Sunday, January 9, 2011

Days 151-154: Playing Catch-Up After Winter Break

Year: 1972
Ranking: #206
Director: Joseph Mankiewicz
Starring: Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine

Year: 1999
Ranking: #26
Director: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss

Year: 1984
Ranking: #87
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro and James Woods

Year: 2007
Ranking: #167
Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Patton Oswalt and Lou Romano

So, even though I only did one Top 250 post over my winter break from college – It's a Wonderful Life, obviously; 'twas the season – I did actually watch some other movies on the list. I was occupied mainly with seeing films from 2010 so I could finalize my year-end list, and in turn, writing about those, but I did get around to watching four other movies on the list. I didn't have time to write them up, but now that I do, I feel like I might as well lump them all into one post. I might give them somewhat shorter shrift than I normally would, but this is just more convenient, so deal with it. So, in the arbitrary order that Blogger uploaded the photos of the posters, here goes!

Sleuth: 249 of the movies that were on the IMDb Top 250 when I undertook this project currently have Region 1 DVD releases. The one that does not is Joseph L. Mankiewicz's quiet 1972 masterpiece, his last film, Sleuth. Starring a not-that-old Sir Laurence Olivier and a wow-he's-young Michael Caine and absolutely no one else (more on that later), the film easily rises to the top of a microgenre that I can only wordily describe as "films adapted from stage plays with an incredibly limited cast that take place in a very small amount of space that have dialogue-heavy screenplays" – a genre which includes two other films I've watched for this blog off the top of my head, Rope and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – by actually needing to be a movie and not a staged play. Rope uses camera trickery to look like a play, while Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has no cinematography to speak of, but Sleuth has interesting camera shots galore (some of which incidentally reminded me of The Wicker Man, one of my favorite films of all time) and some truly arresting visuals that would be harder to communicate in the theater. Not only is Sleuth a movie, though; it's a great one. The mind games between Olivier and Caine's characters are a pleasure to keep up with and a studied viewing leads to several truly transcendent reveals. It lives and dies by its gimmick, but it's executed so well that it's hard to knock it. Now if we could just get a DVD release – the aesthetic of the film is undoubtedly not meant to be as grainy as the way my friend and I had to see it.

The Matrix: I hate to go all Armond White on this review, but I'm going to go against the grain of apparently the entire world and go on record as saying I basically hated The Matrix. Maybe some of the problem was expectations, since 26th on the IMDb Top 250 implies that it's in the top .000001% of films ever made, but I didn't really like it at all. Every performance (except for Joe Pantoliano as Cypher, the only interesting character in the film) was stilted and painfully free of nuance, the screenplay was terrible, the mythology wasn't remotely interesting even though two more movies, a video game, an animated series, and a comic book series would go on to further flesh it out, and basically everything except for the action sequences fell shy of what one should expect from a movie as well-respected as The Matrix is. There's better dystopian science fiction than this in every medium, and it's a shame that it's come to be the flagship of the genre. Disappointing.

Once Upon a Time in America: I'm an enormous fan of Westerns as anyone who reads this blog knows, and Sergio Leone is probably my favorite Western director. Once Upon a Time in America is one of two features he directed in his career that were not Westerns, and my immediate reaction after viewing it was that it's probably the second-best movie he ever made behind The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It's got the epic sprawl of his best work infused with an air of deadly seriousness that some would call Oscar-baiting but I found enchanting coming from Leone, someone nobody would normally accuse of being maudlin. Robert De Niro delivers one of the greatest performances of his career as small-time New York gangster David "Noodles" Aaronson at a time when he was regularly turning in career performances, and James Woods officially put his work on my radar as Noodles' partner and friend Max. Their stories are tragicomic, and they're played with the right mix of wryness and pathos to get what is undoubtedly Leone's team's best script across effectively. The half-the-film-is-when-the-leads-are-kids-half-is-when-they're-adults thing was done by another Italian auteur in the 1980s in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, and like that film, Once Upon a Time in America has masterpiece written all over it. I can't wait to revisit it, presumably after I buy it. Great film.

Ratatouille: This is the only one of the films in this post that I had already seen prior to my winter break. It's a Pixar movie, so it can fairly safely be assumed that I loved it – and indeed I did. It's the story of a rat living in Paris who loves gourmet food and lucks into a scheme that allows him to cook it in a fancy restaurant. It's a charming story carried by a stellar voice cast and it contains the best scene – food critic Anton Ego's (voiced brilliantly by Peter O'Toole) meal of ratatouille, revelation on learning who cooked it, and ensuing review in the next day's newspaper – that Pixar has ever done. Pixar's movies are so ubiquitous that it's difficult for me to imagine that anyone reading this hasn't seen it, but if you haven't, do. It's wonderful.


