Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day Twenty-Nine: For a Few Dollars More

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #120
Year: 1965
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef

In response to a dedicated reader's request – thanks for following, Guntars! – today's movie is a classic spaghetti Western by famed Italian director Sergio Leone. For a Few Dollars More is the second film in a loosely connected trilogy following The Man With No Name, an iconic Clint Eastwood character identifiable by his ever-present poncho and burning cigar. It's actually my least favorite movie in the trilogy (which also includes A Fistful of Dollars and all-time classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), but it's still a great film, and one that employs all of Leone's trademark directorial decisions including long, wide-frame staredowns and largely implied shots of brutal gunfights.

Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef offer brilliant dueling performances as rival bounty hunters who decide to take their talents to South Beach, in this summer's parlance, to take down a particularly rowdy gang of outlaws. The duo spends close to two hours just performing badass acts to one-up the other's, when eventually the outlaws' planned heist begins, and their teamwork starts to shine. After a satisfying climax, the Man With No Name rides off into the horizon, per his idiom.

I have to admit that I'm a little shocked that this is the 120th greatest movie of all time according to IMDb users while its predecessor A Fistful of Dollars is nowhere to be found on the list. There have been allegations that Fistful plagiarizes, but I've seen no evidence, and my ignorant bliss allows me to unabashedly love watching Eastwood as a loner caught between two rival gangs who have taken over a town, leaving only the coffin maker with a job. It's definitely cooler than For a Few Dollars More, and really, isn't coolness what spaghetti Westerns mostly have going for them?

But this is about More, not Fistful, and I'll say that I appreciate it as a standalone movie and endorse its position on the list. This might be Eastwood's first truly "Eastwood" performance that set him up for forty years of playing the guy in this movie – not that I'm complaining, obviously, if you know the blog. In Fistful he's still kind of a standard Western stock character; in More, he really becomes the ultimate badass with a heart we would love in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Dirty Harry, Unforgiven, and dozens more. That's pretty significant even disregarding the quality of the movie. Fortunately, it's damn good, and would easily rank among my top 10 Westerns of all time.

The Good: Eastwood becomes Eastwood. It's important to watch it if only for that reason. Also, Lee Van Cleef strikes a match for his pipe on the hunchback of an outlaw in a saloon. Top 5 Western scene of all time.

The Bad: Feels somewhat incomplete, unlike its epic follow-up. A Fistful of Dollars feels somewhat incomplete, too, but it's still a fair criticism to level at it.

The Skinny: I wouldn't have it as high, but I'd have it on my list.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day Twenty-Eight: Crash

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #218
Year: 2004
Director: Paul Haggis
Starring: Don Cheadle and Matt Dillon

We've reached the end of Travesty Week, and it's a good thing, because this vein bulging out of my forehead is starting to worry me. But seriously, today's movie is Crash. Like American Beauty, Crash inexplicably won a Best Picture Oscar. Actually, it's very easily explained: Hollywood kingmakers felt that racism needed to be addressed, Crash addressed it, and they decided to crown it as some kind of profound statement – and America bought it.

It's not that there shouldn't be movies about race relations. In fact, there definitely should. But this one isn't realistic, or even particularly well-made. Through a ridiculous and impossible series of random encounters, we're all supposed to realize that everybody's a little bit racist? Sure, that's the immediate effect, but if you actually think about Crash for two seconds, the only proper course of action is to roll your eyes. This movie is the worst thing that can happen for race relations, because it shows a glimmering veneer of inner city racism where no one gets murdered and where there is always a catharsis and a teary-eyed message. A bunch of movie stars tell us not to be racist anymore, and nobody gets hurt. That's nice, but it's not how race relations really are in this country.

That brings me to an even more key point. Do the Right Thing, the 1989 film by Spike Lee that showed a much more disturbing – and accurate – vision of race. SPOILER ALERT: That film culminates in a race riot sparked by a white cop murdering a black rap fan, and escalated by who we believe to be the film's protagonist. There is no catharsis, no resolution. We see a violent act committed for which there will be no trial. We see a pizza shop burned to the ground by angry African Americans. Then we see the next morning, where nothing has changed and the white boss has to give the black employee his money. The day begins pretty much the same as the previous day. That is how you depict race relations. Not with Don Cheadle saying mean things about Latinos.

The Good: A few of the performances are actually really good.

The Bad: The script could have been written by a high school kid.

The Skinny: This needs to be off the list, and Do the Right Thing very badly needs to be on it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day Twenty-Seven: Batman Begins

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #108
Year: 2005
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale and Liam Neeson

This probably comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who knows me and knows what a huge Christopher Nolan fan I am, but I honestly believe that it is a travesty that Batman Begins is in the IMDb Top 250. It's not because I think it's a bad movie; in fact, I quite like it. It's only my fifth favorite Christopher Nolan movie, but that's still better than a lot of directors' best movies. My problem with it being on the list – and nearly in the top 2/5ths at that – is that it is a superhero origin movie that obeys the formula of what superhero origin movies are supposed to be, and no other superhero origin movies are on the list.

Sure, it's a series reboot that showed that Nolan would be taking a grittier look at the Caped Crusader's world, but it still simply shows us what makes Bruce Wayne decide to become Batman – and little more. It executes this well, but not as well as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man or Jon Favreau's Iron Man, and neither of those movies are on this list. The travesty isn't the movie itself. Superhero origin movies are a necessary evil, and it's fairly widely accepted that the second film in any series based on a comic book makes or breaks it. The Dark Knight confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt that Nolan knew what he was doing with the Batman character. X2 did the same for Bryan Singer and the X-Men; Spider-Man 2 did the same for Raimi. Iron Man 2, on the other hand, exposed Favreau as something of a fraud.

But that's all far from the point. The point is that with Batman Begins, Nolan made a totally formulaic movie. He executed it well, but not the best, and certainly not first. The films that do it the best and did do it first (This makes Christopher Reeve's Superman a contender, too.) are nowhere to be found on the list. If Spider-Man and Iron Man were ahead of Batman Begins and it was a bit lower on the list, I would take into consideration calling that fair. But they aren't, so the presence of Nolan's fifth-best at #108 (lower than the four that are better, at least) is a huge fucking travesty.

The Good: It introduced us to the world that Nolan would perfect three years later.

The Bad: Katie Holmes' performance. Ugh.

The Skinny: A travesty at its position, and possibly a travesty that it's on the list at all. I'm telling you, "With great power comes great responsibility" is better than "Why do we fall, Master Wayne?" seven days a week.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Day Twenty-Six: American Beauty

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #38
Year: 1999
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning

Have you ever thought something was so overrated that you accidentally convinced yourself into hating it? The first time I saw American Beauty, I didn't hate it. In fact, I kind of liked it. I didn't fully understand all the hubbub about Kevin Spacey's performance, and I didn't necessarily think it deserved the acclaim it got, but I thought it was a valuable use of my two hours. But as time went by and I read more and more reviews that hailed it as an all-time classic and saw more and more references to it in analysis of other, better movies, I started to get annoyed. Then when various people whose taste in movies basically align with my own started ranking it among their ten favorite movies ever, I had to reevaluate my thoughts on it. I watched it again, and much to my own surprise, I actually liked it less the second time. I liked it so much less that I felt angered and betrayed by the fact that it was bathing in countless rays of golden praise from people whose opinions I value and even use to support my own. And that's how American Beauty became a victim of my chagrin. My thoughts that it was overrated evolved, and now I don't even like it. When someone asks me if I want to watch it, I politely decline. I know that everyone loves it, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why.

Sam Mendes' directorial debut focuses on suburban dad Lester Burnham, played competently though not virtuosically by Kevin Spacey. Lester is a somewhat archetypical slacker, depressed by his workaday life and forced to fill his inner void with marijuana, weightlifting, and masturbation. When his daughter brings home an attractive friend, she renews his interest in life, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of having sex with her. Spacey plays the role effectively creepily. And the girl is really hot, on the bright side.

