Monday, January 18, 2010

The List Begins: 100-96

100. “You won't see me anymore, so I thought I'd have a little session with your machine.”

Dressed to Kill (1980)

What better place than #100 for a deeply imperfect movie that on any given day wouldn’t make the list? Brian De Palma’s explicit (double meaning intended) homage to Hitchcock stars Michael Caine as a psychiatrist. Angie Dickinson is a housewife looking for a hot time who meets a bad end. Nancy Allen is a call girl who witnesses the bad end and might be next in line. All the while, a cross-dressing killer is on the loose. As you may be able to tell, there are plenty of campy elements in this thriller -- and plenty of ammo for those sensitive to portrayals of both women and the transgendered. But what lingers from Dressed to Kill is that it scared the hell out of me. Most chilling, in particular, is a twisted sequence near the very end. It’s a movie that’s not easy to discuss without spoiling surprises. It’s also a movie about which you can say that both its critics and its fans have a point.

99. “Oh, stewardess . . . I speak jive.”; “Milk was a bad choice.”

Airplane! (1980)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

In just a very few places (two, maybe three) on the list, I’m going to have multiple movies at the same spot. Like a coupled entry in horse racing. This will infuriate one person, but I imagine the rest of you won’t mind. When I was 10, I thought nothing would ever be as funny as Airplane! My generation is famously fond of conversing by quoting its favorite movies and TV shows, and I got my childhood practice by shouting things like “Leon’s getting lllaaaarger!” with some regularity. (For a look at the making of the jive scene quoted at the top, see here.) Anchorman defines a later brand of absurdity. I find most similar movies (and certainly most Will Ferrell movies) puddle-deep and tiresome, but for some reason I love Anchorman. I think it has to do with the choice of setting -- a 1970s local-affiliate news show proves more fertile and surprising ground than, say, competitive men’s figure skating. The vain vapidity of Ron Burgundy is funny in itself, and even more so when the Chauvinist half of his brain (“it’s science”) battles with the Falling in Love half (“it’s terrible, she has beautiful eyes and her hair smells like cinnamon!”) This is to say nothing of the hilarious supporting idiocy of scenes like Sex Panther.

98. “If you take my advice, you'll become one of the great balloon-folding acts of all time.”

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Opening in the Carnegie Deli with a great scene of old hands sharing anecdotes about a bumbling talent agent, Broadway Danny Rose is as precise a thing as Woody Allen has ever done. Allen is the titular agent, who works mostly with washed-up acts who were working birthday parties when they were successful, but he’s also resuscitating the career of a lounge singer named Lou Canova (winningly played by Nick Apollo Forte, who was never in another film). When Lou asks Danny to pose as the boyfriend of his flame Tina (Mia Farrow), the Mob misunderstands and goes after Danny. Farrow is hysterical as the trashy moll, and Allen stretches (a little) to give Danny a shade more depth than his average alter-ego. There are many patented early-Allen silly moments, including a showdown fueled by helium, but by the end, when Danny hosts a holiday party for his stable of “talent,” the movie has achieved a real poignancy, too.

97. “You don’t walk out on me. I walk out on you.”

Donnie Brasco (1997)

By the late date of 1997, movies about the Mafia must have numbered in the hundreds, and the idea of someone working in that world undercover wasn't much fresher. But two great performances and a smart, measured pace make Donnie Brasco stand out. Modeled after the real-life character of the same name, Johnny Depp plays husband and father Joseph Pistone, known to his associates as lonely orphan Donnie Brasco, who specializes in jewels. Al Pacino is "Lefty" Ruggiero, an aging mobster whose 26 hits and longtime loyalty haven't been enough to move him very high on the Family ladder. Donnie takes to Lefty, and vice versa, and over time the line between being undercover and being a member of the Mob is essentially erased. Though Pacino had already broken the seal on the Self-Parody phase of his career by this point, this is a throwback performance. Lefty is a defeated figure, and Pacino plays him at the right volume, appropriately slumped in the shoulders. As Donnie becomes increasingly fond of Lefty, Depp reminds you what he was capable of before the Freak Show stage (Willy Wonka, Keith Richards-inspired pirates) of his career. Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby are two of the supporting players. I think Brasco is underrated. In fact, maybe even by me; it's the first entry on the list that I already regret not having higher. (There will be several more, I'm sure.)

96. “All my dreams is in him now.”

Hoop Dreams (1994)

The most popular (and sometimes, coincidentally, the best) documentaries are increasingly slick. Hoop Dreams, a nearly three-hour look at two Chicago teenagers from the projects with aspirations to play professional basketball, is not slick. Its small-screen aesthetic of raw visuals and occasional straightforward narration stem from the fact that it was conceived as a 30-minute short for PBS. But several years and 250 hours of footage later, director Steve James and his collaborators had completed a much deeper project. William Gates and Arthur Agee were both recruited to play basketball at the predominantly white St. Joseph, a suburban high school famous for being the alma mater of NBA great Isiah Thomas. (Like Gates and Agee, Thomas had commuted -- 90 minutes each way -- to attend the school.) Perhaps it’s needless to say, 16 years later, that neither kid became the next Thomas. But the movie’s immersive, subtle portrait of how they didn’t get there -- its view of the inner city, class, race, and the two boys -- is heart-rending and unforgettable.



Blogger Dezmond said...

So it is here.

"Airplane!" of course. I think I did a Top 50, but had a given myself 100 slots to work with, that would have been about where you put it. I expected Woody Allen, but not this early. "Hoop Dreams" is awesome. Have not seen "Donnie Brasco" in a long time. I remember Pacino being great in it, like you said.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Nothing to love or link with…"

11:19 PM  
Blogger Jason Zinoman said...

An excellent start, and i am pleasantly surprised to find Dressed to Kill. The silent sequence in the museum is the one time when DePalma truly does top Hitchcock. I am however curious what scene at the end you are talking about. Is it the dream sequence where the camera shoots the leg of the killer, cuts away, shoots back and finds just the shoe before revealing him in the mirror, an old trick from Repulsion. That is also top notch suspense. I look forward to the rest.

3:22 PM  
Blogger JMW said...


The shot you mention is, indeed, scary as hell. I was also referring to the lead-in scene, in the insane asylum. This was a few years ago, but I remember it being really . . . psychologically clammy and actually terrifying.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ah yea, i seem to remember an awesome swirling bird's eye view shot in that one, not unlike the one in the prom scene in carrie, which i hope makes the list. jz

1:57 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Carrie will not be on the list. Nothing against it, I just haven't seen it since I was a little kid.

3:29 PM  

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