First, a list of my all-time favorite films, in alphabetical order. These are the films I keep coming back to again and again over the years. They are movies I dwell on frequently, even if I haven't watched the movie for a long time. They are films I feel a personal connection to, or that simply press all my buttons. I've watched them all at least 2 or 3 times, and some of them much more than that.
Below are some reviews and reflections on films I've seen. You will find many of the movies from the above list elaborated upon. Some of these reviews are quite old, and I update them periodically if I have something new to say or think a review is getting stale.
ALIEN (updated 07/2012): It's tragic that such a perfect film spawned so many bad ones, but such was the power of a project overflowing with talents at the top of their game. There's so much to like here: the atmosphere and music capture the cold, isolated horror of outer space; the visit to the planet is a masterpiece, a movie within a movie. When you see the Space Jockey at his con, and the endless rows of eggs, you're spellbound by the mystery and strangeness — though confined in scope, this tale is taking place in a vast, creepy universe. The pacing is lean, the story straightforward but exciting. Despite decades of "progress" in special effects, the alien remains convincing and terrifying (as does the android, Ash). And then there are all the erotic undertones to add to your discomfort — the creature impregnating a man via his throat, the blatantly phallic appearance of the baby that explodes out of his chest, and even the way one of the women gasps and screams when the alien falls upon her. Is it any surprise Ripley is almost naked when the alien finally confronts her? The monster in the movie is virtually demonic, stalking and terrorizing its prey; before a kill, its face tenses into a sadistic mask, quivering and showering its victim in spittle. When Ash admits to admiring its "purity," that purity goes beyond the alien's predatory instincts or capacity for survival. The alien is actually evil, pure ego. And this movie was its best vehicle.
ALIEN (old blurb): What better movie to kick off the list than perhaps my favorite theater-going movie experience ever? My parents always raved about how this movie scared their pants off, but watching it on VHS when I was 10 proved a disappointment. Ten years later I got to see it on the big screen in a silent theater full of respectful long-time fans. It was a lot better. Don't watch this movie unless you have a big TV and surround sound speakers, and it happens to be night time. Otherwise, you're cheating yourself out of something special.
ALIENS: This sequel is often said to be better than the original, but I think Alien is in fact a slightly better film. The plot of Aliens gets a bit unwieldy at times, and it is surprisingly dialogue heavy — much of that dialogue fake "technical" jargon and explanations of things that either need no explaining or could've been said simpler (I had to sit through it once with subtitles on — trust me, don't bother). But you forgive it for all that, because it's one of the best damn science fiction and action films of all time. And that dialogue includes some of the finest, most quotable lines ever written for a movie. Each character is brought to life efficiently and delightfully by little touches like Sgt. Apone waking up from cryosleep and immediately chomping a cigar, or Hudson's seemingly infinite supply of immortal one-liners, or Lt. Gorman's fumbling with the names of his men. Because you feel for the characters, everything is exciting and fun. You care even when minor players buy the farm. And as for the action, James Cameron serves up slab after slab of red meat for his audience. It seems every scene has something to cheer, laugh about, or bite your nails over. Or all three. Aliens also presents us with one of the greatest, most iconic female heroes in cinema: Ellen Ripley. What makes her so awesome is that she has a wonderful character arc as she goes from scared, helpless civilian to gun-toting bad-ass. There's no feeling of trying too hard as with other female toughs (like Scarlett Johannson's turns in the Marvel movies); Ripley's toughness is realistic, credible (women tend to be naturals with guns, you know), and earned. A classic.
AN AMERICAN CAROL: What surprised me about Zucker's pro-America, anti-Hollywood movie was that it actually made me laugh. I thought it might come off as preachy, and it did (I enjoyed the preachy stuff in this case), but there were still some pretty funny bits. This is the guy that brought us Airplane, after all. Unfortunately, this movie felt sloppy and poorly edited, and some of the jokes badly misfired, but you could say that's part of its charm.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: The finest werewolf movie ever made. It starts out, appropriately, in the moors of England, where two Americans are backpacking. They seek shelter from the menacing environs at a local watering hole where the natives, who don't like outsiders, turn them out. As events unfold, one of these youths learns he may have fallen under the curse of the werewolf. He is warned that he will soon start killing, and that his victims will haunt the Earth as ghosts until either he is slain or commits suicide. The moral problems woven into the story bring this film a level of depth rarely seen in horror. It's also scary, funny, heartrending, and just a damn good time.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD: When people talk about this movie, they talk about Brad Pitt's fine performance. But I always liked him as an actor. What's impressive is Casey Affleck's portrayal of Robert Ford. It takes not only guts, but considerable skill to play a character so off-putting without overplaying it. From a writer's perspective, Robert Ford is tricky even to describe -- let alone act out. There's just something... unnatural about him; his social gracelessness, his moodiness, his approval-seeking behavior, the way he smiles, how he looks at others or fidgets. Set against Pitt's easy, un-selfconscious masculinity, the contrast is striking, at times painful. Who doesn't want to be Jesse James? Who isn't afraid he might have a little Robert Ford in him? And then there's the moral ambiguity: James is an outlaw, a murderer, and bringing him to justice ought to be right. Yet it isn't taken that way. The tale is set in a time when honor was a big deal and bedding down with a married woman was cause for a duel. Jesse James is a romantic figure, loved more as an idea than for the real dude he is, and no one buys into that romantic image more than Robert Ford. It's no surprise that Ford becomes disillusioned when faced with reality. Ford comes out as a betrayor who shoots people in the back only -- but James shoots people in the back, too. Ford is paranoid, but James is a little paranoid, too, isn't he? The movie is about a lot of things: friendship of course, and manhood, and celebrity (or rather, notoriety). It is also about perception: do we sympathize with James only because he's likeable as hell, and dislike Ford only because he gives us the creeps?
BATMAN BEGINS (updated 07/2012): Each time I've seen this film, I've admired it more; but some warts and shortcomings persist. Director Chris Nolan set out to make a trilogy of comic book/superhero films that don't feel like comic book films, which sets them apart in ways both good and bad. When I watch this, it doesn't feel like Batman to me, and maybe never will. Nolan's Gotham is not the stylized world that Tim Burton painted so brilliantly, but an ordinary modern city; the bad-guys aren't larger-than-life "super" villains, but realistic, human criminals. You would never meet Mr. Freeze or Poison Ivy here. For me, the movie is too understated, the action scenes a little awkward, but once you get past those foibles, you find a bracing film with sophisticated moral, even philosophical undertones. The premise is: Gotham (a microcosm of Western civilization) is dying in its own corruption, squalor, and decadence. Criminals and gangsters run rampant; civilians are cowed and miserable. Bruce Wayne runs away from that and into the tutelage of Ra's Al Ghoul, a fascistic mastermind determined to euthanize the desperate city. In a twisted way, his motives almost appear noble: he sees himself as an enlightened gardener managing civilizations, picking the winners and losers, pruning the weeds. Perhaps sometimes it's better to torch everything and start over. Some patients can't be saved. Ra's is driven by a contempt for weakness, and of course he views compassion as an expression of it. Discovering these designs, Bruce Wayne finally finds himself: he sees that compassion for and protection of the weak was his father's calling, and in turn it becomes his. He sets out to prove Ra's wrong and save Gotham, convinced that if someone would fight the corruption and make the streets safe, Gotham could rise again. Ra's, of course, is not amused. Thus, Batman Begins becomes not just another superhero flick about white and black hats, but a war of ideologies. This is also what The Dark Knight is about, and no doubt the third installment as well; and it is what makes them such mature, enduring films.
BATMAN BEGINS (old blurb): Batman's Gotham is a city without law, where those who love justice are marginalized and tormented. He seeks answers in Tibet (or wherever) under the tutelage of an ultra-rightist authoritarian who worships ultimate order. When this villain comes to destroy Gotham, Batman decides to save it with his own tough medicine. But he can do so only if a few good men will stand up and work for the city's rebirth. Possibly the most overhyped movie of its decade (I would call the sequel that, but it came closer to living up to its hype), but still a great movie.
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES: This movie could've been amazing, but was just average. Still, there are a lot of haters, so I wanted to defend it. First, the bad: there are some unintentionally funny lines, but the dialogue isn't the worst I've heard. The score is terrible and mismatched - in some scenes the mood of the music contradicts what's happening on screen. The explanation for the alien invasion - "they want our water" - well, there are simply no words. The biggest flaw, though, is the pacing: the movie is only two hours but it feels like three. With all that said, there's a lot to like. The combat scenes are exciting and I did, in fact, care what happened to the characters. I got all emotional when the supposedly harmless civilian grabs a gun and fires on the invaders, laying down his life to save others. The depiction of the military was very cool, and they actually had Marines on set at all times to make sure every detail was as authentic as possible. In some ways it felt closer to what it might actually be like if our military was in a ground war with invading aliens. There was no Will Smith punching out an alien saying "Welcome to Earth!", no creepy scientist saying "don't shoot, ve have to study zem," no evil corporation trying to steal alien technology, no awkward references to the War on Terror or politics. Nobody wondered aloud if Earth would be better off without us, or if we're really the monsters.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: This film really hit me where it hurt. The most bitter and damning of Charlie Kaufman's movies, it makes some ghoulish suggestions and leaves us to sort them out. John Kusack is your typical artist struggling for recognition, who suspects that, given his abilities, if only he were famous and good-looking, not only would his art be loved, he would be desired by women currently out of his league. And it turns out... he's right! What revelation could be more devastating, more terrifying, than that?
THE BIRDS: I hear a remake is on its way, which disgusts me. Everyone who likes movies should be required to watch this. It's my favorite Hitchcock movie of the handful I've seen. I saw it about 4 years ago and had no idea what to expect. But they don't call Hitchcock the master for nothing. It's scary, original, unpredictable, hair-raising and just plain awesome on every level. I consider this a Horror movie.
BLACK CHRISTMAS: One of the best slasher flicks I've ever seen, possibly the best. It is so scary because it is so believable, unshowy and unfancy, and because it perfectly exploits the "murderer calling from upstairs" concept. I wonder if this would be as effective on young people who grew up in the age of cell phones.