Even typing the summary reminds me of what a perfectly decent movie this is, but for some reason, I just can't cope with how incredibly overrated it's become over the last eleven years. It's not like I have this problem with every movie I think is overrated. I think Pulp Fiction and Fight Club are wildly overrated, and I would never let even them sniff my personal top twenty-five, but I don't have any bottled vitriol for them either.

I think that sometimes certain art just rubs us the wrong way, and not everyone reacts to that well. Since I'm not forced to live in a house that's constantly showing American Beauty – or, perhaps for the sake of comparison, no one who hates modern art is forced to live in a house with Jackson Pollock prints on every wall – I don't have to learn to work out my differences with it. I'm allowed to hate it, and there's no reason to try to convince myself to like it. We all have people in our lives who hate art that we love, and the natural response is to be angry at them and accuse them of not understanding it. Well, maybe they don't, but why should they?

The Good: I guess I'll go with Spacey's performance here. It's not Oscar-worthy, but it is one of his better roles.

The Bad: Nothing is particularly gripping. It's a good movie that has ingrained itself in the public's mind as a great one.

The Skinny: It would never cross my mind as something to put on a Top 250 list. But, of course, it would cross a great many minds, and that's why it's (unbelievably) #38.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Day Twenty-Five: Requiem for a Dream

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #61
Year: 2000
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Ellen Burstyn and Jared Leto

I know I'm going to be lambasted for this one, and told I "don't get it," and accused of letting my emotions get in the way of judging this movie objectively. And that's all fair, but it doesn't change the fact that I hate this movie. I've gone on rants about it before, and they usually leave my opponents very awkwardly stunned into silence. Know that I don't pretend to be objective when I talk about Requiem for a Dream. I am incapable of that. Instead, I'll try to shine some light on why this movie so heinously offends me, and why I refuse to ever watch it again.

Darren Aronofsky is no slouch as a cinematographer. His movies are pure eye candy, and Requiem for a Dream is no exception. There's dozens of gorgeous shots of dilating pupils, liquid moving through syringes, and drug-induced insanity taking hold on the faces of addicts. If this movie was a collection of photographs with no story running through it, I might actually like it. Unfortunately, it does have a story, and it's the story of three people who become so irrationally fixated on illegal drugs that they become completely irredeemable caricatures of drug users. And we're supposed to sympathize with their problems.

Here's my beef with that: There are literally hundreds of opportunities on their way to the film's climax that our protagonists (And I hate calling them that, because I fucking hate all of these characters and did not root for them for one second) could have looked at the shambles their lives were in and just stopped doing drugs. But they didn't. They kept going. When Jared Leto's character looks at the bloodied mess his arm has become from constant heroin injections, his buddy tells him how bad it looks and suggests that maybe he shouldn't shoot more heroin into it. But he does. He shoots more heroin into it, and, SPOILER ALERT, he ends up losing the arm. This is ridiculous to me. There's no need for it to end up that way. By the end of the movie, I didn't want these people to be coddled in rehab; I wanted them to go to jail because people who walk through life constantly fucked-up deserve to be behind bars. (As a sidenote, Travesty Week is making me sound like a devil conservative. Environmental message? Travesty! Drug users getting off without jail time? Travesty! I think I'm going to need to watch some Olbermann to come down from this...)

But all that isn't even why I hate the movie. Here's where this gets personal, and where it becomes clear that I could never write an objective review of this movie. I had a friend growing up who was incredibly bright and could have done anything he wanted to do with his life. Then he started doing drugs. Everyone tried to get him to stop, urging him to pull his life together because he'd never amount to anything if he didn't pass his classes and graduate. He didn't care; he just kept doing more and more drugs. By his senior year, he had started skipping school at least twice a week, and he barely ended up graduating – he wasn't even allowed to walk at the commencement ceremony. He had several run-ins with the law for drug possession and DUI which resulted in him losing his license. He had countless opportunities to drop the habit and make something of himself, but he didn't give enough of a shit. No one forgave him. And he fucking loves Requiem for a Dream. It's like he doesn't understand the irony. To a less extreme degree, he is these characters. When I watch this movie and I see these characters ruin their lives of their own free will, I think about this friend, and it makes me sad and angry. That's really why I can't watch this movie, and why I sound like a militant D.A.R.E. officer when I try to talk about it.

So is it a good movie? It may well be, but I can't see past how angry it makes me, and how much I hate its characters. I don't fault Darren Aronofsky here. He made the movie he wanted to make, and executed it presumably quite well. It's just that the movie he wanted to make is morally reprehensible to me – and I'm not a guy with a narrow moral code. If you love this movie, consider yourself lucky, because you obviously have never lost someone close to you to drugs.

The Good: Cinematography is gorgeous.

The Bad: I can't watch it.

The Skinny: Couldn't tell you if it belongs or not. It blurs my vision. It clouds my judgment. It makes me punch things. I don't want it on the list because when I watch movies, I usually want to have someone to root for. I didn't care if these characters died or went to jail or faced any other nasty consequences. I just didn't enjoy one second of this movie. Sorry, folks.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Day Twenty-Four: WALL-E

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #47
Year: 2008
Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Jeff Garlin and John Ratzenberger

This is the day, ladies and gentlemen. I welcome you, one and all, to the first entry of Travesty Week! For the next five days, I'll be writing mean things about movies that everyone apparently loves. Hopefully people will use the comments section to get butthurt and tell me I'm wrong and that I don't get these movies which are clearly miles over my head! Let's get the ball rolling with Pixar's 2008 dud WALL-E, which finds itself at the high and mighty position of #47 on this list. What this movie amounts to is Pixar's severely misguided attempt to replace entertainment value with message. The interpretation from critic-types (and apparently IMDb users) is that this was brilliant. But Pixar's job is still to make fun, entertaining family movies, and if they can roll in some tear-jerking moments and a good message in the process, then that's great. That's what they did with Ratatouille, Up, and Toy Story 3, and those are all masterpieces. WALL-E is all message. It's all heavy-handed Al Gore environment worship that opens with an hour long sequence without dialogue. This was somehow called great. Huh?

By the time our protagonist (about whom I never once cared) gets on a spaceship occupied by the morbidly obese humans who left a polluted Earth behind, the plot picks up a little bit, but the environmental message is still front and center. To put it simply, this movie is just not fun to watch. I don't disagree with the message it's selling, I just don't want it to be the only thing going on onscreen. Besides all that, the whole thing is just incredibly fucking boring. It's hard to believe that the geniuses who gave us Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, and all three Toy Story movies could put out this pretentious swill. It won critical acclaim and Oscars and all that jazz, but those don't translate into entertainment value. In fact, the target audience – children – probably never begs their parents to put WALL-E on the DVD player. It's total conjecture, but I have younger siblings, and this bored them to tears too, so I imagine that data can be extrapolated to most kids.

If WALL-E has some value, it's that it secretly allowed Pixar to take notice of the fact that audiences just weren't as interested in an environmental epic featuring an hour of two robots who can't talk playing with garbage as they were in what made Pixar so great in the first place. WALL-E's worldwide gross was lower than that of any other Pixar film made in the 21st century except Cars – which also sucks, for the record. Pixar reeled and have since given us what may be their two finest movies: Up and Toy Story 3. As far as what actually happens on the screen during the two hour running time, though, you're better occupying that time with a nap. Hell, if you start the movie when you're tired, it'll probably end up being a nap anyway.

The Good: It looks great. Pixar movies always do.

The Bad: It's borderline unwatchable. It's boring as all hell and the message is rammed down your throat with a cold, robotic hand.

The Skinny: Get this crap off of my list! Four more days of Travesty Week. What will I blaspheme next?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day Twenty-Three: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #20
Year: 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford and Karen Allen

This is a tough one for me to stomach. I like Indiana Jones. I really do. And Raiders of the Lost Ark is a very fun movie to watch. But I still have to ask, how in God's name is this the twentieth best movie of all time? There's a small handful of better fun summer popcorn action movies that take place in cool-looking environments, and none of those deserve to be called the twentieth best movie of all time either. What happened here?