  1. Haven't seen Sleuth;
    Matrix is extremely overrated;
    Ratatouile was nice, but dont remember that much from it now.
    That leads me to the last point. How on earth did you (as a Leone fan) not see Once Upon a Time in America eaarlier? OK, I have seen it only once aswell (because of the long runtime), but oh lord how powerful it was. I usually get dirty looks on me, but I never hesitate to state this above the Godfather franchise. Maybe it is not the better movie, but it left a far more deeper impact on me than any of the Godfathers.
    He started off humorous and stylish, but later on Leone found all the depths of human soul and he has become quite undoubtedly my favorite director of all time. Although, I doubt he could have managed it without Morricone.

  2. So true - I should have mentioned the score. Morricone is by far the best film composer of all time and this was one of his best. I don't know if Leone can top the Coens, Lynch, or Kubrick for me, but he is absolutely amazing and one of my favorites.

    You should try to see Sleuth. :D

  3. Hehe, you know I love most of Coens (especially Fargo) and Kubrick aswell. Hmm, on Lynch I am kinda divided. He might be too weird/powerful for my taste. So far I've seen Mulholland, Blue Velvet and Elephant Man, and I can't say that I am in love. I love some parts of Mulholland though, especially the ending.
    What else would you suggest from Lynch then? Lost Highway? Eraserhead?

  4. Eraserhead, then Inland Empire. They're probably his two weirdest but for some people they could be argued as his best.

    Mulholland Dr., I've decided, is my favorite movie of the last ten years, though. So nothing is gonna top that for me, haha.

    If I had to rank the Lynch movies I've seen, I'd go:

    1. Mulholland Dr.
    2. Eraserhead
    3. Blue Velvet
    4. The Elephant Man
    5. Inland Empire
    6. The Short Films of David Lynch
    7. Lost Highway

    Haven't seen Dune, Wild At Heart, the full run of Twin Peaks or the accompanying movie "Fire Walk With Me," or The Straight Story yet. Aside from the Twin Peaks stuff, I pretty much get the impression that I don't need to haha.

  5. Do you think Patton Oswalt "sold out" with the rat movie? It reminds me of David Cross in Garfield and Zach Galifianakis in G-Force. My take - It gets them exposure, money, and future opportunities to pursue their own artistic projects with the backing/respect of bigwigs in the industry. What are your thoughts?

  6. Presuming that you mean Alvin and the Chipmunks for David Cross, here's the IMDb ratings for those three movies. A flawed rating system but effective enough to make my point:

    Ratatouille: 8.1
    G-Force: 5.0
    Alvin and the Chipmunks: 5.5

    So, no, I don't think of it as "selling out" because everyone is entitled to make as much money as they can in this business, but I think Patton Oswalt made a better decision than the other two guys in choosing what job to take on. If Zach did a voice for the American dub of Howl's Moving Castle and David Cross voiced a new character in Toy Story 3, nobody would make a peep about selling out. I don't have anything against them making shitty kids' movies, but it would certainly look better on their filmographies if they made good kids' movies to help pay the bills.

    Besides, if anything, I'd argue that starring as Spence in The King of Queens is more egregious than doing an animated flick. That show is funny enough for an it's-always-on sitcom, but Oswalt's character has exactly nothing about what makes his stand-up act so good.

  7. I meant Alvin, sorry. And I agree with Spence on King of Queens; knowing about that character didn't help me get into Patton's comedy...I had to discover it and approach it from a different angle.

    And David Cross actually did voice over on Spongebob, Halo 2, GTA: San Andreas, Kung Fu Panda, Megamind, Futurama, Aqua Teen Hungerforce, etc. He is a great voice actor, but I have to separate that from his great works(his stand-up, his comedy albums, Mr.Show, Arrested Development) and his terrible works (Scary Movie 2, Year One, Men in Black II).

  8. Haha, he's like the world-class drummer who does session work for pop stars to make rent of the comedy world, isn't he?

  9. These are all very well written reviews that I agree with!!!
    Matrix especially. Goddamnit the next fanboy I meet I might just punch in the face. Coming from someone who has actually sat through the sequels I can tell you that you are completely correct about the universe of the films. It doesn't get any better or more interesting.
    When I did the top 250 there was a movie near the bottom that I don't think is there anymore called Dark City. If you've seen it then you already know that it was The Matrix before The Matrix only done better if you haven't I STRONGLY recommend it. It's fantastic.
    And while I disagree with the Critic's scene in Ratatouille being Pixar's best scene (don't get me wrong it's definitely top 10 but I think that I prefer Marlin holding Nemo and flashing back/ the incenerator of TS3 over it) I actually very strongly agree with all of the films on this list!
    Welcome back!!!