Thursday, July 21, 2011

16. Psycho (1960)

Got back from out of town a few days ago, so I can finally start writing again. I promise I'm going to do everything I can to do more than one entry a week like I've been doing. I feel like I've been going through this list too slowly, and so I hope I am able to speed it up.

Next up is Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960. As it is the only Hitchcock film on my list, I feel that I should address his other films as well. The ones I have seen at least. Of course Hitchcock made LOTS of films, and I'm embarrassed to say I have seen a rather small number of them. As for his lesser known works, I have only seen The Wrong Man and Notorious (I'm categorizing Notorious as a lesser known work or his for the simple fact that a more recent film about the rapper Notorious B.I.G. came out a few years ago with the same title, and I want to assume that it was out of ignorance alone and not out of indifference or lack of respect toward Hitchcock). The Wrong Man has Henry Fonda being the awesome 12 Angry Men Henry Fonda that is so beloved, and Notorious has Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Raines, which is enough said for the quality of that film. Still, these movies haven't cracked the top tier of known Hitchcock works.

The Birds is his best known film that's not really important. Yes, it's a pretty good thriller/almost horror film that has been influential, but it doesn't really break any new ground. It's still way better than giant spiders with David Arquette or zombies with Milla Jovovich(at least she's pretty to look at) though. That leaves his four most critically acclaimed works.

Vertigo is perhaps the one that critics love the most. It wasn't thought of very highly when it came out, but these days you'll find it referred to often as Hitchcock's best movie. I've actually gone back and forth on the issue. It did little for me the first time I watched it, but the second time I came to respect it a lot more. The movie has more than one major twist, and I think that is the real strength of the film. After my third viewing though, I noticed that one important scene where you learn someone's identity really stifles the film. There is no more guessing game after that point, and it nearly ruins the movie for me. However, James Stewart is excellent as always, and the film does teach about the dangers of obsession. Oh yeah, and then there is the unique camera trick that the movie is known for as well. It looks a bit dated today though.

Rear Window is an amazing film in that so much of it takes place from a view at a window, and yet it still manages to stay engaging. James Stewart is confined to a wheelchair after hurting his leg, and he takes to looking out the window at the people in the adjacent building for entertainment. He learns about their lives, and about what he begins to suspect is a case of homicide. We see so much through his eyes, and feel helpless along with him as it's almost like we are stuck in that wheelchair as well. The films climax is rather silly, but otherwise I can see why some people find Rear Window to be their favorite Hitchcock film.

Then there is North By Northwest. It's Cary Grant in one of his defining roles, predating James Bond in a tale of espionage, action, romance, and betrayal. You know, all the good stuff. It also happens to have a great deal of humor as well. In fact, it may be the most well rounded thriller of all time. The crop dusting and Mount Rushmore scenes are some of the most well known moments in cinema. And dat music! Bernard Herrmann is a god among composers. He also composed the music to my favorite Hitchcock film, Psycho.

Psycho is one of the most important and influential films of all time. This is for a number of reasons. First off, what happens half way into the movie really changed what could happen in popular cinema. As to avoid spoilers I won't mention what actually happens, but this plot twist has been used so many times since Psycho that it has become more than cliche. However, shocking the audience in such a way in 1960 was a much bigger deal, and how genius was this idea, to have inspired so many knock offs? In fact, go walk into the theater and see any current thriller/horror film out there today and the chances are probably 50/50 that they will throw this twist in. Then, there is good old Norman Bates. Has there ever been such a lovable character? A boy's best friend is his mother indeed.

Psycho is also the movie that brought horror to life in film. Hitchcock had been making thrillers his whole career, and with Psycho he made the jump to something new. Before it, horror meant Dracula and Frankenstein. It might be scary, but in the end we know it's a fantasy. Psycho is about a real guy. One messed up guy, yes, but a guy with psychological problems that exist in the real world. The idea of depicting this kind of person on screen in 1960 was so radical that the movie makes a point of explaining everything to the audience at the end, just so viewers can make some sense of this character. Of course today the psychological thriller is its own genre of film. And Psycho's influence has perhaps permeated television even more than film. So many episodes of CSI, Criminal Minds, Bones, are about murderers who have mental problems.

In any case, Psycho is a movie that everyone should see once, even if they already know what's going to happen. It's a classic film, and it won't hurt a fly to see it :)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hey Guys!