Of course, Harrison Ford is a total badass as Indiana Jones, but Dr. Jones is still ultimately Han Solo as an archaeologist, and Star Wars has a lot more going for it than this. We still have to talk about what this movie has going for it, though, and that's plenty. You've got some of the most fun action sequences of all time, involving Dr. Jones, guns, sand, snakes, statues, women, car chases, and valuable artifacts. If all archaeology professors were as awesome as Indy, it would be the most popular major at every university in the country. The formula for a fun summer action movie isn't followed here; it's created. This is definitely an influential movie. Just because you did it first doesn't mean you did it best, but I won't be too big of a sourpuss to say this isn't a great movie. It is. Everything that can be expected from this film is present, so I certainly hope I didn't overstate my chagrin at its position on the list. I'm not arguing that it shouldn't be on the list – that exercise starts tomorrow – I'm just arguing that it shouldn't be #20.

On an unrelated note, I can't write a transition to save my life right now. On another unrelated note, it's a little sad to see Harrison Ford be as awesome as he is in this movie knowing full well that we don't have anyone like him anymore. He was smart and witty, but he fired first. He could get your adrenaline pumping, but he could actually act as well. His characters were role models for wide-eyed youths and wide-bellied men. There's no one like him anymore, and if I were a psychologist, I would try to prove that this is reflected in the spineless, unfunny kids of today. On second thought, I'll just blame the terrible programming on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Indiana Jones and Han Solo were the definition of cool, and it's a shame that the new definition of cool is probably the Jonas Brothers or something. I'm too young to feel this old.

Anyway, this is a great movie, although its placement at #20 is definitely a reflection of the bizarre worship of Steven Spielberg that has been rammed down our throats forever and a half just because everyone in America can name him. If you somehow haven't seen this movie, do so, then realize that it's just a very good summer movie that revolutionized the way National Treasure would eventually be made and not the kind of thing that should be sitting at #20 on a greatest films ever list.

The Good: Impossible to overstate the coolness of Indiana Jones. He shoots guys! He fights guys! He drinks! He steals treasures! He...teaches archaeology! Harrison Ford owns this movie.

The Bad: Some bits are extremely corny now. Hell, they were probably corny then. Again, this is just a summer movie. It's basically analysis-proof. There's nothing to analyze.

The Skinny: I'd like to see this movie right around #100 on the list. But if you really want to get pissed off, the next five days are TRAVESTY WEEK! The long-awaited week of me writing about movies that everyone loves that I hate finally begins! I'll be told that I "don't get it" by fanboys for five days! It's gonna be awesome! Hope you'll join me!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day Twenty-Two: Mystic River

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #212
Year: 2003
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Sean Penn and Tim Robbins

Hey, Day Twenty-Two is like twenty minutes after Day Twenty-One. What gives? If you missed it on my last post, I was too tired/unwell/lazy to post on Friday, so I'm posting for Friday and Saturday now, late Saturday night/early Sunday morning. Forgive me. Anyhow, today I'm talking about yet another Clint Eastwood movie because I'm completely addicted to the man and I think he can do little wrong. Mystic River broke his eleven-year streak of mediocrity that started after Unforgiven and set him on his current unbroken seven film streak of complete and utter greatness. It's a huge turning point in his career, one that showed that he can make great films besides westerns. Up until this one, there was considerable doubt. Needless to say, he's been driving it into our heads basically nonstop since then that he's one of the greatest directors of all time and deserves all the praise he gets, but it took something to start it all, and that something is Mystic River.

And boy, is it ever something. This is Clint using every fantastic trick in the Clint Eastwood Directing Handbook in one movie. He gets performances from his three male leads (Penn, Robbins, and Kevin Bacon playing former childhood friends reunited by happenstance and the death of Penn's daughter) that are unrivaled in quality by any three megastars in any movie I've seen. He captures the seedy side of Boston even better than The Departed – not to imply that Scorsese was directly trying to one-up this film when he made it, but it's a logical point of comparison, and Eastwood trounces it – and makes it look like a truly terrible place to live if people can get away with the kind of shit that we see people getting away with in this movie.

While the detective case keeps the plot clicking along, and while there are plenty of impressive individual moments, what really makes Mystic River special is the indelible mark that a certain event from the three friends' childhood left on their lives. Without it, none of their actions would be the same, and none of their lives would have been the same. This is mentioned directly a few times, but it's not rammed down our throats. We're allowed to see how it affected the people involved, most notably in – SPOILER ALERT – Tim Robbins' character's vigilante slaying of a pedophile, which he carries out almost routinely. It seems a natural predisposition to want to kill sex predators was instilled in him by his encounter with two of them when he was a boy. That's some deep stuff, and I'm only badly retelling it. In the hands of Clint Eastwood, it's a thousand times more fucked up and emotionally resonant.

So, is this Clint's best movie? Well, no, but it's probably in his top five or six. I said it before and I'll say it again: this is a hugely important movie for Clint, because it marked the moment in time when he decided to be one of the greatest directors of all time and not just save all his best stuff for his Westerns. Penn and Robbins won Oscars for it, and that's totally understandable. If there were enough awards to go around, Kevin Bacon probably would have won one, too, but alas, there weren't. The only thing that could have made this movie better is if Clint decided to step on the other side of the camera and play a grizzled police chief or something, but that's something better left to the inevitable fan-fiction reimaginings. As it stands, this is a masterpiece, and one that will always be remembered in the Clint Canon as one of his classics.

The Good: All three lead performances and the unshakable direction of Mr. Eastwood.

The Bad: I'm just not really sure what to say here. Yeah, nothing's coming. This movie has nothing bad in it. Sorry.

The Skinny: I sound like a broken record, but it needs to be higher on the list, and that opinion can be traced directly to what an enormous Clint Eastwood fanboy I am. Oh well.

Day Twenty-One: The Best Years of Our Lives

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #192
Year: 1946
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Dana Andrews and Harold Russell

First of all, yes, this actually is Friday's movie even though I'm writing about it late Saturday night/Sunday morning. I fell a little behind because I didn't feel well; don't tell me how to do my job. Second, this was the first half of a little double feature I put on at my private cinema today, and my fairly low expectations were smashed to bits by how much better this movie is in practice than it is on paper. Its biggest problem is how incorrectly it's advertised. Make no mistake, this is not a romantic picture. It has a few romances in it, and the final act does focus a bit more on them than the rest of the film, but this is a movie about the havoc wreaked in the lives of brave men who come back to what they once called home after spending time in a war zone. That's about as far from romance as it gets.

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the all-time leaders in Oscars won with seven, and it's easy to see why. The movie follows the lives of three men returning to their hometown from World War II. They soon find out that not only did they radically change while they were away; home did too. Homer Parrish had his hands blown off during his stint in the Navy and can't cope with people's pity and curiosity about his new prosthetic arms. Al Stephenson finds himself exploited at his old place of employment because of his link to the military. Fred Derry battles flashbacks and nightmares, and realizes that his wife is a phony who only loved him when he had money, and he falls in love with Al's daughter instead. And all that just scratches the surface.

The theme of soldiers reentering society after seeing the atrocities of war has been done plenty of times since Years, but it's the fact that this movie came out in 1946 that makes it especially poignant. In that year, hundreds of thousands of men were returning home from war, looking for jobs, wives, and acceptance in a society that wasn't ready to accept them back yet. This film must have spoken directly to an uncountable number of young men who felt the same isolation and confusion as its characters, and it's impossible to undervalue that. Indeed, human nature rarely changes, and current veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may find the performances just as resonant today.

Special mention goes to Harold Russell's performance as the armless ex-seaman Homer Parrish. It won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and it's definitely a competent performance from an acting standpoint, but what's most impressive is that Russell was not an actor at all, but a former military man who actually had his arms blown off during the Second World War. He brings such an emotional depth to the role that a person watching it with the right mindset could easily be brought to tears several times while he's on screen. A scene where some neighborhood kids are looking into the garage to see his prosthetic limbs and he struggles to open the doorknob to yell at them so he breaks the window with his hooks instead, yelling "You want to see the freak?" is particularly tear-jerking, and is probably the film's best scene. Russell earned his Oscar, and his Purple Heart. It's not often that it's okay to call a movie star a hero, but he certainly is one.

