Monday, December 26, 2011

The Best Movies Ever, Kind Of

While at a lovely holiday party on Christmas evening, I was engaged in a spirited discussion about movies, and it must have become clear that I was a bit of a cinephile.  Someone at the party who I had never met before then asked me "So have you seen a movie called Citizen Kane?  What did you think of that one?"  In my heart, I danced a merry jig because being asked that question means that someone thinks I'm a real movie critic!

Okay.  Calming down.  Honestly, I don't get asked the "Kane" question unprovoked very often.  I do, however, get asked frequently what my favorite movie is.  I insist on responding with a short list, which frequently changes.  Most of the movies on there are probably going to stay there, however.  For the record, Citizen Kane is a really good movie.  It's not on my list, and you can live a fulfilling life without ever seeing it.  But it is tasty.

Here's the first 10 on the list as of December 26th 2011, with a few notes:

1) Pulp Fiction (1994, d. Quentin Tarantino)

If I had to pick just one film it would be this one.  It essentially contains three great movies that hang out with each other for three hours and chat.  Not every scene is a winner, but every time I watch the film I see some angle that I never saw before.  It's a lovely little puzzle box.  Tarantino's gift that keeps on giving.

2) Top Secret! (1984, d. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker)

The funniest movie I've ever seen.  A sadly overlooked parody of WWII thrillers and Elvis musicals.  A young Val Kilmer's teen-idol charms shine through even the stupidest jokes.  Highbrow cinematic parody sits alongside poop jokes, and incredible set pieces lovingly crafted just to deliver terrible, terrible puns.
3) Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002, d. Park Chan-Wook)

A film that stares deep into the abyss, finds no comfort, and no company within.  A deaf-mute factory worker turns to an ill-conceived kidnapping plot to afford a kidney for his dying sister, leading to tragedy.  Soon a cycle of retribution begins that drags all within it down, down, down to the depths.  I don't think any film can match "Mr Vengeance's" bleak, barren heart, at least no film that's anywhere near this good.  Just thinking about it still makes me shiver.

4) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987, d. John Hughes)

Here, John Hughes crafted a story that's far more profound than it had any right to be.  A straight arrow businessman (Steve Martin) tries to get home for the holidays as everything goes wrong, constantly accompanied by an oafish salesman (John Candy).  But Martin's straight man causes just as many problems for himself as the world dishes out, and Candy's buffoon is a legitimately sweet man.  What should have been a cardboard comedy is much more fulfilling because its characters are real, and likable.  And I can't see the ending without crying.
5) The Turin Horse (2011, d. Bela Tarr)

A somber, black and white meditation on the inevitability of death.  Good times, especially when filmed by the master Bela Tarr.  The 10 minute long takes and virtually nonexistant dialog cause you to actually grow fond of certain patches of wall plaster, or a nifty patch in the main character's beard.  Possibly the most focused and effective film Tarr has ever made.  It asks us to confront the fact that someday we will die.  How will we react when it's just a matter of time?
6) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003, d. Michel Gondry)

Loopy science fiction follows a dysfunctional young couple (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) trying to determine why they ever decided to fall in love in the first place.  After a fight Winslet opts for an experimental procedure that literally removes Carrey from her memories.  An infuriated Carrey decides to "erase" her right back.  The film follows him as he psychedelically relives the relationship in reverse and begins to have second thoughts.  Layer after layer is stripped away until one moment of simple, perfect truth remains.
7) The Thing (1982 d. John Carpenter)

My ultimate horror film.  Only Carpenter could have made this meat-and-potatoes story of a bunch of dudes trapped in a research station with the universe's ultimate killing machine.  No fat, no filler, no big philosophical themes.  Nobody cares why The Thing is here because they're too busy not dying.  Unbearable silence and that classic John Carpenter one note soundtrack ratchets up the tension to the breaking point.  Plus a crazed Wilford Brimley with an axe.  And the gore.  Oh the gore.

8) From Hell (2001 d. Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes)

A lush gothic thriller that I wrap myself up in on cold winter nights as I shiver  with anticipation.  From Hell is a what-if story about Jack The Ripper that is crackers from a historical standpoint, but fantastic cinema.  Johnny Depp is the unforgettable Inspector Abberline, famed for his opium-induced "visions" that turn out to be right.  The diseased heart that beats beneath the streets of London is laid bare, and the film-making is unceasingly beautiful.  Never has bloodshed been so gorgeous (and terrible) as it is here.  Contains my favorite final line in all of cinema.
9) The Big Lebowski (1998 d. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers' finest work.  Jeff Bridges' "The Dude" is one of the all-time classic movie creations.  A slacker ex-hippie drifts about LA, White Russian in one hand, joint in the other, trying to unravel a mystery of no great importance.  He's surrounded by colorful characters all trying to use him for various purposes, and somehow he blunders through the film unscathed.  The directors even have the balls to paint him as some kind of prophet or philosopher, which is probably the funniest joke of the entire film.
10) Lust, Caution (2007 d. Ang Lee)

My favorite of Ang Lee's films.  Every frame is gorgeous, even when venturing into the troubling aspects of Japanese-occupied Shanghai.  The effect is to show that despite the terrible things that happen in this place, it will always remain beautiful.  Lee's love for China makes me ache every time I watch the film.  Wei Tang and Tony Leung Chiu Wai form a powerful connection, but the war has forced them to meet behind masks.  Leung is aiding the Japanese occupiers to save his own life at the possible cost of his soul, while Wei pretends not to care about his unforgivable work while secretly working to have him killed.  In another world, they may have really loved each other.  Maybe they do here.

I could go on, but I'd never stop... For example, how could House Of Flying Daggers or Punch-Drunk Love not have made the cutoff?!?  I will say that I will watch anything produced by the following brilliant directors:
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Ang Lee
  • Park Chan-Wook
  • Bela Tarr
  • Paul Thomas Anderson
Movies are metal. Enjoy them with the blessings of the ancient ones. \m/

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