Got dragged into going out of town so I probably won't get my next review up until after this weekend. I will say that my next pick is an Alfred Hitchcock film. But which one is it? You might get Vertigo, or go Psycho, staring out your Rear Window at The Birds while you try to figure it out :P Yea, that was lame, whatever.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

17. Raging Bull (1980)

I can't believe it's been a week since I last wrote a new entry. Sorry about that! In any case next up is my favorite Scorsese flick, Raging Bull. Scorsese is definitely one of the best directors out there. He almost never makes a bad film, and most are of a very high quality. He likes making movies about gangsters, or at the least he likes having gangsters involved. This is true for The Departed, Goodfellas, Casino, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York, and, well, Taxi Driver has pimps, that's close right? After Hours is a bit of a weird anomaly in his film resume (still an interesting movie though), and then there is the more recent Shutter Island, which was pretty dreadful for a Scorsese film. You aren't M. Night Shahoweveryouspellit, you are better than that Mr. Scorsese! But besides that hiccup, his list of films is nearly as good as any director out there. And I find that Raging Bull is at the top of his list. I did not feel that way at first though. For a long time I debated whether Good Fellas or Taxi Driver was my favorite. Both are remarkable films, but then one day I decided to see Raging Bull again.

Though Scorsese likes his characters stuck in the gangster world, it's always just a backdrop for the personal turmoil of his main character, and in Raging Bull that turmoil is more centered than in any of his other films (well, you could argue for Taxi Driver too). This is the classic rise and fall story. A character study of one man. It's drama, at it's purest form. Yes, it's like Citizen Kane, but with boxing. That was a joke, by the way, because really the actual boxing isn't what's important. This is not a sports movie. The boxing never lasts very long, and it comes second to the character himself. It is instead the basis from which we understand the character. That character of course being Robert De Niro, who somehow I haven't even mentioned yet. I believe this is also his first collaboration with Joe Pesci, and if not then this film definitely contains the roles that show off their collaboration the best. Sure, Pesci is insanely fun in both Goodfellas and Casino, but it's hard to top the serious drama that these two actors give here.

Now, I can't talk about this movie without mentioning De Niro quoting On the Waterfront. You'll know it when you see it, and it's one of the best moments in the film. It really caps all the drama, and this movie bleeds drama. It's also interesting since in The Godfather Part 2 De Niro plays a young Marlon Brando, and here he quotes a young Marlon Brando. Another cool tidbit is that Scorsese was apparently listening to a lot of The Clash's London Calling album while filming this movie. It's a great album to go along with a great movie.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

18. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

This is the only pure comedy I have on my list, and I find that it's rare for a comedy to make a lasting impression on me. I think this is because since a comedy's primary intention is to make you laugh, any purpose, meaning, or message isn't as important and tends to be a weaker aspect of the film. There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it is a big reason why I rarely give a five star rating to a comedy. Holy Grail deserves five stars though. I first saw this movie over a decade ago and like many young dorks I ended up quoting way too much of it way too often. But it's easy to see why the movie is so quotable. Besides being genuinely funny, Holy Grail is really just a bunch of skits put together to tell a story. In fact, nearly every scene in the film could exist on its own as a comedy skit, and funny skits are easily quotable. So line after line of Holy Grail gets passed around by geeky people everywhere, to the point where even if you haven't seen the movie you have probably heard a line from it. It's overexposure has diminished the film's impact a bit, but I just saw it again a few months ago and it still makes me laugh. It was probably the 20th time I have seen it. And when I consider that I wouldn't care to watch most comedy films twice, that's really saying something.

But why do I consider this my favorite comedy? First, the film devotes itself to comedy and nothing else. Remember how I mentioned earlier that in comedies the message tends to suffer? Well there is no message here, no lesson for you to learn. It's just funny. Also, I think that because the film is really just one skit after the other it gives each scene more humorous opportunities than most films. Holy Grail never feels like the story is the priority. Instead, it flows like Monty Python were writing one skit after the other. So the story never gets in the way of the humor, but goes where the humor needs it to go. I think this is a major reason why it's my favorite comedy.

I won't get into individual parts of the film, because I could type forever about coconuts and black knights and killer bunnies, but I will say that I love how as soon as the credits start the humor does as well. Also, I love how we find out early on that the film is really taking place in present day. Oh, the absurdity! I will also say that I'm not really a huge Monty Python fan in general. Don't get me wrong, some of their skits are hilarious, but sometimes they can be hit or miss with me. I was also a bit disappointed with Life of Brian. That film felt far more story based, and I rarely found myself laughing. I have sadly still never seen Meaning of Life though. Gonna go put that on my to-do list.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

19. Annie Hall (1977)

I have a girlfriend. Well, she is sort of my girlfriend. Well, she was my girlfriend anyway. We want different things in our futures, but yet we still act like a couple. Relationships are weird sometimes I guess. Or maybe they are weird all the time. In any case, one thing that's for sure is that real life relationships aren't anything like the perfect way most movies portray them. How many times have you watched a movie and known within fifteen minutes who will be ending up together? And how many times have you seen the following formula. Guy meets girl > things look good for a while > there is a big misunderstanding and the girl leaves the guy > both guy and girl realize they are meant for each other > guy and girl get back together. If you answer isn't something along the lines of "too many times to count," then you must be lying to yourself. Of course, the movie never shows a month later where the guy cheats on the girl and they never speak again.

