mental asylum. Rather than focus on the now-familiar story of a French peasant girl who, acting upon the voice of God, took up arms and spurred her country to battle against their English occupiers, Dreyer focuses instead on the heresy trial that doomed Joan of Arc to death. Using the court transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc, Dreyer brilliant frames the film like a stage play, creating space and intimacy, and adds to that immediacy by incorporating hand-held camerawork (a relatively new concept in cinema back then) and, most impressively, utilizing close-ups of all the actors, thereby creating tension. It would have been a pity had Dreyer’s original print had been lost, because if it’s entirely possible for a performance to be delivered that transcends the cinematic medium, Renee Falconetti’s heartbreaking performance as Joan of Arc; being a silent film, Falconetti’s performance is a master class in the use of facial expressions and physical acting, wherein by being limited to the constraints of silent film, she used her stage acting training to evoke pathos and heartbreak. Hers is a towering performance, and quite possibly the best acting any actor or actress has ever had the privilege of committing on screen.
“I saved Latin. What did you ever do?”
Oh, to be Wes Anderson. To be an auteur that possesses the genius ability to bring to life characters filled with audacity and danger, characters possessing both strong and weak wills, and to be able to do this so colorfully. Makes you want to hate Wes Anderson. But no. Rushmore is the quintessential Wes Anderson film, in which a larger-than-life character named Max Fischer, a precocious high schooler played wonderfully by Jason Schwartzman, is forced to make do with the limitations placed upon him, limitations that include people who either hate him, don’t understand him, or want to kill him. Fischer’s look-at-me-world antics alienate him from the prep school he attends, which isn’t so much a place of higher education for him (in fact, he’s pretty much failing every class), but more a proverbial Petri dish where he can explore and examine the ways he can impose his will upon everyone and everything. Of course, nothing can go exactly as Max has intended things to go, and his life is further complicated by his involvement in a love triangle with one of his professors, also the object of desire of a brilliantly funny Bill Murray, in easily one of his Top 5 greatest acting performances ever. I’m not really describing this film with the justice it’s deserved, so let’s just say that if you’ve seen Rushmore, you probably love Rushmore. You love Max Fischer, even if he’s an insufferable brat who probably does deserve his comeuppance, but you root for him to succeed in any way possible, because seeing his ambitions crushed would be the end of Max Fischer, and we can’t have that, now can we?
73. Repo Man
” I don’t want no Commies in my car!… No Christians, either!“
The Eighties were a ripe era for indie B-movies, the weirder the better. Fewer took the cake in terms of sheer lunacy like Repo Man. Is it a comedy? Sure. Is it a sci-fi flick? You bet. Is it bat-shit crazy? Oh hell yes it is! I mean, the plot doesn’t make a whole lick of sense – the gist of it involves Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton as a pair of repo men responding to a $20,000 bounty put on a piece-of-shit Chevy Malibu that is also being sought out by government agents because the car may or may not be radioactive and…well, who cares? Emilio Estevez has never been better, Harry Dean Stanton has never been funnier, and Repo Man comes at you so relentlessly out of left field, you can’t help but marvel at how original yet insane this all is. It shouldn’t work, because it’s so low-budget, and it feels low-budget, but it’s big on big ideas, and the ideas pay off, somehow making this mashup of comedy and sci-fi and paranoia thrillers and punk rock work so gloriously well. The soundtrack’s fucking awesome, too.
72. The Conversation
” I’m not afraid of death but I am afraid of murder.”
The 1970s were a golden era for the paranoia thriller; films like Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men reflected the tension in the air, when nothing was what it seems, and that gnawing suspicion that everything was based on lies soaked your very insides. Well, not much has changed, huh? The Conversation just might be the best film of that genre, and more often than not, an overlooked masterpiece. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, straight from the overwhelming success of the Godfather (and right before The Godfather Part II), The Conversation is a look inside the life of a surveillance expert, and the cloistered existence of both his personal and professional life. Played with beautiful, mute understatement by the great Gene Hackman, his Harry Caul is a lonely man who seems incapable of being able to remotely connect to colleagues and strangers beyond a rudimentary fashion. His inability to connect basically with people gives The Conversation that air of dread and paranoia; what seems to be a routine surveillance job leads Caul down a path where nothing is obviously as it seems, and we learn that for all his expertise, Caul is shockingly unable (or unwilling) to comprehend that the observer is being observed himself, leading towards a bitter ending. Look for a brief appearance by a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford as a creepy messenger, who gives Caul some much-needed advice that he sadly fails to accept.
71. There Will Be Blood
“I drink your milkshake…I drink it up!”
There’s 2 schools of thought regarding There Will Be Blood; one school of thought is this film is a searing, mesmerizing, deliberately-paced epic of a man whose greed inevitably strips him of his humanity, and the second school of thought is this film is a dull, slow-paced drag of a man with no redeeming social qualities whatsoever. Obviously, I’m in the former camp, and I’m often struck by why people seem to dislike this film. Admittedly, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Daniel Plainview, a man whose ambition is corrupted by greed, is, at times, unnecessarily over-the-top, but that’s precisely the point; There Will Be Blood isn’t a plot-driving film, but a deeply intense character study in which we’re witnesses to the downward projection of Plainview, and, with the exception of Paul Dano as the false prophet Eli Sunday, everyone Plainview comes across can simply be disposed of, and mean absolutely nothing to him. I think people are put off at how bleak There Will Be Blood is; there are no happy endings, and Plainview, rather than becoming redeemed, morphs into a full-fledged monster trapped inside a human body. Yes, it’s slow-paced, and deliberately so, that pace allowing the film to breathe and treat the California desert landscape as Plainview’s true adversary. And, yes, it’s overwrought, but you can’t ever take your mind off Daniel Day-Lewis; his genius as an actor is his ability to fool you into thinking he’s not acting – he becomes Daniel Plainview, and as repellant as Plainview is, you’re mesmerized by his depravity and his inhumanity.