I didn't really have any expectations for this movie going in. Truthfully, I thought it was going to be a typical 1940s cornball affair in the vein of It's a Wonderful Life. Fortunately, I was wrong. Barring some dated references (Fred Derry works as a soda jerk. Erm, a what?), The Best Years of Our Lives holds up remarkably well in 2010, and is definitely worth watching.

The Good: Harold Russell's tragic performance.

The Bad: Unimpressive direction and cinematography. The fadeout transition can only be utilized so often before you want to throw up. Fortunately, this doesn't stand in the way of enjoying the movie.

The Skinny: It belongs on the list. #192 might be exactly where it belongs, too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day Twenty: Amadeus

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #80
Year: 1984
Director: Milos Forman
Starring: Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham

This is my first go at tackling a movie that was in my personal top ten going into this blog, so try to bear with me. I won't say much about it, because I've exhausted the topic elsewhere, but this is the best biopic of all time, and it's only kind of a biopic. It earned an extremely rare double-Best Actor nomination at the Oscars that year for Tom Hulce, who plays a goofy but brilliant Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham, who plays court composer Antonio Salieri, the self-described "patron saint of mediocrities." The movie is basically 180 minutes of fantastic acting – not only from the two leads but from Jeffrey Jones, who plays Austrian Emperor Joseph II – fused with some of the greatest music ever composed and a rich, compelling plot. And despite all that marvelous music, and snippets of new productions of several of Mozart's greatest operas, the film itself never devolves into musical theater. There's so much that can be said about this movie, but I feel like I've said it all before. This is one that I'm willing to talk up a storm about if there's interest though, so I'll make this one kind of audience-driven. If you want to know my thoughts on something regarding this movie, use the comments section and we'll get a dialogue going.

The Good: Basically flawless movie in my opinion, but the best things about it are the use of Mozart's music for the score, and the performances from Hulce and Abraham.

The Bad: The laugh is tough to get used to at first, and if you've seen it, you know what "the laugh" is. It's not so bad after a while though, and it was likely quite accurate. Also, Elizabeth Berridge is a pretty terrible actress, but somehow she grew on me through repeated viewings.

The Skinny: Personal top ten going in, so of course it belongs on the list.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day Nineteen: Changeling

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #230
Year: 2008
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich

I'm beginning to think that there has never been anyone more important to Hollywood than Clint Eastwood. In the '60s, he gave us The Man With No Name. In the '70s, he gave us Dirty Harry, and began to try his hand at directing. By 1992 he had won his first Oscar as a director, and in the last decade, he has churned out masterpieces on a yearly basis, eclipsing directors less than half his age. And the man shows no signs of stopping. It's seriously expensive just to keep up with his movies as they hit the theaters.

For all his quantity, Eastwood compromises no quality. Changeling is no exception. The tone is mostly unique among Eastwood films, as we follow the mother of a lost boy – chillingly portrayed by Angelina Jolie in what has to be her best role ever, even if that is somewhat by default – through her battle with an aloof Los Angeles Police Department that passes off some other kid as her son and throws her in an asylum when she dares to defy them. With the help of a local Presbyterian minister played by John Malkovich, she exposes the corruption within the department, but continues to look for her son even when it seems like she'll never find him. The whole affair is heart string-tugging, but knowing it's a true story certainly helps.

I feel like Clint at least partly made this movie because the other movie he made in 2008 was Gran Torino and he found it more artistically satisfying to shoot a typical Clint Eastwood "I play a badass" movie and one of his most emotionally complex and beautiful films at the same time, but I could be crazy since in 2006 he made two Iwo Jima movies. Either way, there's no questioning the fact that he managed to make two masterpieces in 2008 that will go down in his catalog as classics of the Clint Canon.

The Good: Clint's direction is flawless, of course. Gorgeous shots everywhere and strong performances from the whole ensemble, and especially from Angelina Jolie. She out-acted Brad that year, and he played a backwards-aging Forrest Gump. Just sayin'.

The Bad: There really is no weak point to this movie. If anything, it's that we don't get time to become emotionally attached to the lost boy before his disappearance some twenty minutes into the movie, but even that is saved by Jolie's performance and how much she clearly cares about him.

The Skinny: #230 is way too low. I'm sort of a Clint fanboy, but I'd say this deserves to be Top 100, or, at the very least, it deserves to swap places with #145 Million Dollar Baby.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day Eighteen: Chinatown

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #60
Year: 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway

I'm kind ashamed to admit this, but there's almost certainly something I'm not getting here. I watched Chinatown today, and it wasn't bad. Jack Nicholson was his usually fantastic self, and Faye Dunaway did a serviceable job in her role as well. The noir feel was executed to perfection, and it would be easy to imagine this as a 1940s Bogart picture with oddly pristine Technicolor. But if it did indeed fall among those 1940s Bogart pictures, it would not be talked about in the hushed, reverential tones that it is now. It seems that the very fact that Chinatown is a neonoir and not a first wave noir film has given it some kind of all-time classic status. The problem is, it just isn't that good.

Since Nicholson plays a private eye, it's only a matter of time before there's a mysterious death that needs investigating. The circumstances are peculiar – a waterworks mogul is found with salt water in his lungs although it appears he drowned in fresh water – and, of course, the people with the most motivation to kill him are eventually proved innocent. It's classic Scooby Doo stuff, nothing out of the ordinary. The overarching motivation for just about everyone's actions is a drought in Los Angeles County that requires the diversion of water resources and sees rival corporations and government institutions pulling all kinds of shady stuff to get what they want. This subplot is interesting, but also pretty confusing, especially for those of us who have never lived in a desert and don't know much about water politics – or rather, those of us whose experience with water politics is limited to reading Frank Herbert. Still, it keeps the plot from getting too bogged down in the endless parade of cops and snoops smoking cigarettes, wearing hats, and just generally unning through the Book of Murder Investigation Clichés.

The movie does have one truly phenomenal scene, and one that deserves all the praise it gets. I won't spoil too much, but when J.J. Gittes (Jack's character) does a little bit of snooping after dark and gets asked the question "You know what happens to nosy fellows?", the answer is completely brutal and amazing and dictates a lot of what happens throughout the rest of the film. I guess I would even say the flick is worth watching just for that.

I'm not trying to come down too hard on Chinatown. It isn't terrible, or boring, or anything like that. It just defies all logic that it's the sixtieth greatest movie of all time when it's basically paying tribute to a genre that came before it and, in general, earns far fewer accolades. It's a solid film, though, and Nicholson's performance especially is commendable.

The Good: Nicholson being Nicholson. This is maybe a top five performance for him.

The Bad: It doesn't do anything spectacular. This is the kind of movie you would walk out of the movie theater being satisfied with the way you spent your ten bucks but wouldn't even consider going back to see again.

The Skinny: If it deserves to be on the list, it needs to be way fucking lower than sixtieth. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt because I know if it were in the bottom ten I'd say that was okay. This brings up a point I've been meaning to make though – before too long, look forward to Travesty Week, where I'll take a week and just talk about movies that are universally acclaimed that I don't like. I'm going to hate on movies that everyone loves and get bitched at. It's going to be great reading!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Day Seventeen: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #242
Year: 1966
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Well, well, well. Two days, two movies in the bottom ten of this list, and therefore, two movies that will inevitably be dropped from the list in the next couple of years as more well-received movies come out. Fortunately for us, we're able to discuss this movie before it vanishes from the list – poof! – and is inevitably forgotten by time. This movie is worth discussing not particularly because it's one of the greatest movies of all time, but because it's one of the most unique.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? boldly challenges the viewer with scene upon scene that would certainly be considered "boring" today. In just over two hours of film, just over six hours of real time elapse. Four actors are billed, and only two additional people ever appear, each for less than a minute. There is almost no action, and what action there is – each time in the form of someone trying to strangle their spouse – gets broken up immediately by an interloper. All of the interest lies in the dialogue, which is entirely drunken and occasionally insane. Frankly, I can't even figure out if the movie was supposed to have a message, or if it was just to show an two couples getting absolutely shitfaced together and the older couple depressing the living hell out of the younger couple and showing them what little they have to look forward to.