But I digress. My point is that Annie Hall (omg am I finally talking about the movie?!) falls into this category of movies, but it is one of the few movies, and the best one, that paints a portrait of a believable relationship. And when you can make a skinny, whiny Woody Allen getting some delicious, young Diane Keaton seem believable, well then your movie is doing pretty well. The movie also refreshingly diverts from that established formula I mentioned, both in story and in style. To discuss the story part would be a spoiler, but the style of this movie is one of its major positives. It flashes from scene to scene, and does so not always in chronological order (the whole movie is really just a flashback of the main character's life), so there is never any consistent flow. This might sound like a bad thing, but in doing so Allen is able to pick out all the juicy details and best parts without having to connect everything with unnecessary scenes. He goes further too, as the main character steps outside of his own life at times, and in one part is even represented as a cartoon. I find these varying modes of storytelling refreshing, and they keep me glued in, wondering what the director will throw at me next.

Now, with this being a romantic comedy, and with Woody Allen being a comedian, the director, and main character, there are of course going to be loads of stand up jokes scattered throughout the movie. And having never actually listened to his stand up, this film makes me regret it. He talks fast, talks a lot, and admittedly whines a lot, but he is great at making clever observations. He plays himself in the movie, and it really shows, and helps make the comedy believable.

That leaves the romance part. Diane Keaton is almost painfully cute in this movie, and she works with Woody Allen very well. Their entire relationship, their ups and downs, it's all believable. And I think it's so believable because we get this examination of the little details of their lives. We don't get scenes that are made to progress the plot, but instead are given moments that only matter in their own context, and only to these two people. When you finish the movie you will realize that there wasn't really any plot to it at all. It was simply life. A more recent movie that follows this same idea, and is actually quite similar in many ways, is 500 Days of Summer. It's a pretty good film too actually. It's no Annie Hall though.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

20. [Princess Mononoke] (1997)

I'm a big anime fan, but anime movies tend to disappoint me. Princess Mononoke, however, not only doesn't disappoint, but sits at the apex of anime films. A boy named Ashitaka becomes infected with an incurable disease, and he journeys to its source to learn what he can before dying. He finds a world where nature is making its last stand against technology, and he is thrown into the middle of the struggle. Yes, you can see a pro-environmental message in this film if you really want to, but it's really more about coexistence.

But what really sets this movie apart is the animation. Now, Miyazaki would later dazzle the world with the even more creatively animated Spirited Away, but I've always felt that film revolved around its creative animation so much that the story suffered. Miyazaki has a knack for creating an interesting and vibrant world, and Princess Mononoke seems to balance that talent with an engaging and epic storyline. This world includes giant boars, wolves, and an elusive deer that might just represent nature itself. And as the forces on each side collide, Miyazaki takes the story in surprising directions, and ends the tale in a bittersweet, yet joyful way.

Of course, whenever the man vs. nature topic comes up in film, most of the time man is portrayed as evil. But here things are not so black and white. Both man and nature have their own understandable claim to the world they inhabit. This makes the characters far more complex than simple good guys and bad guys, and these characters stand out as a result.

Lastly, like with all anime, I would recommend the subbed version of this movie over the dub. Despite the long list of stars in the dub, hearing the Japanese language with a Japanese movie always feels more natural.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

21. C'era una volta il West [Once Upon a Time in the West] (1968)

I'm not a big Western fan, and this is the sole Western movie on my list. Not being a fan, a quick glance at a film synopses would certainly make one ponder why this movie makes my list. I mean, the story here is nothing unique. The reason is direction, and Leone proves that superb direction can take a warmed over story and create meaning through music, camera work, and pacing. The score is consistently perfect, the shots are long and mesmerizing. You can really just forget the story. Well, don't really forget it, but pay specific attention to a director directing like a director should direct. Rarely is a film crafted so well that it makes one feel contempt for other directors, but Leone manages to evoke that response here.

But ok, enough about the direction, what about the rest of the movie? Well, it all comes down to the characters. Harmonica(Charles Bronson) and the bandit are both endlessly likeable good-guys-who-aren't-quite-good-guys, and Henry Fonda's icy heart shows through his icy eyes. It is pretty amazing he can go from playing the quintessential good guy in 12 Angry Men to pulling off such an evil part here. I find that the ability to convincingly play varied roles is the hallmark of a great actor, and Henry Fonda obviously demonstrates this ability.

Ironically, the pity in this story falls upon not the wandering loner, or the damsel in distress, but instead the rich business man. This is a world where civility is on the threshold of taking over, and chaos is attempting its last winning move. Oh yea, and there's the chick too. In fact, she's the center of the story. Silly me, I almost forgot seeing as she matters only as plot and never as a character. Leone would continue his career with another "Once Upon A Time," years later, and it would live up to the high standard Leone set with this film.