Friday, January 22, 2010

The Movie List: 95-91

95. “I used to be somebody else, but I traded him in.”

The Passenger (1975)

I had to debate whether to put this on the list without rewatching it. Life is hard. I’m pretty sure this movie sags badly through the middle, but it starts strong and, more importantly, has a seven-minute shot right near the end that has stayed with me even as a lot of the movie has faded. Jack Nicholson plays a reporter in Africa who, frustrated by the obstacles to doing his job -- and much of the rest of his life -- switches identities with a dead man. It’s basically Don Draper meets Italian modernism. (Spoiler immediately ahead.) Unfortunately for Jack, the person whose existence he has assumed is/was an arms dealer. That eventually leads to a scene in which he’s killed by government agents. He’s in a ground-level hotel room when it happens, and we see the scene not from any traditional perspective, but as a very, very slow pan out the window on to a dusty, nearly empty square. Some cars sputter by. A musician plays. A kid throws a rock at an old man. And somewhere in that sequence, two men get out of a car. It’s a haunting, brilliant way to film a violent scene, and famous for good reason. (It obviously has a lot more power if you watch the whole movie, but it’s available standing alone on YouTube.)

94. “It’s OK to do stupid things. It’s not OK to do stupid things when you notice them.”

I Like Killing Flies (2004)

This documentary falls squarely in the category of Find a Great Character and Let the Cameras Roll. In this case, just one camera, and a pretty cheap one at that. Kenny Shopsin ran a restaurant in Greenwich Village (Shopsin’s) for three decades. This lo-fi movie follows him through his typical routine and then chronicles his moving the restaurant to a new location. Full of opinions and profanity (near the end of the movie, he begins a speech about self-knowledge: “The first duty of everybody in life is to realize that they’re a piece of shit”), Shopsin is the kind of person you would want to write for a fictional film about New York, but you’d never get him quite right. Loud-mouthed but essentially soft-hearted, he runs the restaurant by a set of tyrannical rules, including no seating for parties of five or more. In a profile of Shopsin for The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin wrote, “Pretending to be a party of three that happened to have come in with a party of two is a very bad idea.” (Trillin is in the film as one of the restaurant’s regulars.) I wrote about this one at greater length just after seeing it.

93. “Your queen is just a pawn with a lot of fancy moves, nothing more.”

Fresh (1994)

This movie has one of my favorite final scenes. Sean Nelson stars as Michael (“Fresh”), a quiet 12-year-old drug runner in Brooklyn who occasionally plays chess in the park with his estranged dad (Samuel L. Jackson). The rest of his family is also a mess, most notably his drug-ravaged older sister. Learning from his time at the chess board, Fresh devises a plan to change his life. I rewatched a couple of scenes online, because it had been a while, and it holds up well. Nelson nails a tough role, and the movie unfolds at a smart, deliberate pace without becoming glacial. The score, sometimes obtrusive but mostly effective, was written by Stewart Copeland of The Police.

92. “What you think of as your personality is nothing but a collection of Vanity Fair articles.”

Roger Dodger (2002)

Dylan Kidd’s directorial debut stars Campbell Scott as Roger, an advertising writer in New York who one day finds his 16-year-old nephew Nick in his office. Nick’s in town from Ohio and wants to go back home minus his virginity. He came to the right uncle. Scott is terrific as a guy who thinks he’s broken the code of the battle of the sexes and is eager to impart his wisdom to a young pupil. Nick is winningly, stammeringly played by Jesse Eisenberg in his feature-film debut. The performance catapulted him to become Hollywood’s most sought-after boy-man, if Michael Cera is busy. Roger might be a misogynist, but the movie isn’t -- it includes a great supporting turn by Isabella Rosselini as Roger’s boss (and recent ex), and a memorable extended scene with Jennifer Beals and a surprisingly charming Elizabeth Berkley.

91. “Compared to what? The bubonic plague?”

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is one of the most recent movies on the list, so it’s especially hard to tell where it will eventually end up. For one thing, I haven’t seen it again since I saw it on the big screen. But I can very easily imagine it moving higher. In keeping with an unintentional mini-theme in this batch of five, No Country has a great, understated ending. It’s also brilliantly made from start to finish. As A. O. Scott wrote in his review, “For formalists — those moviegoers sent into raptures by tight editing, nimble camera work and faultless sound design — it's pure heaven.” When the Coens are on top of their game, they just give you perfectly crafted scene after perfectly crafted scene, like the amazing dog chase sequence in No Country. Despite a very uneven last decade or so, the brothers are among my favorite movie makers, and you’ll see them again, more than once.



Blogger Dezmond said...

Only seen "No Country..." in this batch. Loved it, of course. I'm interested in checking out "Roger Dodger," as I like Eisenberg and Scott quite a bit.

1:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RD in the top 100? Seriously? I see you are going out on a limb here, and i can respect that. I also like No Country, but it wouldn't crack my top five of Coen Brothers movies. I prefer Fargo, Lebowski, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona and Blood Simple. And for some reason, i also loved Hudsucker Proxy. jz

2:08 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Well, more my whim than a limb. I really enjoy RD. And No Country is obviously one of my top five Coens... though I prefer some you listed. Hint, hint.

3:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home