Today we’re continuing our countdown of the ten movies I love so much I could watch them on a loop (just putting this column together has prompted me to revisit some of them). These are the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me, the cream of the crop, and possibly some other metaphor involving dairy products that I just can’t think of right now.
More to the point, these are the top five.5) JFK: It still shocks me to think about the number of times I’ve seen Oliver Stone’s three-and-a-half hour cut of this film. Five times, at least, and portions of it another five. I could watch the scene with Donald Sutherland’s Mr. X every day for a year and never grow tired of it. I can’t think of a film more packed with expository dialogue, and yet Stone’s direction, combined with Robert Richardson’s Oscar-winning photography and Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s editing (they also won Oscars), makes this film absolutely riveting. And it irritates me, nay… infuriates me, that the film is so casually disregarded by so many for it’s factual inaccuracies. Look- Oliver Stone doesn’t know who killed Kennedy, and he doesn’t think he knows who killed Kennedy. What he does is present you with ALL of the things conspiracy theorists point to when making their case (and subsequently published an annotated script indicating the sources- reputable or not- for everything in the script), and says IF some version of this happened, what responsibility would we, as Americans, have to the truth? Never has a film captured the political complexity of the time so completely, and used it as a reflection America’s growing distrust of its government. Was Kennedy assassinated? Who knows. But shouldn’t we be asking questions like that? Challenging? Demanding answers? Stone clearly feels that it’s part of our responsibility as Americans, and so does the astonishing cast he put together (6 Oscar winners among them), and so do I. This is one of the great American films of my lifetime.
4) Annie Hall: A romantic comedy where they don’t get together at the end. Not many filmmakers have the guts to do that at all. But only Woody Allen could do it and make it romantic, hysterical, full of outlandish characters that shatter the fourth wall, and yet get at some real truth about the way things work between men and women. The sad truth of it is, it takes more than love to make a relationship work, and the smallest things, minor insecurities (“You don’t think I’m smart enough for you!”) or personality flaws (“I have to see a movie exactly from the beginning to the end because I’m anal.”), can wreck an otherwise happy couple. It’s the kind of thing that never happens to Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant, but happens to real people all the time, and that’s what Allen gets exactly right here. Crimes and Misdemeanors is deeper, Love and Death is funnier, Manhattan is more romantic, but Annie Hall strikes the perfect balance between all these elements, and that definitely makes it my favorite Allen movie. Well, at least five days a week.
3) The Godfather Part II: Two words, folks. Al. Pacino. I’ve thought quite a bit about this, and his performance in this film is the finest piece of film acting I have ever seen. Better than Brando in the first one. Better than DeNiro’s performance as the young Vito, which won him an Oscar. I actually think the flashbacks bog the film down a bit, although the juxtaposition of Vito’s rise to power and Michael’s downfall are part of what makes the film so brilliant. But let me give you an example of how good Pacino is in the part. After someone tries to assassinate Michael, he first goes to Hyman Roth and tells him calmly that he knows it was Frank Pantangelli that tried to have him killed. Then he goes to Pantangelli, and nearly explodes with fury (“In my HOME! In my bedroom! Where my wife sleeps! Where my children play with their toys!”) while telling him that Roth is the one that tried to kill him. Watching it the first time, you’re not sure which story is true. But the truth is in the delivery; with Roth, he’s got his poker face on. With Pantangelli, he lets his emotions show, and we know with certainty that it was really Roth. And is there a more haunting shot in all of film than Michael sitting on the bench at the end, just broken. Intricate, brilliant, character-driven, and ambiguous in all the right ways… God, I love this movie.
2) 2001: A Space Odyssey : I can’t argue with people that don’t like 2001. It is boring. It’s indulgent. It borders on being unintelligible. I can’t imagine what the MGM execs were thinking when they looked at Kubrick’s cut of the film. And yet, it’s also one of the most stunningly beautiful films to just look at that have ever been made. Nearly every shot is a masterpiece. And the effects… for all the sci-fi that’s been done over the years, has anyone ever really spent so much time considering what it means to be weightless? The way Kubrick’s camera lingers on the pen that floats out of a sleeping traveler’s pocket, or the audacity of the single take in which a woman carrying a tray of food appears to literally walk upside down. So much of the film just seems like Kubrick saying to the audience “Look what I can do!” And yet, if you take the time to really analyze the content of the film, it’s not just nonsense that he uses to support his effects; the film actually has something profound to say about where we started as a species, and where we might be heading. Which is not to say that he (or I) believe aliens actually influenced our evolution, only that evolution is an ongoing process. We may not be bound to become Starchildren, but we are bound to become something, and it doesn’t seem like anyone but Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (and maybe Frank Herbert) have put much thought into what.
1)Jaws: Jaws is the only movie on this list that I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t like. As far as I can tell, it is almost universally appreciated on some level or another, and that’s a testament to how many levels it works on. It is not an exaggeration to say I’ve seen it fifty times, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say I’ve seen it a hundred. It gets better every time I see it. Jaws is the perfect synergy of Hollywood entertainment and character-driven art. Is there another movie that works so well as an action/adventure film (think of the music as they chase the shark in Quint’s boat), a drama (Brody’s relationship with his kids, especially following the fourth of July), and a horror film (the unforgettable opening with Chrissy getting attacked by the shark)? It has some very humorous scenes, and a delicate touch with the characters. One of my favorite moments comes early in the film, when Brody is walking through town on his way to the store. All around him people are milling about in the street, and yet he alone walks instinctively to the crosswalk, turns ninety degrees, and crosses there. Just like a New Yorker. He has a similar moment much later in the film when Quint and Hooper are comparing scars from their adventures, and poor Brody self-consciously lifts his shirt and touches his appendix scar. The whole movie is filled with moments like these that only become apparent under repeated viewings (check out Murray Hamilton’s suit, seriously). I have watched the film just to notice how carefully Spielberg frames all of his shots (I don’t think there has ever been a director more gifted at working with crowds), or to check out all the shark imagery we get before ever seeing the titular character on screen. All of the performances, the music, the editing… it’s hard for me to imagine a movie that could take its place in the #1 spot.
So there you have it, folks. Before I sign off, though, I’d like to throw in a few honorable mentions that, as I mentioned before, sometimes creep into the top ten. Christopher Nolan’s Memento is certainly one of those, with it’s brilliant structure and subtle existential themes. David Twohy’s painfully unappreciated Below is another. Twohy and co-screenwriter Darren Aronofsky wed a WWII submarine movie with a haunted house movie, and come up with something brilliant for the first two acts. It definitely has problems toward the end, but everything else is so good that it makes up for it. Pulp Fiction remains one of the most quotable movies ever made, and I can’t help but watch it once a year. Way off the track from the previous mentions is Harvey, which features one of Jimmy Stewart’s best performances in a movie that always leaves me in a good mood by putting life’s little problems into perspective. And finally, I have to mention Cool Hand Luke, whose director, Stuart Rosenberg, passed away recently. Luke is one of the great characters in screen history, and probably how I will always remember Paul Newman. I have never before, in my own life, tried to emulate a character who came to such a tragic end. I guess it’s about being true to yourself as much as anything, and as long as you do that, there are no tragic endings.
On that note, I believe I’ll call it a day. See you Monday for the box-office wrap.