BLADE RUNNER: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) hunts down androids called Replicants that resemble humans more closely with each model. Not only is it a great thriller that questions the meaning of being human, but a thoughtful movie about death and the brevity of life shared by both humans and the replicants. On last viewing I picked up a theme of control and self-determination, too: notice the machines barking orders at people in the street scenes.
BLOOD SIMPLE: Blood Simple is one of the early Coen brothers movies, and it's at least as good as any of their others. It takes place in Texas, with the creators' usual adultery and murder antics.
BLUE VELVET: I had trouble learning anything about this "cult classic" before seeing it. People seem to think of it as something you just have to see. I disagree. It follows a young man who sort of pretends to be a private eye and gets himself into a lot of trouble. The atmosphere is incredible -- although you see a supposedly innocent American small-town, there's a sense of dread and awfulness running below the surface at all times -- a trick at which Lynch is the master. The book Night in the Lonesome October, by Richard Laymon, is fairly similar. When I talk to people who've never seen a Lynch movie, I always tell them to see this one first. If you only see one of his movies, this should be it, not necessarily because it's his best, but because it's the most accessible.
BODY HEAT: An agonizing but brilliant tale of a man falling for the wrong woman. The basic idea is nothing groundbreaking: two lovers plotting to kill the woman's husband and make off with his money. But the story is told with great panache, brought to life by a standout score and cast.
BRAZIL: A little known movie that feels like science fiction and plays out as a nightmare. A romantic young man seeks the woman literally of his dreams in a Kafka-esque world that looks like the future but is meant to reflect the present. It comments on many important issues of today, from plastic surgery to terrorism.
THE BROOD: How have I not yet written about one of my favorite horror movies? This is one of the scariest out there, too, because of the kid-monsters. Like all Cronenberg's films, a lot is going on here psychologically - marital stress, child abuse, jealousy. It's a brilliant movie in that way. But that stuff aside, is there anything more unnerving than a hideous child-like creature sneaking up on you?
THE 'BURBS: Tom Hanks plays a paranoid suburban dad in this classic family movie. His neighborhood (populated mostly by screwballs like him) is being haunted by a family straight out of a 1930s Horror flick. Very cute and funny.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS: For what it is, it's surprisingly effective. The cheapness and strange dialogue of the movie date it badly and make it appear to have been shot centuries ago, yet for all that it does have some scary and disturbing bits. I wonder if the plot twist -- that the protagonist has been dead since the opening scene -- was intentionally easy to figure out, or if 1950s audiences not yet immune to silly plot twists were actually surprised by the ending.
CAN'T HARDLY WAIT: This movie has a special place in my consciousness. It came out at a time in my life, high school, when I was at the peak of my boyish romantic idealism. Not only was Jennifer Love Hewitt, one of my all-time movie star crushes, in her prime when this came out, she also made a perfect stand-in for the girls I was infatuated with in school. I projected my feelings for them onto her character in the movie, and it was a two-way street: I wanted to make the events of the movie happen in real life with the real girls I was fawning over. Over the years, I've met many men of my generation who responded to this film exactly as I did, who crushed on Jennifer Love Hewitt, who dreamed of life imitating art in the form of this movie. It will simply come up in conversation among men, followed by knowing smiles and nostalgia. The problem is that the movie is a fairy tale. To me, no other movie captures so perfectly the myth of the dorky Nice Guy landing the hottest girl in the universe. The entire movie operates on the following premise: a nice guy in love has only to write deep love letters and "tell her how he feels" and he can have any girl he wants, if his love is sufficiently pure and strong... because all women really want is a man who worships them above all else. That's it. That's all it takes to get the girl. The older you get, the more you discover the complete opposite to be true. Sure, for the guy in the movie, it works because she's The One, and it's Destiny. Yes — because it's a movie. In real life, it doesn't matter if you think a girl is The One or that it's Destiny because she has to believe that too. On top of that myth, we get the cliche that the love interest's boyfriend is a jackass. Guess what: if you tell a girl her current or ex boyfriend is a piece of shit, you're in for a surprise. Very few men are so irredeemable or evil that no woman in her right mind would date them, and if a woman is with such a man, why would you want her? It's actually a reasonably good movie, and it's worth watching for Jennifer Love Hewitt alone; her hotness in this film is the stuff of legend. But be careful. Never forget that it's only a movie.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN: This was one of Stephen King's more kooky early stories, and the movie has a similar flavor. Not a great flick, but the fun factor is high. The corn fields even come close to being spooky sometimes. The real fun is watching super-annoying cultist kids get beaten up (can't make movies like that anymore!) and a pimply-faced teenager scream "Outlander!" every five minutes for most of the film.
CHILDREN OF MEN: When my roommate and I saw this, at the end of the movie the whole audience booed and hurried out of the theater. We were dumbfounded. It was a perfect ending to an awesome movie. It's the very near future and the whole world looks like a Guantanamo Bay nightmare. Human life is cheap and meaningless, and as a symbolic consequence, women can't conceive babies anymore. When one does, it's up to tough guy Clive Owen to escort her to safety. He never fires a bullet in the entire movie -- and that speaks volumes to the intelligence of the story. Maybe that's why the audience hated it.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE: Not my personal favorite by Kubrick, but arguably his masterpiece. A Clockwork Orange touches so many raw nerves and raises so many problems, it is really an unpleasant experience. Kubrick plays a cruel, ingenious trick: he gives us an abominable rogue who knows the wickedness of his lifestyle but exults in it anyway, who then voluntarily makes the choice to give up his free will in order to be good (an act duly questioned by, appropriately, a priest). Once his free will is gone, all his chickens come home to roost -- yet we don't want them to. We actually feel bad watching him suffer, even though he deserves all of it and more. Why? Because nothing is more infuriating than the loss of choice, the sensation that we have no control over even ourselves. Kubrick also makes the nightmarish suggestion that there is no redemption, and thus no reason to be good. One of the few movies said to be "subversive" that truly earns that distinction.
COOL HAND LUKE: When people ask me about my favorite movie I always say it's this one. Its unapologetic appeal against authority and for an individual refusing to tolerate bullshit has picked me up in many a difficult period. Luke is maybe my #1 film role model. And those who know my eating habits might think of me during the famous "50 Eggs" sequence.
COOL HAND LUKE (06/17/2012 update): I was reading about this movie recently and thought about how unlikely it should be that, the very first time I saw it, it instantly became my favorite film - and that it has remained at the top all through the ten years since. When my dad first showed it to me, I was in high school and had barely experienced life. But something about Luke and his relentless spirit struck a chord deep down. There were other movies that almost edged it out over the years (The Big Lebowski often feels like an extremely close second), and some viewings of CHL were not as compelling as others, but it has endured. The older I get, the more scenes click with me, and there are so many fantastic moments: "I wish you weren't so good to me boss," "What's Boss Kean's dirt doing in my yard?" "I'm shakin' the bush, boss, still shakin," the hounds and the pepper, and even the parking meters — "Just settlin' an old score."
COPLAND: I saw this shortly after it came out, and thought it was brilliant. Imagine my shock when the movie was quickly forgotten; almost no one I know has even seen it. Sylvestor Stallone got himself un-fit to play a Serpico-like disabled cop surrounded by corruption in New Jersey. It's heartrending and depressing as hell, but most filmmakers these days don't have the nuts to make something this way. And with conversations like:
CORALINE: This one really spooked me, with the fake parents with buttons for eyes. It reminded me of the old folk tale about the girl who goes against her mother's wishes and comes home to a horrifying "new mother." But what a great morality tale about parenthood. When you're a kid, it's easy to see your parents as just big people who say no, who make you do chores, who won't let you watch what you like or stay up as late as you want, who won't buy you the nice toys other kids have. You don't realize until much later that all those buzzkill things they did to you were for your own good. It has been said that horror in art tends to reaffirm Christian/traditional principles, and what could be more Christian than the two sets of parents here? The pair who are everyone's dream parents, offering more pleasures, comforts and freedom than any child could expect in a real family, are secretly bent on Coraline's total destruction.
THE DARK KNIGHT (updated 07/2012): "TDK" continues and escalates Nolan's Batman trilogy with an impressive Heath Ledger playing Batman's most famous rival, the Joker. This Joker is a significant departure from Jack Nicholson's and Mark Hamill's iterations, and from the Clown Prince of the comic books — and one could argue they had no choice, as it would be nigh impossible to top those performances. This Joker is less fun, less theatrical, and less twisted than what we're used to — alas, no Smilex or acid-squirting flowers — but in Nolan's universe he's quite effective and appropriate. Like Ra's Al Ghoul, he's ideological, but from the opposite end of the spectrum: Joker, a nihilist, believes civilization, rules, plans, and order are a lie we tell ourselves to sleep easier. He is bent on proving it is a lie; on tearing off the mask to show that underneath, we're all as ugly and empty as he is (as Batman himself puts it). It's what makes him terrifying. He has no rules, nothing to lose, and nothing he wants. He wants only to destroy and to make us like him. He wants to see crowds of formerly-decent people hunting down an innocent man to save their loved ones and blowing up strangers to save themselves. In a way, he is the Devil himself, and like the Devil, he insists constantly "I'm a man of my word," presenting himself as the champion of truth when he's clearly a master of lies and misdirection. He pretends to be a humble "dog chasing cars" while bringing Gotham to its knees with an elaborate shell game of bombs and assassinations; he promises to reclaim the gangsters' money, then burns it; and most diabolically, he sends Batman to rescue Harvey Dent but tells him he's saving Rachel Dawes. This last touch is his grand design writ small: to descrate the best of men. And he wins (sort of). Harvey Dent is utterly destroyed, his mind and soul lost, while Bruce Wayne must sacrifice the symbol of Batman to redeem Gotham. The film has its boo-boos: the whole plotline about the mob banks and their money is a little clunky, as is Commissioner Gordon's fake death. The non-stop twists and turns get pretty hard to keep up with, at times pushing credibility. But I prefer it to "Batman Begins" by a wide margin. Chris Nolan's talents as a director grew in the meantime, and the action sequences in particular are superior. The tale of the battle between a civilization with standards and rules, and a force of evil with no standards determined to strip us of our very humanity, spoke directly to current world events and touched on themes that recur all through history. I believe this will go down as a classic for all times.