If there was a message, I suppose it was that married life brings out the worst in (some!) people, and that alcohol can bring decades of suppressed rage to the surface. It could also be that some people, here being Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's characters, are completely stark raving mad, crazy enough to – SPOILER ALERT! – invent a fictional child and let him grow for sixteen years in lieu of having one of their own. Either one of those messages is pretty terrible, so I'd prefer to think this is just a movie without any real message. I'm not saying movies are supposed to have messages or anything, this just really feels like one that would.

Instead, this film is all about the four performances, which some have called four of the finest performances in film, a suggestion with which I will respectfully disagree, and about the marvelous script that the Edward Albee play of the same name lent them to work with. Richard Burton is on top of his game, Elizabeth Taylor is a little too melodramatic for me to stomach at times, Sandy Dennis is a little annoying but acts EXACTLY like a drunk girl so I'll give her props for that, and George Segal could have been a cardboard cutout of George Segal and the performance would have been of a similar caliber. There, I said it.

I won't call this movie overrated because, as far as I know, no one really rates it all that highly. (#242 is not THAT impressive, settle down) I won't call it great either, though. It only has a few tricks to pull out of the bag, and since they're executed at varying levels of greatness and not at a consistently high level, I can't give it the "masterpiece" tag. I just won't use the word that lightly.

The Good: Richard Burton's performance and the fantastic script.

The Bad: Cinematography is pretty awful. This could be a radio broadcast and I would be as riveted.

The Skinny: Soon it will be gone, and that will be just. Sorry, Virginia.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Day Sixteen: Shaun of the Dead

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #245
Year: 2004
Director: Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

The bottom ten of the IMDb Top 250 is not a safe place to be for a film. They change on a daily basis, and anything that finds itself in that 250th spot can pretty much consider itself a goner since at least two or three movies that will become Top 250 staples are released every year. The bottom of the list also serves as a location where there's generally several movies that make you say "Huh, that's on the list?", and as great as Shaun of the Dead is, it's one of those movies.

Don't get me wrong, I would include Shaun in a personal top five comedy list along with cult classics like Office Space, Tommy Boy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the totally unfuckwithable The Big Lebowski. It's still a little bit jarring to see it on a list with the likes of The Godfather and Casablanca. I think it's a testament to the wisdom of IMDb users, though. On paper, Shaun of the Dead shouldn't be allowed to sniff a list like this: it's a romantic comedy spoof of zombie movies. That sounds either terrible or overly campy. Writing team Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg prevent either of those things from happening with their razor sharp that walks a line between poking fun at zombie movies and embracing the genre, never falling too far into either. In fact, this is probably my favorite zombie movie of all time, and it's not even a "true" zombie movie.

The voters have spoken and put it in that bottom section of the Top 250. Maybe it won't be there for long, but it deserves to be there forever. I don't have too much to say about it besides that a) I love it and it's one of only two zombie movies that I actually own on DVD, and b) it's the funniest non-Monty Python piece of British comedy, film or otherwise, ever to exist. My mind is a little preoccupied because I'm seeing Inception in about an hour, which is already at #3 – yeah, Number Fucking Three – on the Top 250, and I'm way too excited to overthink something that's on Comedy Central every week. If you somehow haven't seen this movie, please do. It's great.

The Good: The general expectation-defying greatness of the film in general.

The Bad: A few esoteric jokes don't work, but I think most comedies have something shy of a 1.000 batting average.

The Skinny: Well-deserved spot. Good on you, voters.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day Fifteen: Annie Hall

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #133
Year: 1977
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton

There's only one correct answer to the question "What is the worst genre of film?" – romantic comedies. Even horror, a genre saddled with dozens of basement-quality releases every month, has a better batting average than rom-coms. In the history of film, I can count on one hand the number of movies given the romantic comedy tag that I would willingly sit through. Fortunately, Annie Hall is one of them.

A lot has been said about Diane Keaton's performance in this movie, how her character (and her character's fashion sense) liberated women in a totally new way. It's a little weird to think about that now in 2010 since there's a thousand hipster girls that act like Annie Hall that most of us probably wish didn't, but at the time, it's pretty obvious that she was doing something pretty new by wearing a shirt and tie and smoking marijuana before sex.

Her character is interesting, but far from the best part of the movie. That would be Woody Allen. And rightly so, seeing as he wrote, directed, and starred in the damn thing. As neurotic Jewish comedian Alvy Singer, he dominates the screen and completely runs the show not unlike Groucho in a Marx Brothers picture – who he cites several times as he shows his impressive knowledge of comedy history, which he holds in reverence. Nearly everything that comes out of his mouth brings laughs, which is shocking considering how much fucking talking he does. There seriously might be a words-per-minute for a movie character record in this film, but it's actually endearing, not obnoxious. That's to Allen's credit, as I can see the same character being annoying in a lot of actors' hands.

It's a little weird to see a romantic comedy – even though it is a great one, and probably the best – this high on the IMDb Top 250, but it does what every romantic comedy tries to do and actually succeeds. Men who watch this movie will fall in love with Annie Hall, and women who watch this movie will fall in love with Alvy Singer. Or perhaps I should say intellectual men will fall in love with Annie Hall rather than whatever brainless, boob-flaunting Megan Fox character is popular at the time, and intellectual women will fall in love with Alvy Singer instead of Gerard Butler and Patrick Dempsey's buff, five-o'clock-shadowed manly men who are still kind of sensitive even though they're giant douchebags.

Please pardon the cynicism and elitism that drips from that last sentence, but Alvy Singer has kind of put me in the mood.

The Good: Alvy Singer. He's what every smart, funny, interesting guy should want to be, maybe without all the neuroses.

The Bad: Like a Marx Brothers movie, sometimes the movie just exists as a vehicle for Woody Allen to tell jokes. Only in a Marx Brothers movie, that's expected and all you're really there for. Here, it sometimes feels cheap.

The Skinny: #133 sounds perfect to me. I really need to start disagreeing with this list more.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Day Fourteen: The Professional

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #35
Year: 1994
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Jean Reno and Natalie Portman

It's only Day Fourteen of this blog, but it's hitting me. I'm seeing way too many good movies to properly appreciate them. I used to have a personal top ten movies list. I was satisfied with it, and only a few movies jostled position or challenged to enter the list. I watched a new movie every few weeks, and a few of them would demand re-viewings. Most of those re-viewings showed me that the movie wasn't quite top ten material because of how much I loved my top ten.

That's all out the window now.

Now, I watch a movie just about every day that I think could be top ten material. Then, I don't rewatch it, because I have to watch another movie the next day. Then, that movie becomes something I ponder as possible top ten material. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I only bring this up because I know for a fact that I'm being unfair to The Professional by not thinking about it in terms of where it might belong in my all-time favorites canon. It is two hours of awesomeness with four – count 'em, four – absolutely phenomenal performances, a plot that wasn't worn out yet in 1994, and some of the best cinematography I've ever seen, and certainly the best of any action movie I've seen. (Those close-ups! My God!)

I say it's unfair to this movie because I truly believe that if I had time to sit down and watch it again next week, and didn't have to watch all kinds of other movies in the time between, it could legitimately make a run at my top five. The problem is that I'll never know – or won't know for another 230+ days, anyway. I should probably be making a list of movies to reevaluate when I finish the blog. The Professional would probably top such a list.

In any case, Luc Besson's action thriller is so much more than its genre lets on, and we get the unique treat of seeing the birth of one of the greatest actresses of our time in Natalie Portman's performance as twelve-year old Mathilda, a girl who moves in with a hit man after her whole family was gunned down by corrupt DEA officials. Unlike Chloe Moretz's Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, she appears to have been profoundly affected by the death of her family and plays the character as a twelve-year old girl would actually act in her situation, the fucked-up things she's seen and wants to do notwithstanding. On the many occasions where Mathilda cries, the tears look very genuine, and Luc Besson's camera work lets us see them from mere centimeters away. In fact, despite the fact that she has since grown up and become an Oscar nominee, this may be Natalie Portman's best performance. There's a whole 'nother blog post waiting to be written about the Mathilda character's premature sexualization and push into adulthood, but I'll leave that one for the true film auteurs.