THE DARK KNIGHT (old): This edition of the Joker is one of the most frightening villains I've seen, but not because of specific things he does. It's what he represents: the final evolution of something we all hate, but don't know how to fight. The manipulative 12-year-old bully who doesn't respond to reason or discipline, who rejects any authority or order, who sees the world and its poor inhabitants as the objects of cheap fun. He is the dark shadow of the YouTube and GTA generation, unrefined, empty, apathetic and cruel. He's the opposite of Ra's Al Ghoul, and thus a far bigger threat to the Gotham Batman is trying to allow to be born. For the Joker doesn't want to destroy Gotham -- he wants its soul.
DAWN OF THE DEAD: Before Horror became the laughing-stock of the cinema, before there were huge budgets and CGI, George Romero made a simple movie that appealed to a part of all of us: the loner-hero who secretly wants a national crisis so he can prove himself. This was long before games like Doom and Resident Evil came around to meet these needs, and even now, for my generation (those of us who still like our Horror movies without death metal and Freddie Prinze Jr.), there is something deeply satisfying and comforting about this film. It's so raw and grim, yet so classy. You really care about the characters, unlike in today's Horror when you wish they'd just die already.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (2003): The first time I saw this, I was pleasantly surprised. It's well made and doesn't crap all over the original masterpiece. The second time, I was annoyed by the girl running after the dog at the end: I became fixated on it. I hate it when characters do such stupid things, and the plot point wasn't even earned: no genuine connection between the girl and the dog had even been established. But on my last viewing, I realized they had to go rescue the girl and dog anyway, because they needed to stock up on guns 'n ammo. So it's forgiven. It's a good flick, and yet... this movie has no heart. There is not one character I like or care about. They're all annoying and dull. Yes, even Ving Rhames. When they die, you just shrug, and even their deaths are uninspired. What is a zombie movie without at least one spectacular death? Dawn of the Dead is fun, but like its fellow remakes of horror classics, it's all style and no substance.
THE DESCENT: Should do for caves and spelunking what Jaws did for surfing. There is something inherently unsettling about being underground; add to that being trapped underground, with no light, and with monsters, and you have a movie that blew my pants off.
DEEP RED: Dario Argento, the Italian filmmaker, is mostly famous in America for his classic Suspiria, but I prefer this movie, even if it is a slasher flick, because of its intelligence, wit, and fine plot. Argento's directing and visual style are also really great.
DEUCE BIGALOW MALE GIGOLO: There isn't much to say about this movie, except that it's just good old fashioned comedy. I wondered about it for a long time, because it looked like it might be really really bad, and when you see the premise, you feel like you've kind of already seen the movie, because you know exactly what to expect. It's the sort of movie you'd watch on a lazy afternoon as a kid just to kill time. But it's surprisingly funny. A young Amy Poehler absolutely kills in her small role, and many of the low-brow jokes hit the mark. Even the stuff that doesn't quite work is endearingly fun. There is some borderline dangerous stuff in here about being a "nice guy" but there are also valuable lessons: Deuce Bigalow, placed in situations where he has to show women a good time without sex, must learn how to get over himself and just have a good time with a lady without trying to get anything out of it. What guy wouldn't benefit from working on this?
DRIVE: I first saw this film at a very strange, transitional time in my life; I was about to start night classes at NYFA, among other happenings. The mix of turbulent real life events with the striking visuals and score caused this movie to stick with me more than most. The conspicuous use of light and color, a hallmark of Nicolas Windig Refn, is fantastic, enhancing the pulp/noir feel of the movie. Everyone readily acknowledges that the story and characters are nothing new, but the movie drips with so much atmosphere and raw emotion that you don't care. The unique pacing and understatement manage to elevate the material while never coming across as pretentious. Ryan Gosling walks his usual tightrope between charming and creepy better than ever — he's amazingly relatable for the vaguely menacing cipher he portrays. And not to get redundant, but Drive rocks one of the best scores I've heard since Lost Highway — which is funny, because Drive bears a passing resemblance to that film, which is another of my all-time favorites.
DR. STRANGELOVE: The more serious, poe-faced nuclear holocaust movies - Fail-Safe and The Day After - will be forgotten in time, but Dr. Strangelove will be remembered precisely because Kubrick made a comedy. The subject of nuclear war is so soul-crushing and grave, that it's virtually impossible for a story to tackle it without becoming a self-parody. One thinks of Oscar Wilde's famous quip about the tragedy of the little girl: that you'd have to have a heart of stone to read it without laughing. Kubrick recognized this and said fine, drop the pretense and make the movie openly funny. The result is yet another Kubrick masterpiece. The usually stoic George C. Scott is hysterical, and Peter Sellers knocks all three of his performances out of the park.
THE EDGE: So delicious in so many ways. Anthony Hopkins is the supposedly bland old rich businessman; a perfectly cast Alec Baldwin is the pretty boy banging his trophy wife. Thrown into the Alaska wilderness together, it turns out Hopkins is the one with more brains, more grit, and more compassion. Throw in an epic battle with a man-eating bear and breathtaking photography, and you've got one of my favorite movies.
EVENT HORIZON: In short, it's Lovecraft in space; and I can't get enough of it. The story here is simple and you don't want to overthink it: the ship Event Horizon was capable of folding space and thereby jumping unlimited distances without travel time (a quite common thing in science fiction, interstellar travel and relativity being so hairy, but they always make it sound so easy). For unexplained reasons, the ship's crew took it for one hell of a test drive beyond the outer limits of space and time and literally into Hell itself. When they return (also unexplained), a rescue and salvage mission is dispatched to investigate. Entertainment ensues. There are some great scares, the set designs are awesome, and Sam Neill is terrific as always.
THE EVIL DEAD: Okay, so this guy, Ashley, and his girlfriend, and a couple of their friends are driving up North (as many Michiganders do), right? And they shack up in this old abandoned cabin in the middle of nowhere. They find an antique tape player and a tape inside. They play the tape. And you wanna know what happened next? I better not tell ya. It'd be better if you just watched the movie.
To me, the best Horror flick that ever has, and probably ever will be, made.
EVIL DEAD II: Since Raimi didn't think many people knew about the original, he remade it as this movie. II, though, is a Comedy-Horror flick, and perhaps the best ever (Ghostbusters being a strong competitor). Sam Raimi's directing is a delight to watch; both movies are campy, but intentionally so.
EYES WIDE SHUT: It took me years to get around to this because nobody seemed to like it when it came out. But it is every bit as good as Kubrick's other movies. I found Tom Cruise sympathetic as the protagonist: he's no moral paragon, but he's basically a good guy who feels inadequate and threatened by the alpha males of the world. When his wife reveals an adulterous fantasy to him, in his mind it takes form, becomes a reality -- and he, in turn, grows obsessed with living out his own fantasies and proving his virility. To do so, he visits a little Hell on Earth where women are totally objectified and dehumanized. But he can't witness such things without a price. By trespassing on the place of evil, the doctor brings punishment (perhaps death) on two other people. Tom Cruise discovers that he simply cannot be that alpha type he both hates and wants to be. It's a bleak film with a feeling of dread and pain pervading every minute of it.
FALLING DOWN: If you're in high school, this movie seems clever, refreshing, generally awesome. It speaks to the vague feelings of anger and injustice that teenagers feel, as I did. And it has its moments, like the scene where Michael Douglas takes on two thugs who want his briefcase. But the movie, while sprinkled with hilarious vignettes, is less than the sum of its parts. Way less.
THE FIGHTER: Mark Wahlberg is an interesting actor. He's not exactly the most emotive person on the screen, but he does well as a straight guy you can relate to, surrounded by more intense characters. Christian Bale amazes me with his ability to transform himself, even physically, from role to role. In this movie he is so repellent and poisonous - you can feel an aura of mildewy wretchedness sucking everything down with it whenever he appears - it's hard to believe the same guy is the strapping, dutiful face of Bruce Wayne. Americans like to see a winner, and you really root for Wahlberg, but the film presents such a stifling world, where an overbearing family is constantly harassing him and he can't go out for a cheeseburger without people staring and talking about him, that it's that much sweeter every time Wahlberg's boxer lands a hit.
THE FLY: Remake of a 1950s Vincent Price flick, this version comes from David Cronenberg. A scientist develops a teleportation device that works with genetics, and when a fly shares the booth with him, he starts to become more and more...fly-like. The movie is incredibly emotional and heartrending. Not your typical drive-in monster movie.
FORBIDDEN PLANET: One of my favorites, Forbidden Planet lived in my nightmares when I was a kid. Long ago, a mighty and wise race called the Krell were erased from history in one night by terrible, mysterious monsters. In the distant future, a party of Earth scientists discover a few of the Krell's secrets -- only to fall prey to the same demons. The only survivors, an old man and his daughter, are to be rescued by a crew of space sailors led by Leslie Nielsen (it's not a comedy). But to escape they must solve the planet's mystery lest they succumb to the same fate!
FORREST GUMP: Every time I see Forrest Gump I just like it more. To me, Jenny is not a desirable woman. She embraces all the worst temptations of modern life, and worse still, blames her wild lifestyle on bad parenting. But Forrest never wavers. He embodies the old American values -- hard work, faith, straight talk, generosity, courage -- which finally outlast Jenny's excesses. And he embraces these things not because he's stupid, but because he knows that they're good and true.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (with spoilers): I don't know how to feel about this one. The acting is great, of course. Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle is the archetype of "the cop you wouldn't want to meet, but you're glad he's out there protecting you." But am I? Evidence mounts that he is not that good at what he does. He's good at intimidating the scum of the earth... but getting them off the streets? Not so much. He doesn't nail the bad guy. He leaves a hefty body count of bystanders, fellow cops, and two-bit criminals we needed alive to make a case against the big fish. Maybe that's the point; maybe this is a portrait of how messy and thankless real police work is. I didn't like Popeye Doyle, but I sort of respected him and admired his tenacity. There's plenty of eye candy for New York lovers, and the famous chase scene is exhilirating.
FROM BEYOND: Another film from the team that brought us Re-Animator, this movie, like that one, looks campy and suspect enough that one wonders if it is worth seeing. I'm pleased to report that it is -- very much so (like its brother Re-Animator). These direct Lovecraft adaptations must be viewed with a certain mindset: since Lovecraft's stories don't translate well as movies, liberties must be taken with them. The source material here has been exhausted before the opening credits! As the movie gets further away from that kernel, things get whackier and more gross-outs are used in place of the true Lovecraft "cosmic terror." But it's fun and we Lovecraft readers have to take what we can get. A solid and highly entertaining ride.
FULL METAL JACKET: I first saw this in early high school, and I'm certain I fell asleep after the boot camp arc ended. Watching it a second time, I found the urban warfare arc equally breathtaking. You know, even the first time, I did not sympathize with Gomer Pyle. The soap-bar beating scene was chilling, but before that, Private Pyle came across as a pain in the neck. After his beat-down, he became frightening, still unlikable. I sympathized more with the brilliantly funny drill instructor. This is one of those things Kubrick likes to do... play around with the audience's sympathies. The battle scenes at the end of the movie are visually stunning and the music from start to finish is mesmerizing, painting the parallel between "Joker's" witness of the destruction of two human beings at the close of boot camp, and the destruction of his own humanity at the close of the battle. The movie is also an interesting commentary on the spectacle of modern warfare, the filming and photographing of everything -- including a grotesque scene of a soldier posing for photos with a cadaver. Even if you disagree with the film's hyper-bleak philosophy, it's a worthwhile masterpiece from one of the masters.
THE FUNHOUSE: Depressing and disturbing, but not very frightening or fun. This movie is pretty openly about teenage sexuality and the loss of innocence. A group of high schoolers go to the carnival to get spooked, do drugs, and screw. In the process they encounter a monster who craves only two things: sex, and acceptance - things his victims take for granted. The first half of the film is well-done and unnerving, but the third act got tedious for me. There's a point where one starts wishing everyone in the film would simply die so it could be over with. I think the movie was intended to make the viewer feel dirty and guilty, and it does.
FUNNY PEOPLE: Many critics complain that it was too long and that it was really "two movies," a weird rom-com awkwardly grafted on the end of an otherwise original comedy. But I thought they blended together smoothly enough. Indeed, without the love story, the stand-up aspect would've felt pointless. Unlike so much other crap out there, this movie presented a difficult and meaningful choice: do you destroy a family to be with the person you love, or do you put the children first? Amazingly, I can't think of any other movie, funny or serious, that would even touch this question with a ten-foot pole (or in Judd Apatow's case, a ten-foot dick). Seth Rogen turned in what I'd call his best performance; Sandler was so good it revealed what a crime it is that he makes movies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Oh, and did I mention this movie was really, really funny?
GATTACA: (with spoilers) Gattaca is a nice big middle finger to elitism, a movie I was deeply grateful for... the opposite of Being John Malkovich. Vincent Freeman grows up in a world where everyone is tall, blue-eyed, athletic, sharp-minded, and perfect... except him. And only they are qualified, in theory, for Vincent's dream job, space travel. So he lives a lie. As in Being John Malkovich, he occupies another person's life, counting on his own hard work to carry it off. Yet at the end, he finds out that the people who mattered most, those with the power to unmask and destroy him, knew it was a scam the whole time -- but they didn't care, because it was the man, not the name, that impressed them and won their loyalty.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY: One of the most macho, fun, cool, entertaining movies ever. The characters are unforgettable, especially Tuco, the gritty outlaw who won't let big boys Eastwood and Van Cleef push him around -- actually, he's one of my biggest role models! This movie has cigars, explosions and gunplay coming out of its ears. One of my all time favorites.
GINGER SNAPS: It's nice to see a movie about two Goth girls played by normal-looking, convincing actresses, which makes their plight when one of them is bitten by a werewolf that much more distressing. Like most good werewolf material I've seen, the movie deals with sexuality and its inherent confusions and frustrations.
GRAN TORINO: Basically, a "passing the torch" tale. As in Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood is an aging bad-ass whose grit is called upon for one final task. But it's not 1992 anymore, and he's too old to pull off another awesome bloodbath. Instead, he takes it upon himself to teach his young neighbors about courage and sacrifice. Eastwood also used this platform to show my hyper-sensitive generation how many ethnic slurs "real men" used back in the 1950s, and while I didn't mind it in the slightest (they're only words), that dialogue sounded wooden and kind of forced.
GROWN UPS: Criminally underrated; one of those movies everyone hates without the inconvenience of having to watch it (eh, I'm guilty enough of this myself), it is in fact highly entertaining from start to finish. It's no Citizen Kane, but you know, sometimes all a movie has to do is show you a good time. And this one does. It even has a surprising and mature life lesson at the end, when Adam Sandler faces his old childhood rivals in a basketball rematch.
HALLOWEEN III: Kids are buying a series of hideous Halloween masks after seeing an annoying, and unsettling, T.V. commercial. But the masks are part of a wicked scheme and cursed with dark magic. The fact that so many people hate Halloween III to this day may partly explain why the horror genre is in such a sorry state. I would even say the hatred of it is somewhat irrational. The movie was made well and has no obvious faults. If the essential purpose of horror is to entertain and frighten, then Halloween III accomplishes both.
HEAT: The first time I saw Heat was in high school or college, in the midst of the unofficial film education every young man goes through. This education involves a lot of movies from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, many of them starring Pacino or DeNiro. That first time, I was decidedly underwhelmed. I watched it on a TV no more than 19 inches square — tiny by today's standards. The picture was pan-and-scan. The speakers were built into the TV. This is the worst possible way to experience Heat. The sound of this movie is one of its best features: realistic, thunderous gunshot sound effects are something of a specialty of Michael Mann films, and without a solid pair of speakers you'll miss it. The sweeping wide shots and moody blue and red lighting — another Mann signature — don't lend themselves to a small, square screen. When I re-watched this film, I was blown away. It's not a perfect film, but it stands out. The action scenes are amazing, and the movie doesn't feel like its three hours despite a convoluted plot. This is one of the most manly movies I've ever seen. The men in it ooze machismo and stoicism from every pore. Compare Pacino and DeNiro here to today's Shia LeBeef or Sam Worthington, to get a taste of how far we've fallen. In a world increasingly starved of masculinity and adult role models, this is a must-see.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER: This is High Noon's evil little brother. Eastwood rides into a little hamlet, makes a couple of tough guys heavy, and is promptly hired to protect the town from -- what else? -- a band of outlaws just sprung from jail. But this mercenary doesn't work cheap: his price is to become a kind of god over the village, sleeping with all the women, appointing a midget mayor, bankrupting the bartender, and literally painting the town red. He sees the people for the cowards they are, and torments them for it. Sick but hilarious, if you like this kind of thing. And I do.
THE HOWLING: After a brief and traumatic encounter, a journalist and her husband visit a retreat in the woods of Northern California to recuperate. It turns out this location is a secret society where werewolves are trying to domesticate each other to live among civilized people. Things don't work out so well and the ending packs quite a punch. Fans of the movie may not know this is based on a fantastic book, which is about as different from the film as Jurassic Park. I highly recommend both. The special effects are terrific and the werewolf design is unique for the genre.
I AM A SEX ADDICT: It's embarrassing to admit I watched a movie by this name, but it was a surprisingly thought-provoking film. There's nothing arousing about it; the director tells you a story, plainly and honestly, about his addiction to prostitutes. It's one of the most conservative movies I've ever seen: it takes a wrecking ball to many of our modern assumptions about sex and self-fullfillment. Where so many films and books, and even more analyses and criticisms of them, address sexual repression as mankind's ultimate crime, this is one of the only works of art I can think of that moves beyond that (tired as hell) cliche and actually confronts the more modern nightmare of sexual license. For decades, the protagonist is certain that if he can only sate his lust once and for all, if he can enjoy some idealized act of total release with the woman of his dreams, he'll "get it out of his system" and be free of it - only to realize that the more he feeds his hunger, the more that hunger grows. There are all kinds of unintentionally funny bits of dialogue that betray the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the narrator's worldview. One minute he's saying "my girlfriend and I didn't believe in monogamy because it was a form of private property," and the next she's jealous because he's sleeping with another girl.
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS: This movie seems relatively unknwown, which is a shame, but then, most of John Carpenter's finer work appears to slip by the mainstream public undetected, while feebler efforts such as Halloween become immortalized. This movie stars Sam Neill as an insurance adjuster who goes to the town of Hobb's End to debunk myths about a bestselling Horror writer (blatantly based on HP Lovecraft). The catch is, Hobb's End doesn't exist -- or, it shouldn't. If you're a Lovecraft or Carpenter fan you should find it quite entertaining.
INFERNAL AFFAIRS / THE DEPARTED: Infernal Affairs is the original Chinese film on which Scorsese's cops-and-robbers flick is based. They have almost identical plots, but some differences make the original better in my view. First, we have an inspiring undercover cop with character and spirit in place of Leo "The Whiner" DiCaprio. The Departed provides a two hour tribute to America's bizarre Irish fetish, but also a stand-out performance from Mark Wahlberg. The Chinese crime lord is better than Jack Nicholson but not as scary; both movies have good soundtracks. Both great movies, but if you only watch one, get the Chinese version.