But Portman's not alone. Jean Reno is sympathetic as Leon, Gary Oldman is vicious as Sam, and Danny Aiello is as Italian as humanly possible as Old Tony. They all add to the fabric of this French-made, English language masterpiece. I can't wait to watch it again sometime in 2011. Hopefully I'll love it as much as I did tonight.

The Good: Portman's performance, Besson's cinematography, and the beautiful dichotomy of "Fuck yeah!" moments and touching moments.

The Bad: If something about this movie was bad, I guess I missed it.

The Skinny: #35? Absolutely fair.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Day Thirteen: Big Fish

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #201
Year: 2003
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Ewan McGregor and Billy Crudup

This is going to be a quick post because a) I have some things to do before I leave for Cleveland and b) my mind is completely preoccupied because the reason I'm going to Cleveland is to see Iron Maiden. Still, this was my favorite movie of all time for a while when I was like 15, so I guess I should give it a decent treatment.

I'll say the same thing when I get around to writing about Ed Wood, but Tim Burton is at his best here. He's using his Terry Gilliam-esque imagination to create a lush fantasy world – he's better at that than even Gilliam, methinks – without succumbing to the temptation to make into something marketable as a t-shirt at Hot Topic. He's playful and expansive without using white makeup, eyeliner and black leather. Whether this is "true" Burton in the eyes of his fans, I have no idea, but it's certainly his best movie. He even stays the hell away from Johnny Depp for long enough to shoot a movie (Helena Bonham-Carter still appears).

The reason that I've shied away from this movie as of late is how derivative it is of every movie that ever used vignettes to tell a story. It's done interestingly to the degree that we see the actual representation of how tall tales are told – the scene where time literally stands still when Ed meets his future wife at the circus is done beautifully – but it's hard to think of this as anything but Forrest Gump with magic. Still, Burton's deft sleight of hand convinces us to keep watching, and anything that manages to be entertaining at least within its own idiom is worthwhile.

Big Fish also holds the distinction of being one of, like, five movies that have made me cry. SPOILERS: When Ed dies and his son is there with him after all his doubts and resentment and it all falls away because he realizes the one story that Ed told that was true was that he was dying, it was way too much for 14-year-old me to handle, and I cried. That scene is still poignant, even if it no longer evokes my tears.

Maybe it means something that this was my favorite movie of all time when I was 15 but now I wouldn't even let it sniff my top 25. But maybe that something is that this movie hits kids because they're less cynical, and this is a beautiful movie. I'll show it to one of my little siblings and find out (not really).

The Good: When Ed tells his tall tales and we see the actual associated visual, it's always gorgeous, and again, Burton beating Gilliam at his own game. Honorable mention to the fact that this movie basically introduced the world to Billy Crudup and Marion Cotillard, who have both become reasons to go to the movies in their own right.

The Bad: Very derivative. By 2003, this movie didn't really need to be made. It was, and it was good, but still.

The Skinny: I can't possibly dub a movie that used to be my #1 unworthy of #201, so hell yes, it belongs.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Day Twelve: The Lives of Others

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #57
Year: 2006
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Sebastian Koch and Ulrich Mühe

I should preface my thoughts on this movie with a few things: I visited Europe in the summer of 2008, and of all the cities I spent time in, I spent the longest in Berlin. Of the time I spent in Berlin, I spent the most time in East Berlin. While I was in East Berlin, my group visited the Stasi Museum. This was a profound experience for me – both because one of my teachers fell in love with the tour guide ("Stasi girl," as we called her. Note to all: if you fall in love with a woman, learn her name.) but also because the experience was truly chilling. We learned that it was very likely that one in every two East Berliners in the 1980s were informants for State Security. We saw the brilliant ways Stasi agents would put homes and vehicles under surveillance – a watering can with a camera in the spout was the most memorable. To think that this kind of widespread spying of a government on its own people was happening so recently in the Western world is kind of astonishing, but reality is indeed stranger than fiction.

Another profound lesson I learned from the Germans I got to know while I was in their country was that they, unlike so many Americans, are willing to admit their past faults and condemn them with a heavy hand. If the American Civil War happened in Germany, the countless rednecks with Confederate flags on their trucks would be paying steep fines for their so-called free expression. The fascinating information I learned at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, paired with my understanding of the German people's willingness to condemn their nation's ugly past sins, made me very excited to see The Lives of Others, the debut film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I knew the movie was about 1980s East Berlin and the stranglehold that the Stasi had on it, and I knew it was the kind of movie that could only be made by a German, in the German language, shot in Germany, and starring German actors. Any outside influence would serve only to make the whole experience less authentic.

Unsurprisingly, The Lives of Others is amazing. Immediately after it ended, my first thought was that this was the best German film I'd ever seen. My second thought was that it was the best foreign film I'd ever seen. In 140 bold minutes, von Donnersmarck transcended the best works of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and others for me. I'm not sure if I still have that opinion now that I've come down from it a bit, but I certainly don't think it's a ridiculous declaration.

The movie operates on two main levels: as a psychological examination of the watcher/watched relationship, and as a criticism of totalitarian rule and the flaws inherent in that system. The latter has been done a million times by a million writers, but the former brings up a more interesting series of questions. The combination of the two makes for one of the most fascinating premises for a movie that I've ever known.

I'm not going to bother with names for this synopsis since they are German and I would stumble upon them just typing them out, but in short, a playwright thought to be loyal is put under surveillance by the Stasi on a gut feeling that he may be disloyal, when the Stasi agent put in charge of snooping on him becomes sympathetic towards him and doesn't turn in any of the concrete evidence that the has against him. There's plenty more, including an important arc involving the playwright's actress girlfriend, who is a Stasi informant, but that's the general gist. The story itself is brilliantly told, but the film really shines as a study of characters – normal people, all – forced to live in a society that thinks it normal to spy on one's significant other and turn them in to be imprisoned if the situation sees fit. There's plenty of cynical German commentary on how they once were, and again, only Germany could make this film as powerful as it is.

Maybe I sound like a typical white American college-age snob when I say that I "get" this movie because I spent time in East Berlin, but I truly believe it. The fabric of that place is so indelibly stamped on The Lives of Others that I can hardly imagine enjoying it even half as much if I had never visited there. That being said, even that half-enjoyment would be enough to make this movie a masterpiece.

The Good: How incredibly German it is. I've harped on it already, but it couldn't be much more German, and that is its strength. Somehow I don't think calling Blue Collar Comedy Tour "incredibly American" would put it in the same category.

The Bad: HGW XX/7's character arc is a bit rushed. We don't really see how he goes from ruthless, cold-blooded Stasi company man to the guy who lets Dreyman get away with publishing an article about how East Germany causes suicide and then covers it up. It would be nice to know what the hell happened there.

The Skinny: Deserves its place. Unfortunately, "foreign" is not one of the genres that IMDb lets you sort lists by (And rightly so, "foreign" isn't a true genre, but that's another rant for another time), but if it were, I would expect to see The Lives of Others in the top ten. And it would deserve it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Day Eleven: The Dark Knight

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #11
Year: 2008
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale and Heath Ledger

If Toy Story 3 is 2010's controversial list-ascender, then The Dark Knight is 2008's – and possibly the first truly shit-stirring one of all time. To summarize a two-year old story, The Dark Knight stormed into theaters on a swell of hype surrounding Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker which may or may not have killed him, it was universally loved, everyone got trigger-happy with awarding a 10/10 on the IMDb, and it was in the Top 10 within a couple of days. Some people said this was ridiculous and evidence that the Top 250 was useless, cooler heads said it would drop over time. Well, two years later and it dropped a little, but is still the eleventh greatest movie of all time. Is this right?