INSIDIOUS: One of those horror movies that will make half the audience groan with disappointment and the other half pee their pants. The premise is that people can astral project, but exploring the astral plane (or, "the Further") draws the attention of malevolent spirits who live in the ethereal realm. These spirits want to prevent your soul from returning to your body, so they can steal your body. This premise isn't exactly airtight, but the idea was so interesting and scary to me that I was hooked. Many people say the first half of the movie is creepy, but about halfway through it goes off the rails. There are tons of flaws: laughable dialogue, cliche pairing of incongruous cheerful music with evil, a character wearing a gas mask for no apparent reason, and things that happen purely for scare value but make absolutely no sense. For example, at a couple of points ghouls from the Further start breaking into our reality when they should not be able to, and there's no explanation for how they could do that. It is not a good film and should be viewed more as a carnival haunted house ride. But there are great scares to be found and those of us with overactive imaginations find even the second half pretty hair-raising.
IRONMAN (1-3): The Ironman trilogy has meant a lot to me. The three installments spanned the latter half of my 20s — years when I was figuring out who I was, my place in the world, what kind of man I wanted to be. Robert Downey Jr. had always been one of my favorite actors, stealing the show in movies like Natural Born Killers while carrying others like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and as Ironman he finally came into his own and was able to define a character for a generation. It was refreshing to see a different kind of superhero: a "millionaire playboy genius philanthropist," in the words of Tony Stark himself. For once, the hero didn't have to be physically and psychologically perfect; he didn't have to be so gosh darn earnest and selfless and humble. He could be under six feet tall, a little older, a little less chiseled; you know, like a real person. He had game. He could drink. He didn't have to be respectful to his enemies or obsessed with never killing anyone. And he was a fucking Republican! "I have successfully privatized world peace" remains one of my all-time favorite scenes in any superhero movie ever.
The trouble with the Ironman films is that watching them, I can't help but think they could have been so much better. I can't shake the feeling that Downey Jr. is single-handedly carrying movies that would otherwise be mediocre. It's like the people making them didn't know what they had. In the first film, the Jeff Bridges character, Obadiah Stane, never quite brings it — he's like an afterthought, and it feels like a movie without a bad-guy. In the second film, Mickey Rourke is wasted, posing a threat in his first big scene and then sort of disappearing and getting easily defeated in the final battle. A SHIELD subplot, and Scarlett Johannson's butt, are awkwardly, painfully jammed into a movie with a barely-there story. The only Ironman outing that fully delivers is the third, which is clearly superior to the first two. You wonder what took them so long to get it together. And then there's Gwyneth. God, Gwyneth Paltrow. She's the fly in the ointment for me. I never for one minute believed that (A) Tony Stark would fall in love with this person, or (B) she had the smarts, leadership qualities, or toughness of character to run Stark Enterprises. The movies would have been far stronger if she were simply a Moneypenny figure to his James Bond — a pretty colleague he flirts with but nothing more. He should have had a different squeeze in each film, like Indiana Jones. The love story always rang false and felt forced and unearned. In the third movie, he has a one-night stand (in a flashback) with a scientist woman he doesn't take seriously, and yet she seemed infinitely more believable (and interesting) opposite Tony Stark, because she had a life of her own, a brain, a personality... but, oh well. This is the Ironman trilogy we have. And for all its flaws, it's one of the most fun superhero franchises to come along in my lifetime.
JEREMIAH JOHNSON: This one sort of sneaks up on you. At first it seems like a silly movie with an unnecessary overture (and later, an intermission...), and an equally gratuitous and trite voice-over narration. But it quickly morphs into a fun adventure story with good action scenes and photography that is not to be believed. Robert Redford plays a war veteran in the 19th century who moves to the mountains of Utah to be alone and escape the cares of civilization - but he finds much more drama in the mountains than he bargained for.
JUNO: I have mixed feelings about this movie. On the one hand, it has a couple of great moments and touching scenes. I especially liked the part when Juno tells her boyfriend "You're so cool and you don't even try," and he says, "Actually I try really hard." Unfortunately, 90% of the rest of the dialogue is pretentious, overcooked and too clever by half. And this movie was famous for its script. Much of the time it felt like something you read in a high school creative writing class -- the boring, overwritten story everybody else gushed over for its "strong voice" and "concrete images," etc.
LAKE MUNGO: One of the good documentary-style horror flicks... as they all seem to be either really good or really godawful. What makes this type of movie work isn't that you're fooled into thinking it did happen, as Blair Witch Project attempted to do, but that you believe everything in the movie could happen. The topic of ghosts and hauntings is fertile because the existence of ghosts is easy to accept, relative to, say, zombies. We've all seen and heard questionable, uncanny things in our lives. The presence of a ghostly girl in film photographs, which "don't lie," or so we think, is creepy and suggestive. So is the idea that the featured dead girl had a premonition of her own death. Also impressive is how much this movie lets your imagination do the work - the girl's family describes visions and nightmares that are terrifying, even though we never see them. Most of the heebie-jeebies in Lake Mungo are like that, only suggested or hinted at, but there is one genuine visual scare, and it hit me hard.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS: If you think capitalism is bad, consider the old joke about getting old: it's better than the alternative. I'm definitely going to make my kids watch this someday. It's the soul-crushing story of a composer in East Germany and his girlfriend, a singer forced to sleep with a disgusting Communist party middleman with the power to end her career if the favors stop coming. This is Communism: the replacement of meritocracy with the petty rule of brown-nosers, pedants, back-stabbers, snitches, and sell-outs. But one man, the very one assigned to spy on the composer, becomes the only person in the whole rotten state apparatus who sees him as an individual -- and the only person who can save him.
LOST HIGHWAY: My first introduction to David Lynch came with this movie when I was in high school. A friend told me it was one of the scariest movies he knew of, and he was half-right: because it is really two movies in one, and one of them isn't scary at all, while the other is creepy as hell. Lost Highway remains perhaps my favorite David Lynch work, the first half a journey through jealousy and murder that makes one's skin crawl, the second a hysterical, depressing, offbeat noir loaded with unforgettable dialogue. To talk too much about it is to ruin it. The usual Lynch-isms apply: a gentle, "wholesome" woman who becomes a tramp when she crosses paths with the wrong man; a dream-like plot that never quite hangs together but always seems like it'll all make sense if you just watch it one more time; ordinary people in insane situations; cartoon-like villains simultaneously terrifying and funny. I've seen this one many times and it never gets old.
MAGIC MIKE: Guys avoiding this movie out of fear of looking "gay" need to chill out. It's damn entertaining and fun. There's no dick in it, yet there are topless women. So get over it. One wonders how many "men" hating on the film without having seen it secretly fear they might pop a boner during one of the male striptease scenes. I encounter a lot of guys who viscerally hate Channing Tatum; they need to rent 21 Jump Street and stop hating. It's an interesting story because you're seeing into a world most of us are not aware of, and it turns out male stripping is as different from female stripping as hardcore pornography is from romance novels. What struck me about the male stripping (as with romance novels) was how corny it is. Also, Channing Tatum in this film is a case study in charm. He has a magnetic personality and oozes devil-may-care, boyish fun. If you want to know why women go crazy for him, watch and learn. It's not just his blue-collar good looks. That charm, too, is sort of what the movie is about: you are observing men whose job is to unleash and express their raw masculinity to maximum effect, to give the ladies what they really want... about an hour in, when they go to a sorority party and drive the girls wild, we see the typical safe young guys sulking off to the side in their boring baggy clothes, cradling their
security blankets beer cups. You know, the kind of guys who would never watch a movie like this because it's "gay."
MAN OF STEEL: Not a perfect movie, but this was the most enjoyable iteration of Superman for me personally. I've been exposed to Superman material on and off since childhood, most of it not flattering or inspiring ("The Adventures of Lois and Clark," "Smallville," Max Landis's hilarious retelling of the "Death of Superman" saga). I've seen a couple of decent films, but they didn't blow me away, even though Christopher Reeve made a fantastic Superman. What I liked about Man of Steel was how, frankly, conservative it was. For one thing, the movie drips with Christianity: Clark Kent is on Earth 33 years, is told by his father that he has "another father..." The whole Superman as Jesus thing is all over the place. This made my dad squirm. I like movies that make people squirm. Also, the movie talks unabashedly about freedom and individuality. Krypton is made to look like a sort of Communist end-game where people are grown in test tubes as a form of population control and everyone's role in society is determined before they're born. Superman's life is to be a refutation of this; he is here to show individuals, and nations, that they can choose their character and carve their own destiny. Awesome. His nemesis, General Zod, is all about sticking doggedly to the master plan laid out by our betters, no matter how many eggs have to be broken to make the omelet. In its way, Man of Steel continues producer Chris Nolan's interpretation of the superhero genre as more than mere battles between giants, but battles between ideas. Which I thoroughly enjoy and support. Perhaps because it isn't ultimately a Nolan film, it suffers more cracks than his Batman films. There are things that can ruin it if you think about them, mostly matters of realism (even fantasy must establish some rules and stick to them). For example, how does a man who has never been in a fight or even trained for combat in his entire life curbstomp the shit out of Zod and his seasoned warriors? (credit goes to the blog Chaos and Pain for pointing this out) How does he fly upward into a machine made of Krypton materials and punch through it, while under the influence of Krypton gravity generated by the same machine? When the Kryptonians are fighting on Earth, why do none of them use the Krypton weapons that they fought with on Krypton — such as the blade that slew Jor-El — instead preferring to punch each other billions of times? What's with this fetish about punching in superhero movies, anyway? Hopefully the sequels will iron out these quirks.
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: A solid candidate for my favorite John Wayne movie. He and Jimmy Stewart present two conflicting ideologies. Stewart is a lawyer, allergic to violence, who believes in books and civilized society; Wayne is the tough guy who says none of those things matter unless you can back them with gunpowder. Both of them love the same woman, and both hate the same man: Liberty Valance. It's one of the Duke's best performances, as a bitter man who chooses to make a terrible sacrifice for what he comes to believe is right.
MASTER AND COMMANDER: Fantastic. The sound effects alone make it something special. When the cannonballs land on the deck, it's like they were landing on your living room floor. You feel like you're there, inside a naval battle. The real pains of war (death and dismemberment, officers having to make decisions that cost the lives of their men) are presented with dignity and without sentimental mush. And the conflict/friendship between the conservative captain and the progressive/intellectual doctor is perfect. The men signify two philosophies that oppose each other, yet need each other. Patriotism, tradition and martial valor are offered without apologies. This movie just gets everything right: visuals, sound, acting, story. A home run.
MATCH POINT: This was a very upsetting film. The story is brilliantly told with Woody Allen's characteristic superb dialogue, but it was so difficult to watch that I almost couldn't finish it. Everyone in the movie is essentially good, except the protagonist, who hates himself. He is unwilling to make choices, so he ends up with the worst choice: trading his soul for a life he can't stand. Not fun, but definitely worth a watch if you can handle it.
NEAR DARK: Since it takes place out West, there's a different flavor to it than other vampire movies; the vampires are roving outlaws. Though from the outside their lifestyle might seem romantic and adventurous, they are truly evil. Their band of murderers wouldn't be complete without an annoying little boy vampire, whose presence will make you thankful this was made before harming children in movies was taboo. There's a love story here too, but not today's ultra-cliché¤ mushy teen angst vampire crap.
NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET - FREDDY'S DEAD, THE FINAL NIGHTMARE: A horrible, disgraceful movie. Sometimes it's so bad it's funny; sometimes it tries to be funny and fails spectacularly. Do not watch alone if you want to have any chance of sitting through the whole thing.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: This one appears on most best-of-Horror lists, and rightly so. The 1968 original (which should only be watched in its B&W original cut, not one of those weird reissues) is a perfect movie in its pacing, psychological intensity, and haunting, sleeves-rolled-back horror. Call me crazy but I liked the much-maligned 1990 remake, too.
OLD BOY: At first I didn't know what to think about Old Boy because it was so shocking and upsetting. By shocking I don't refer to one or two twists but to scene after scene of torture and violence, of body parts being removed that I never wanted to see removed on film, and so forth. This movie is gritty as hell! But it grew on me after the first sitting with its fantastic soundtrack, unique story and the acting to back up the gauntlet the movie puts one through. Gut-wrenching aside, it's a moving meditation on guilt, responsibility, and the choice to go on living or not that we all must make sometimes.
THE OMEN: Damn. What words can capture the terror and despair of The Omen? The devil has come to our world in the form of a little boy. He's planned this all out. He's accounted for every possible setback. He has human allies. And so, he will win -- it's inevitable. Isn't it?
PAN'S LABYRINTH: Amazing score, acting, cinematography, characters, story, sets, and dialogue. I think this movie could soften the heart of even the most hardened movie cynic. It's not nice or clean, in fact it's quite disturbing at times, which validates the touching moments in a sea of misery and brutality. I couldn't speak for an hour after the credits rolled. That doesn't happen very often. Probably the best movie of 2006.
THE PIANIST: Well, it's a Holocaust movie, so you sit down with certain expectations, one of which is to be in tears within the first 10 minutes. That was achieved. The problem was that the first half, covering the run-up to the Holocaust and the ghettos, was more effective than the second half, in which the protagonist is starving in seclusion for what seems like forever. It becomes one of those scenarios where you want to shout at the screen, "Just die already!" Which is the last thing that should ever happen in a movie, much less a film about something this serious. That disappointed me. But it was a good movie, especially the first half. The scene where the father sells his last possession for one last piece of candy to share with his children has stayed with me.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK: An obscure movie that some say laid the groundwork for directors like David Lynch, and I can see that. I had problems with it, though. The first 2/3 of the movie are pretty good, and beautifully scored. The plot is laid out for you with some on-screen text before it begins, and the main event -- the disappearance -- happens maybe half-way through. That sequence is amazing and eerie. It is followed by more great scenes about the investigation and two boys' attempt to find and rescue the girls. After that, very little happens. The movie just tapers off.
PLATOON: I was half-expecting a self-important Vietnam movie here but Platoon rises above the cliches. More than any other Vietnam movie I've seen, it made me feel like I was there down to every detail. The narrator doesn't complain or wax politics, he just tells his own story and the stories of the men around him, from the good eggs to the bad. Some are a little too perfect and some are a little too evil to seem real, but times and environments like that may bring out the best and worst in people. It is a melodramatic movie, but I didn't find it pretentious.
PRINCE OF DARKNESS: Another Carpenter flick that collects atrocious reviews. I saw this twice and it freaked me out both times, even though while I was watching it I wasn't getting particularly scared. Like a slow drug, it sort of gets under your skin once the credits roll. The story follows a team of physicists who (Lovecraft fans, buckle up) discover an ancient, godlike evil lurking in the basement of an old building. What more could you want out of a Horror movie?
RAMBO: Waiting until 2010 to watch this, I immediately thought it was one of the best movies of the previous decade. Not only is it a great action movie reminiscent of the classic '80s shooters (with awesome gun effects and visuals), it is not as superficial as the silly dialogue suggests. Rambo, like The Dark Knight, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is one of the great films to address the problem of civilization's eternal confrontation with evil. Not "good vs. evil," but the civilized vs. the barbaric. These movies present heroes not as valiant white hats, but as the kind of high-octane individuals incapable of mingling with polite society -- and who alone are fierce enough to combat the worst evils. The baddies in Rambo are really, really evil, beyond the comprehension of the humanitarians who stumble upon them. They go to Burma thinking, childishly, "all violence is wrong" and "killing is always wrong," only to find that sometimes, violence and killing are not only necessary, but right and just.
RAVENOUS: Excellent music and beautiful country scenery set the stage for an unusual supernatural battle. The premise -- that cannibalizing people gives you their power and makes you superhuman -- should be appreciated by any guy. The twisted tale that ensues is hard not to love, and I've never seen another movie anything like it.
RE-ANIMATOR: This was inspired by HP Lovecraft's tale, but there is little to no resemblance between the two (I prefer the short story). The movie is pretty good, though. I'm not sure if the author would approve but as a fan, I do. It's about a medical school where a maverick doctor has developed a formula injection that reanimates dead tissue. Naturally, things get out of control.
[REC] and [REC]2: Two of the best zombie films of the last decade, and that's saying something. Done in the documentary style, these flicks are original, scary, thrilling, and you wish they were about twice as long as they are. The usual trope in zombie flicks is that the characters have created a safe haven - a cabin, a mall, a mansion - and must keep the horde at bay. These films turned it around to create a realistic scenario in an urban environment: the cast is trapped in a once-safe place that has, without warning, become a hellish death zone. The resulting experience is claustrophobic and very effective. Anyone who has not seen [REC] should not hesitate to rent a copy.
THE RING (US): I still vividly recall the first time I watched The Ring in my mother's basement with two friends. It seemed to blow all its best scares in the first twenty minutes, then peter off. But after the credits rolled, you realized how frightened you really were. The last time I watched it, I had just read the book, which ruined the movie. Now I think of it as a stupid, gimmicky flick plagued by the same uninspired shallowness that haunts the rest of contemporary American horror. I never liked the Japanese film, either.
RIO BRAVO: John Wayne's response to High Noon was intended to present Americans in a better light. Its characters aren't perfect, but they're likeable and brave. In High Noon, the sheriff goes around town asking people to help him fight, but all are cowards, refusing to risk their tails for law and order. Even his wife seems to abandon him. It's a deeply misanthropic story (and there's nothing wrong with that). In Rio Bravo, when the townsfolk hear about the coming outlaws, they all offer to fight with John Wayne. He insists on going it alone, but they help him anyway. This was far more in tune with the American concept of community: everyone relies on himself, but doesn't hesitate to lend a hand to, or risk his life for, his fellow man. Unfortunately the movie drags on a bit, but it's worth the ride.
ROAD HOUSE: Pure fun. Patrick Swayze was a true mensch, and watching this film should be mandatory for all young men hoping to learn from his example.
THE SANDLOT: This may be the childhood movie of my generation. Everyone in my age bracket says this was one of their favorite movies as a kid. It's timeless -- that's part of the movie's theme, after all. It recalls a period in everyone's life we treasure, when we were still "cool" and relied on larger-than-life adult role models, especially athletes (The Babe for them, Michael Jordan for us); when scary things like a dog the size of an SUV were still believable; when we were fairly sure we'd grow up to be legends like the figures in the movie; and it came out just as we were hitting that ageless age. The movie is wildly entertaining and fun no matter how old you are. Just hearing the movie's title makes me smile.
THE SEARCHERS: An over-the-top movie in many ways, and much darker than I'd expect for its time. John Wayne's performance as a bitter and vicious gunman is quite a thing to behold. Wayne takes some getting used to -- and I like Clint Eastwood's approach to the gunslinger figure a bit better -- but Wayne was not a screen legend for nothing. John Ford's directing is breathtaking. By today's standards the movie feels a bit long and draggy in some places, but overall a very fun ride that confronts some big questions.
SCHINDLER'S LIST: It can't exactly be a "favorite" movie for me, because it's not at all the kind of thing you casually sit down and enjoy over a pizza on a Saturday night. But it is one of the best, and most important films I've seen, and one of the handful I think should be mandatory viewing. One of the things that makes it so touching is that Schindler himself does not begin a hero. When the film opens, he's kind of a greedy jerk. He sees the Jews as a way to make an easy buck (or mark, as it were). Over the course of the story, he comes to see their humanity, and, overwhelmed with guilt, does what he can to save them. Opposite him, Ralph Fiennes gives what's obviously the best performance of his career.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD: A British Comedy-Horror that feels like Office Space with zombies. The music and acting really make this one, and the humor is actually intelligent as opposed to Hollywood's Scary Movie franchise.
SHROOMS: Not as bad as you would expect. The plot twist is so outrageous that it becomes hilarious, saving the movie too long after it lost its momentum. The premise is also a giggler: twenty-somethings in the wilderness eat mushrooms hoping for a groovy trip, but some bad mushrooms turn the trip into a confusing, bloody and unintentionally funny marathon of murder. Complete with talking cows.