In short: hell fucking yes. I'm about to go on a tirade, but if you have good taste in movies, you won't complain with a single word that I say. If you can't get behind a brilliantly crafted, dark movie about Batman that unequivocally destroys just about every comic ever written about the Caped Crusader, you don't have a soul. If you don't like watching career performances by Christian Bale ("Batman voice" notwithstanding), Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and above all, Heath Ledger, who deserved the posthumous Oscar he received for his role a thousand times over, then you don't deserve to have eyes. If you didn't jump the first time you saw the Joker's pencil trick, you shouldn't be going to the movies. Basically, if you can't see the merit in The Dark Knight being among the Top 250 movies of all time, you're crazy.

The people who complain about its high position are the same people complaining about Toy Story 3's high position. They probably all work for the American Film Institute – which, by the way, is a stronghold of backwards, conservative cinematic evil. The logic for wanting to keep The Dark Knight out of the top ten is the same logic that says the screenplay to Casablanca will never be bested so we might as well all stop trying. It's a logic that precludes any action movie, summer blockbuster, or, God forbid, comic book movie from ever being good enough to earn the kind of praise that The Dark Knight has earned. The only problem with this is that all the praise that the film has earned – and there have been heaps of it – has been completely justified. It is one of the most awe-inspiring achievements in the history of cinema, sacrificing none of its enormous visual and mythological scope in its quest for getting great performances from its cast and telling a great story with images and words. I hate to name-call, but the only people who can't appreciate this movie are elitist snobs, and that's coming from an elitist snob.

The Good: Heath Ledger's performance stands out as the best thing about the movie, but really everything about it is fantastic.

The Bad: Uh...I got nothing. Seriously, hate to be a fan boy, but what's not great about this movie? The Batman voice, I guess?

The Skinny: Deserves its spot. Would probably be even higher than #11 in my personal canon.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Day Ten: Million Dollar Baby

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #145
Year: 2004
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank

Alright, this is going to be a fairly short post as I am quite tired. I'll lead off with the kicker: This is probably my least favorite Clint Eastwood movie that I've seen, considering both acting and directing. However, it's the one that makes me respect him the most, because you can feel him stretching his limits and operating outside of his comfort zone. For a guy who cut his teeth in spaghetti westerns, had his most famous role as a rogue cop, won his first directing Oscar with a western, and inspires cries of "Whoa, badass!" in every performance, a movie where he plays a boxing trainer – albeit a somewhat grizzled and hardened one – who (gasp!) cries and is faced with the decision of whether to pull the plug on the person he loves most in the world is miles outside of the box. That alone deserves commendation.

While I was very impressed by Million Dollar Baby, I simply enjoyed watching it less than other Clint flicks. It caught me somewhat off guard. Maybe I shouldn't be so anxious to compare movies to other works by their stars and directors, though. If we let Million Dollar Baby stand on its own as a singular entity and lose all the baggage of the man behind it, it holds up a lot better. It's a little Oscar-baiting, sure, but it's still very good. Hilary Swank is great as a boxer who came from nothing only to return to it after a title bout paralyzes her, and she probably deserved all the hardware she took home for the role. Morgan Freeman is his typically lovable self as an ex-boxer and partner of Clint Eastwood, whose Frankie Dunn is the most emotionally complex character he has ever played.

It's best to consider Million Dollar Baby a drama that happens to have Clint Eastwood in it rather than a Clint Eastwood movie, because someone wanting to see a "Clint Eastwood movie" may not be pleased with the results. For someone who wants their heart-strings tugged on a little bit and doesn't mind feeling crummy after watching something, this is a much better bet.

The Good: Hilary Swank's performance. Not overrated in the least.

The Bad: The cinematography is ridiculously dark a lot of the time. I know it's a dark movie, Clint, but I don't need a million shadows in every shot to remind me of the fact.

The Skinny: This is one that I'm kind of battling with on whether it should be included in the Top 250 or not. It's a good movie, but it definitely only exists to bring home Oscars. It's executed far better than Crash or Slumdog Millionaire or something like that, but it still feels kind of borderline. I think I'd include it on the list but put it closer to #250 than #150.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Day Nine: Die Hard

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #109
Year: 1988
Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman

On the Netflix page for Die Hard, the first critic's review listed is that by Roger Ebert, who smugly puts the film in its place with a blurb saying that its "inappropriate and wrongheaded interruptions reveal the fragile nature of the plot and prevent it from working." No one cares, Roger. Perhaps you missed the memo, but Die Hard is a movie about a badass cop being as big of a badass as humanly possible while fighting a dozen evil, German terrorists. It's an unspeakably masculine action movie with its own testosterone supply, and it therefore precludes itself from answering to any criticism that presupposes it to be anything else.

With twenty-plus years of reflection and three sequels, it probably goes without saying that Die Hard succeeds in its mission to kick the ass of every person that watches it. But the very fact that this is an action movie that relies heavily on gun battles, state-of-the-art-for-their-time explosions, and a script that bestowed "Yippee ki-ay, motherfucker!" into the American lexicon raises some eyebrows. Can a pure adrenaline rush of a movie be discussed alongside, say, Casablanca?

According to the IMDb's thousands of users, the answer is yes. There aren't many movies like Die Hard on the Top 250 – there's really none, in fact, unless you count The Bourne Ultimatum. But Bruce Willis as John McClane breathed life into the action genre not by breaking the mold and trying to do something more arty or film-school-chic with it, but simply by executing the living hell out of it. There's nothing new or state-of-the-art in Die Hard. There's just 133 minutes of an unbelievably awesome cop killing twelve terrorists with superior firepower. That's all. It succumbs to some clichés of the action genre, but isn't too cheesy to take seriously, and the ending is perfectly satisfying. For action movie fans, it's hard to imagine any other film being the genre's holy grail. For movie fans who aren't particularly interested in action flicks – yours truly included – it has everything that makes the genre so safe and familiar while still knocking you down with its endless barrage of explosions and gunfire at every corner. It's even reasonably well-acted.

If every action movie was as good as Die Hard, perhaps the genre's name wouldn't be a derogatory term used to describe whatever Michael Bay is working on. Since that's never going to happen, if you want to watch an action flick, you may as well start here.

The Good: "Yippee ki-ay, motherfucker!" 'Nuff said.

The Bad: Wasn't a big fan of how the TV crew was portrayed as a bunch of bumbling child endangerers. That's not how (most) journalists act, promise!

The Skinny: Deserves its spot. Yippee ki-ay.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Day Eight: Kind Hearts and Coronets

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #187
Year: 1949
Director: Robert Hamer
Starring: Alec Guinness and Dennis Price

It is, of course, natural that on an undertaking so massive as watching the entire IMDb Top 250, that even for a serious film fan, there would be some movies on the list that carry with them absolutely no expectations. For me, Kind Hearts and Coronets is one such film. Aside from a very intriguing blurb about one actor playing eight members of a noble family on Netflix, I knew nothing about this movie going in. In an era where everything is analyzed and overanalyzed by any dummy with Internet access – this dummy included – it's a rather nice luxury to watch a movie without any preconceptions of it whatsoever.

What I got with Kind Hearts and Coronets was an exceedingly well-executed black comedy that laid the groundwork for a number of elements of modern film, namely the one-actor-as-many-characters device and the man-convicted-of-a-crime-he's-innocent-of-when-he's-really-guilty-of-another plot twist. For a movie that is so rarely talked about, it certainly feels influential. And considering the little talk one does hear about it revolves around Alec Guinness' multiple performances, thankfully, that is not the movie's only strong point.

The plot is simple enough, but again, executed brilliantly. Dennis Price plays Louis, a young man (and if we're being honest, a total dandy – I'm sure they tried to cast Oscar Wilde's ghost before Price stepped up) whose mother has been disowned by her noble family for marrying a commoner. When they refuse to let her be buried in the family cemetery, Louis decides to kill everyone standing between him and the dukeship. Through a series of inventive death gags – in one of the most memorable, a cousin fond of photography has the paraffin in his dark room swapped out for petroleum – he finally reaches his goal, only to find another obstacle in his way once he is knighted. The script is sometimes dated, but quite a few of the jokes were still able to earn my laughter, and Louis is a satisfying if unspectacular narrator.

Somehow, it feels like there isn't too much that can be said about this movie. It's extremely enjoyable, but there doesn't seem to be much under the surface, and it feels more like a fun way to spend two hours than a masterpiece capable of spurring debate. Does that make its inclusion in the Top 250 wrong? In some ways, it feels so, but the fact that I can't name any movie that has taken its formula or its many devices and done them any better or, perhaps more importantly, any earlier does enough to justify its position to me. Masterpiece is too strong a word for it, but Kind Hearts and Coronets is still a very good movie worthy of more praise than it seems to receive.

The Good: The cliché answer here is Alec Guinness' eight performances, and while they're great, the pacing and plot of the movie shines through. While even the best older movies can seem slow-paced or boring to modern audiences, this film is neither.

The Bad: Louis, while a likable character, is way too much like Oscar Wilde to take seriously at times. It's hard to believe that someone who is as likely to wear a flower in his hat or break into poetry would also be capable of shooting a man point blank.

The Skinny: Deserves to be on the list, though possibly a bit lower.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Day Seven: Toy Story 3

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #6
Year: 2010
Director: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Tom Hanks and Tim Allen

There's probably no more controversial movie on the Top 250 than Toy Story 3. It's not that the most people would argue with its presence in the Top 250. It's simply that it's so high. I'm sure when I go back and re-read this blog in 10 years, this movie will have dropped to somewhere in the 200s and I'll have a good laugh about where the Internet movie community was during the summer of 2010.

Personally, I saw Toy Story 3 at its midnight premiere on June 18th, and I loved it. Its final twenty minutes or so nearly made me cry multiple times. (Incidentally, the last movie to nearly make me cry was Up, Toy Story 3's predecessor in the Pixar canon.) It very well may be the best Pixar movie, and I think it's certainly the best movie in the Toy Story trilogy. In my opinion – and yes, from here on out, I'm kind of going to be playing Devil's advocate – the concerns that so many have voiced with its high placement on the list have nothing to do with its quality as a film. It's because of reasons that the high-and-mighty bashers would never admit: it's an American animated movie, it's wildly popular, and it's from 2010.

Yes, the movie elite would like to have us believe they're unfailingly open-minded, but seeing a movie that doesn't satisfy certain "classic" criteria in the top ten films of all time makes their skin quiver. Never mind that Pixar has completed its fifteen year quest to fuse the fantastical elements inherent in any animated movie with earnest emotion and a universal but never heavy-handed message. It can't be that a movie that shot to #1 at the box office and appeals primarily to the age 0-110 demographic could also be one of the best ever made. Could it?

I may not be the best or most impartial judge – my life's milestones have more or less lined up with those of Andy, the film's only human protagonist – but I say it could. I'm not a sentimental person. I can probably count one hand the number of items I still own that I owned before my teenage years, if I can be bothered to think of any at all. But that doesn't matter. Andy is a sentimentalist, and that's enough. In the film's final scene (SPOILERS, but seriously, has anyone not seen this movie at this point?), Andy is forced to look Sheriff Woody in the smiling, plastic face and give him to a preschool-aged girl who wants to take care of him. In an extremely genuine moment that never descends into melodrama, Andy slowly passes the toy off and says (pardon the long quote) "Now, Woody, he's been my pal for as long as I can remember. He's brave, like a cowboy should be. And kind, and smart. But the thing that makes Woody special, is he'll never give up on you...ever. He'll be there for you, no matter what."

My eyes started to sting as tears worked their way into them. It's difficult to imagine a more perfect scene. Not in an animated movie or a movie made in 2010 or in a movie that was tops at the box office in its opening weekend, but in a movie. Any movie. Is #6 a little high on the IMDb Top 250 for this film? Perhaps, but it's merely because there's more than five movies better than it, and not at all because it has any shortcomings of its own. Toy Story 3 exists because there are still people out there who want to make movies that are both entertaining and enlightening, that can satisfy the heart and the mind, the young and old, and because there are still people who want to go to movies like that. It's a slap in the face to Hollywood cynicism, and a great equalizer of a film that aligns the world into two camps: people who loved it, and idiots.

I'm rambling, so I'll leave it at this: Toy Story 3 is damn near perfect, and if you somehow haven't seen it yet, you owe it to yourself to do so. That's all.

The Good: The emotion and the message. Ever since Ratatouille, the balance between family fun and heartstring-tugging has been swaying towards the latter, and this may be the fullest embrace of that yet.

The Bad: The "I don't think those were Lincoln Logs" joke got no laughs in my theater. And rightly so. Leave those jokes for Shrek 5.

The Skinny: Fuck the haters, I can get behind Toy Story 3 at #6 just like I could get behind The Shawshank Redemption at #1. No, it isn't my personal sixth favorite movie ever, but it has everything I look for in a movie and more. If the consensus is that this is the sixth best movie of all time, so be it. The general public could do a lot worse.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day Six: The Wild Bunch

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #186
Year: 1969
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: William Holden and Emilio Fernandez

Allow me to give a brief synopsis of my presently short (and therefore still torrid) love affair with the Western genre. In April of this year, I started reading previews for Red Dead Redemption. It sounded absolutely amazing, and screen shots revealed that it looked pretty much the same. Then, Willie Nelson's verse in the Highwaymen's "The Last Cowboy Song" ("Remington showed us how he looked on canvas/And Louis L'Amour has told us his tale") inspired me to do some research, and I started falling in love with the imagery of the Old West. Before long, I bought Red Dead Redemption and checked out Sergio Leone's Man With No Name trilogy, and became totally obsessed with the Western genre. My only experience with Westerns prior to April had been through Shane, which I disliked when I saw it in the 8th grade and have yet to give another chance to. Now, though, Westerns are my bread and butter, and I jump at the opportunity to see one I haven't seen yet.

That brings us to The Wild Bunch. Praised as an American answer to Leone's spaghetti westerns, Sam Peckinpah's 1969 epic is the tale of a rowdy group (nice synonym work, right?) of aging outlaws who get conned on what they hope is their last job and end up having to collude with an unscrupulous Mexican general. The gang is headlined by a fairly cool William Holden who clearly wants to one-up Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name performances with his own as Pike Bishop – and doesn't, by the way. The typically beautiful setting that is the trademark of any Western stands out as the protagonists hover around the Texas-Mexico border for most of the film's 180 minute duration.

A few things separate this movie from Leone's superior contemporary Westerns in a positive way, though: For whatever reason, American censors in 1969 must have been more tolerant of violence and sexuality than Italian censors. The impressive gunfights actually result in bloodshed unlike those in the Man With No Name flicks, and there's a wonderful abundance of – pardon my language – great Mexican tits, mostly those of prostitutes. These things might seem gratuitous, and I might sound adolescent for even mentioning them, but they do lend some realism to the film that was missing in contemporary Westerns.

Somehow, despite its merits and its faithful execution of the spaghetti western formula, nothing feels truly special about The Wild Bunch. It just feels like a good movie, one that you would never turn off if you stumbled upon it on TV, but still one that you would never buy on DVD. It's well-executed, but it's missing that certain special something that pushes Sergio Leone's and Clint Eastwood's contributions to the genre to the next level. There's nothing wrong with The Wild Bunch, per se, but there's nothing to make it stand out from the field of other movies that there's nothing wrong with, either. Still, it's several steps better than mediocre, and it's certainly worth a viewing, especially for someone with an interest in the genre.

The Good: The gunfights are all wonderfully choreographed and realistic, and they don't feel like something we've seen a thousand times before like so many gunfights tend to feel. Honorable mention to the fact that this is the crispest, nicest looking pre-1990s movie I've ever seen. Maybe I'm ignorant and the DVD was simply remastered, but the camera shots look amazing.

The Bad: There's quite a few scenes where Pike has flashbacks, and those are rather poorly executed. It's tough to even know what's going on until you've seen a few of them, and at that point, you're kind of rolling your eyes. I'm sorry for using lots of first and second person in this blog post, too. Really, I am. I'm very tired and LeBron James plays for the Miami Heat now.

The Skinny: Probably doesn't really deserve to be in the Top 250, especially considering the fact that The Outlaw Josey Wales and A Fistful of Dollars are not.