SLINGBLADE: For some reason, I always wanted to see this, but did only the other day (March 2009). In some ways it's a typical 1990s Oscar-bait retard movie, with the tropes you would expect, i.e. "He's so simple and innocent, yet wiser than us smart folks." But it's an enjoyable movie. I genuinely liked the characters I was supposed to like. It almost seems as much about life in the small-town South as it is about a retarded man who killed his mother.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK: I might as well get it out of the way that, yes, I enjoyed the writing in this film as much as the rest of mankind. It was a damn clever movie. All characters, even the jocks, are smart: there's a palpable sense of how intimidating Harvard and its students can be. These are America's Elite: the richest, highest performing, most competitive, and often, the most athletic and good-looking. This is embodied in the Winklevoss brothers, perfect specimens "destined for greatness," who get schooled by the shrimpy, middle-class, hoodie-wearing Zuckerberg (and I can't imagine anyone but Jesse Eisenberg playing him). Of course the story is an exaggeration. I suspect Aaron Sorkin projected some things onto Zuckerberg, not necessarily from himself, but from the culture. Even though the female characters are (occasionally) smart and well-drawn, there's an antipathy toward them coursing through everything: Zuckerberg manifests the stereotypical image of the antisocial nerd, bitter because everyone else is partying and having fun without him, raging at all the beautiful, sexed-up coeds he can't touch. In real life, I'd bet money this is not true of him and never was. But the story works. Perfectly, the film ends with a Godfather II moment: the hero, his battles over, alone at his laptop, using Facebook to look at, reach out to, "the one that got away," an experience of hope and torment. The shot is meant to hold up a mirror: when you see him there, awkwardly hunched over the screen, you recognize a scene you, and everyone you know, acts out in real life every day. In giving us Facebook, the film's Zuckerberg has turned all of us into him.
SOMEWHERE IN TIME: One of my favorite movies, and one of the most painful there is. Like "What Dreams May Come," this was based on a Richard Matheson novel, and they share themes from transcendent love to the power of thought. This was a far superior adaptation, however. "What Dreams May Come" explores the way the thoughts we carry through life weave the afterlife we'll inevitably encounter. "Somewhere in Time" is more radical: a man manages to project a physical avatar of himself through time using sheer mental concentration. It's a fascinating premise, and maybe not as incredible as it sounds. Some people and religions claim the ability to project beyond the material body as a mentally constructed double. If you believe that our mental/spiritual life is just as "real" as the supposedly objective physical world, it's conceivable that projecting through time and space is not absolutely impossible. Of course, this is all beside the point, which is that "Somewhere in Time" is a heart-stopping love story. Like "What Dreams May Come," the main characters are souls who belong together, and who no barrier — time, death, or space — can keep apart. Shot against the beautiful backdrop of Mackinac Island, with fine performances and a haunting score, this is a special movie that has never failed to deeply affect me.
THE STONING OF SORAYA M: I was reluctant to watch this because the title basically gives away what happens. We're in Iran under the mullahs, and a woman is stoned to death. Who wants to see that? Who wants to think about it? If things are so awful there, does that mean we have to get into another war in the Middle East? A movie like this was guaranteed to be obscure. Well, it happens to be a quite good, emotionally powerful film. The story of how the woman's husband determines to get rid of her so he can marry a pre-teen breaks your heart. Watching a whole town turn against one of its best people, and dehumanize her, until even her own son glares at her with hatred - based on a lie - fills you with rage. Not only because the story is true, but because this portrait of our nature is true, and we know deep down how easily people can be made blind to another person's humanity. We experience this through the perspective of another woman, Soraya's guardian, which was the right choice, but the filmmakers' one mistake, in my opinion, was showing this woman's anguish a bit too much, thus reducing the effect of it. The editing was weak at times. But ultimately this is a great feminist movie, and an important one. Because, while it's more comfortable to ignore the plight of women in the Middle East and instead wail and moan about American women's salaries and right to abortions, sometimes we ought to be reminded that those are real people over there, not so different from us, and that women in that part of the world are slaves. Their current lifestyle is ordered by the primitive doctrine that men hold absolute power over women - a system that the men, raised from boyhood to take for granted, will not willingly change. Downplaying that by saying, "well, it's a different culture, those women like it that way, who are we to judge?" is contemptible.
THE TAO OF STEVE: One of the worst things about movies is how they constantly show you undesirable, "nerdy" guys who can't talk to women "getting the girl" — that is, the hottest girl imaginable falls for them, usually as a result of the guy being sufficiently nice, romantic, thoughtful, etc. A quick stroll through real life is enough to dash this fantasy against the rocks. Basically, the movies are dishonest, probably because the writers are socially awkward nerds living out their fantasies. The Tao of Steve asks how a guy like this actually might pull smoking hot women. Surprise: he does it with charm, not by being "nice." What's refreshing about this film is that it feels truthful and realistic, even though it might make some people uncomfortable. The protagonist is a personable guy, but if you looked at him, you'd think him the last man on Earth to be sleeping with models. That's also true of the guys in movies like Can't Hardly Wait, but the difference is that those movies show such men getting the girl by, basically, being Nice Guys — while in real life, that model of male behavior tends to backfire. Every young man should watch The Tao of Steve several times; it takes multiple viewings and a certain amount of wisdom to really understand the lessons within.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974): Anyone who has lived in New York would be hard pressed not to love this film. It plays like a tribute to the city -- the traffic, the grittiness, the attitude. The cast members look and talk like real working-class New Yorkers. I suppose the suits justified a remake by judging the original too slow and understated. How could it keep up with the glitz and energetic star-power of today's movies? Well, screw that. The suspense was perfect. And Walter Mathau vs. Robert Shaw is a movie matchup you don't see every day. How was this movie improved by John Travolta?
TAXI DRIVER: A fascinating movie that lives up to the hype. I didn't understand it when I was a kid. Even now, it leaves you thinking and asking questions. In the years between viewings, I had come to assume Travis Bickle was like Rorschach in Watchmen -- intended as an unhinged villain by his creator, but justifiably seen by fans as a hero. But no: Bickle is not Rorschach, although the resemblance surely exists. Travis Bickle is obviously maladjusted; he's frightening, creepy. I loved the scene when he tells a pimp "I'm hip," and the pimp says "You are not hip," and we see a reaction shot of Travis looking extremely unhip. DeNiro's performance was pitch perfect indeed. And it isn't so simple: we do sympathize with him, while at the same time being unsettled by him. The New York he stalks does feel like Hell, lawless, filthy, soulless. I was shocked to read Roger Ebert's review showing sympathy for Sport, the pimp, and suggesting it was wrong for Bickle to save 12-year-old Iris from prostitution: are you kidding me? The scenes in which she says she likes her fate, and embraces her pimp lovingly, are the most horrifying in the film. In a world (New York in the '70s) in which society has lost the courage and energy to do anything about crime and evil, who other than a Travis Bickle can we imagine taking the law into his own hands? This film is like the ugly, possibly more realistic brother of Death Wish, because in reality, people like Paul Kersey don't suddenly get fed up and go on a vigilante rampage. It's also a film more relevant than ever today: the world is loaded with Travis Bickles of both genders who have lost the ability to relate to other humans (yet simultaneously judge everyone else for their "excesses") as they get their kicks from pornography, alone and miserable. Bickle is far from a hero, though he does one good deed -- for the wrong reasons, out of frustrated bloodlust rather than heroic self-sacrifice -- he's a tragic creation of modern life.
TEAM AMERICA WORLD POLICE: One of the nice things about Stone and Parker is that whatever your political views are, you watch their stuff and you feel like they're on your side, so it's pretty funny no matter what. This movie captured a moment in our nation's history -- 2004 -- while managing to make fun of every bad action flick of the last thirty years. Well done.
THE THING: John Carpenter's remake of the somewhat silly 1952 sci-fi horror flick about a team of Antarctic scientists being picked off one by one by a hidden alien. Carpenter is a genius; he uses the first-rate special effects to their fullest power, and this was long before CGI. Like many of Carpenter's better movies, this one has a healthy thread of HP Lovecraft running through it.
TOMBSTONE: Pretty good, but not great. This movie played a bit too much like a novel for me. But the shootout scenes were good, and the cast was something to behold. There was not one actress I recognized as a major star, yet there were dozens of famous male actors. Even the extras seemed to be big names. And they all look like they're having fun. Kurt Russell is his usual bad-ass self, but a terrific Val Kilmer steals the show as his superficially repellant, but deeply loyal friend Doc Holliday. It's a performance I won't soon forget.
TOURIST TRAP: By almost any definition this is a bad movie. The plot is infantile and slow as hell. It's not unintentionally funny (often a savior for this class of movie). But it is quite scary -- at times. The doll effects and sound effects genuinely frightened me. In total there are perhaps 20 minutes of great stuff to be seen here, mostly at the beginning and end, but the other hour or so is torture. I might say this movie deserves a remake, but the horror genre as of this writing (2008) is still in the House of Wax-Saw purgatory of talentless garbage, so it would be a waste of time at this point.
THE TRUMAN SHOW: When this first came out, I was in high school. I immediately latched onto the love story, which is only a small part of the movie; I saw it through a kind of tunnel vision. Watching it again over ten years later, with the perspective of adulthood and its wider range of experiences, it is a completely different film. A much bigger, deeper film. It reminded me of the Matrix trilogy, but more mature. While the Matrix movies are mostly escapist fantasy about becoming a superhero, The Truman Show is the opposite of escapist. This is the story of a man enslaved by routine, by a safe but boring world, by life's myriad trivialities and distractions. It's the story of a man giving up a utopian existence, which he recognizes as slavery, in return for an unpredictable but free future. It's hard to imagine a more perfect Satanic figure than that of Ed Harris, who offers Truman comfort in exchange for his soul. Like Groundhog Day, it's the kind of movie that contains many lessons, one of which is the revelation that Truman's limits are fake, like many of our own. Seeing him surrounded by people who make excuses for him, telling him over and over that he should cling gratefully to what he's got rather than reach higher... well, I think many people striving for a better life can relate to that. As I get older and encounter more challenges, I increasingly feel that the world is designed to stop us from doing what we were put here to do — to derail us from our dreams and from our true paths. But at the same time, the mechanisms that hold us back are a sleight of hand. The roadblocks of life are a spectacle to distract and discourage, but they have no true power over us. That's what "The Truman Show" is about. Alas, I can't consider this a "perfect" movie... it has a few overwrought moments and misfires, like some of the over-the-top product placements. Jim Carrey ruins a couple of scenes by being himself. But the ideas coursing through the film are powerful.
12 MONKEYS: Bruce Willis stars in one of his more interesting roles as a criminal sent back in time to prevent a pandemic that wipes out human life on Earth's surface. Visually brilliant and emotionally engaging, I've never heard any hype or buzz about this movie, but everyone I know who's seen it loves it, as do I.
28 DAYS LATER: I didn't like this movie at first because it was billed as a "zombie flick" though it's more like 12 Monkeys. But once I came to terms with that, the movie grew on me. A small group of London exiles try to find safety from the infected population of England, who have become mindless killers (not zombies). The only thing I still dislike is the ending, though I won't say any more about it.
THE UNFORGIVEN: Clint Eastwood's elderly meditation on the action-adventure movies of his younger days. It won an Oscar, which I hope will keep it unforgotten, because I don't know many people who have seen it. You don't have to have seen his spaghetti westerns to like it. His excellent directing is supported by an equal cast including Morgan Freeman (not as a burned out detective) and Gene Hackman, who is a terrifying presence throughout.
UP IN SMOKE: The jokes, like the movie as a whole, give a special extra tilt to a certain culture and a certain time, yet even someone unconnected to either should come away from the movie entertained and even nostalgic. Even though it has no serious antagonists (the cops are buffoons), and no clear plot or direction, it's still a great show.
VIDEODROME: A Cronenberg classic about an over-stimulated, short-attention-span culture that worships television (sound familiar?). The world of television is becoming so real, sometimes it seems more real than reality! In fact, maybe it is! Creepy and intelligent -- I hate to say "the kind of movie that makes you think," but it is. And this was before Reality TV.
WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE: After Freddy's Dead destroyed the franchise once and for all, Wes Craven came back for revenge. He made Freddy Kruger terrifying again, and restored his credibility as a threat and as a serious movie villain instead of a pun-slinging self-parody. Wes Craven's Freddy is not funny. That Craven could pull out a movie like this after what had been done to the series is proof of his talents as a filmmaker.
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (spoiler free): As Stephen King said of Kubrick's "The Shining," what a brilliant disappointment. The book this was based on was a philosophical look at life and death; especially the notion that our minds and thoughts shape reality. The story goes that a middle-aged man dies and spends some time confronting the fact that he's dead, culminating with his entry to "heaven" — an environment totally shaped by thought and free of the tragic, fallen nature of the mortal realm. No sooner has he reached this place than his wife and soul mate, overwhelmed with grief, commits suicide and becomes imprisoned in the personal "hell" of her own self-destructive impulse. In the movie, the philosophical and challenging nature of the book is buried under mountains of cheese. The dialogue and acting are mega-sappy; it seems the actors were told to laugh with childlike joy in every take of every scene. An entire awkward subplot about Chris's failed relationships with his children (who die young in the movie and accompany him through heaven "in disguise") is grafted on, and it doesn't work well. I won't spoil the ending, but it suffers from the same flaws as the rest of the film. Some scenes of hell that should be horrifying misfire and become silly. On the whole it isn't a very good movie. Had it hewed closer in tone to the book and dwelled more seriously on its philosophical ramifications, people might have respected that. Instead, they Hollywoodized it and tried to split the difference, and it bombed. Despite everything, there's much to admire about the film. It is highly imaginative visually, with brilliant vistas and colors. The "world as a living painting" sequences were very nicely done, if suffused with the usual cheesiness.
THE WOLFMAN (1941): Good werewolf movies are hard to find. The one that started it all, did so because it was quite good itself. The special effects don't stand out, but what does very much stand out is the lighting and directing, which is dead on target, and the acting, which is superb. There's real emotional weight to the story; no character is cartoonishly evil, yet they have serious conflicts with each other that come to a head in the tragic conclusion. When Lawrence Talbot works hard to charm the female lead away from her fiance, it isn't cheaply justified by showing the other man to be an abusive dolt. The town's police chief isn't an overbearing jerk, just a lawman looking out for everyone's safety. The skeptical father, for clinging to reason and refusing to be superstitious, comes to one of the worst fates imaginable. Basically it's the opposite of the 2010 remake, which was a joke loaded with cheesy effects and (often intentionally) atrocious acting.
THE WRESTLER: Imagine this pitch for a movie: an aging pro wrestler with a train wreck personal life suffers a heart attack that forces him to look beyond wrestling for fulfillment, patch things up with his estranged daughter, find love, and build a new life. Sounds like boring Oscar-bait, right? But what if he fails? What if the relationships he's forged over a lifetime stubbornly refuse to be reshaped this late in the game? This movie is about how little people change, how hard it is for them to change.
ZOMBIELAND: So refreshing. So gratifying. Zombieland was one of the best zombie films since Shaun of the Dead, which was the best since the '80s. Both, strangely, are comedies. It's not that hard: give us likable characters, fun escapist violence, big guns and exploding heads, and a few decent gross-outs. Zombieland has all that, with today's fad of self-aware youth mixed in. We thankfully don't have to watch everyone learn to shoot for the head for the hundredth time. Instead we have the delight of Woody Harrelson shooting zombies on a roller coaster while adding a few dozen solid one-liners to the lexicon. What's not to like?
Movies I Hate
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST: For most of my life I pondered the idea that there might be a movie lurking out there, some unique, foul gem, that when I saw it, I would know that it was the worst movie I had ever seen. I toyed with labeling a few as such -- Cujo, Halloween H20, Batman Forever -- but Cannibal Holocaust is, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst movie I've ever seen. And I'm almost positive anyone else who sees it will agree with me.
The premise is this: some rogue documentary filmmakers go into the forests of some tropical region, presumably South America, to film cannibals in their native habitat. They then proceed to rape and kill the natives, get raped and killed themselves, watch natives rape each other, kill and destroy the bodies of real live animals on camera, and light the native villages on fire. That's the whole movie. At the end, a professor who watched their recovered tape says pensively, "Maybe we are the monsters, not the cannibals!"
Upon hearing that line, I briefly wondered if the movie was meant to assault the senses and make a comment about American sensationalist media. This thought was almost immediately dismissed. That's what the filmmakers want you to think. It's the most flippant, exploitative, vile garbage I've ever seen on film. The film's creators clearly set out to make something so controversial and terrible that these qualities would attract attention and a word-of-mouth following among the curious. The movie has no other value -- in fact, it has no value!
And now that you know what the movie is, you can forgo the need to ever watch it yourself.
PINK FLAMINGOS: I first heard about this movie from my stepmother, who was reminiscing about a scene in which a dog poops on the ground and someone picks up the poop and eats it all in the same shot. From that moment on, I knew I would one day have to see this movie. I thought it would be hilarious. Boy, was I wrong. It barely meets the definition of a "film." It's more like an ordeal that you force yourself to endure just to be able to say you did. Though a couple moments are amusing - "a gift only a mother can give!" - most of the movie is out and out disgusting, and not in a fun way either. Is it funny to watch a man flex his sphincter while the camera focuses on his asshole? No? Hmm. Even the legendary poop-eating scene, like that one drink too many you knew you shouldn't have had, is something you will regret. Worst of all, in the few scenes the movie isn't sickening, it's painfully boring.
SUCKER PUNCH: A horrible movie with nothing to redeem it. I don't understand people who say it's a visually "beautiful" film loaded with eye candy. It's not. The battle/dream sequences are a visually tedious, cluttered soup of middling CGI in environments reminiscent of stock desktop backgrounds. It truly does feel like watching someone else play a video game, and not even a good one. Rape, abuse and the objectification of women flow through every pore of the movie, both implied and overt. Where is the "empowerment" our culture is so fixated on? The interchangeable young women on the screen are visually appealing, but they have no personality or strength; there is nothing sexy about them, and nothing titillating about what we see. That is the real "sucker punch": in a film sold entirely on spectacle and razzle-dazzle, everything fizzles. Here I will begin with [SPOILERS] but there is nothing to spoil, because the story isn't there, remember? The movie begins and ends in "reality," a heavily photoshopped one. The lead female, Baby Doll, is about to be lobotomized, and from there we depart to a fantasy world in which the mental hospital she inhabits is a theater, which is a front for a whorehouse. The (quite young) female stars all seem wholesome and chipper despite being sex slaves. They're required to do some kind of slutty dance -- which we never see, not even once -- for the clientele, and when Baby Doll does her dance, which we're supposed to believe is the hottest thing of all time, the girls are transported into a second fantasy realm where they are assigned boring missions to achieve. In the whorehouse world, they have to steal a number of key items to escape their slavery, and because the stealing of these objects is so trivial, we are transported to the video game illusion instead. Their success or failure in the game world determines whether they succeed or fail in their thefts, and ultimately their escape. It is impossible to care what happens in the game world, in any case. In the end, they fail their final mission and as a result, the owner of the whorehouse shoots most of the girls in the head and Baby Doll must sacrifice herself so that the least interesting girl can escape to freedom. Again I ask, where is the empowerment? The girls use their nonexistent sex appeal to steal a few things, but are otherwise helpless. They're incapable of defending themselves from any male figure in the whorehouse, yet in their fantasy video game world they're bad-asses killing dragons and infinite numbers of zombie nazis and robots. Their actions in the game world are only a dream of being strong. In the final scenes, Baby Doll wakes up in the mental hospital again, and is lobotomized. The interesting thing is the deleted scene in the extended cut: before her lobotomy we get one final scene in the whorehouse when a client named High Roller arrives to deflower her. He charms her into submitting to him willingly rather than by force (empowering?). In an inspired transition, the instant he penetrates her the film cuts to the lobotomy spike being hammered in. The man performing the lobotomy is the same actor as High Roller. That transition was the only good thing about the film, mostly because of the twisted humor of it, and of course it was snipped from the theatrical cut.