Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Movie List: 85-81

85. “Why do people have to love people anyway?”

The Apartment (1960)

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember The Apartment as well as I wish I did. It’s time to see it again. Past time. I'm sure you know the plot—a young insurance man makes his way up the company ladder by allowing executives to use his pad for their flings. Things get complicated when he falls for an elevator operator. I remember enough to know it belongs at least this high—a young Jack Lemmon, a young Shirley MacLaine, good chemistry between the two, a great black-and-white look, a grown-up story that’s witty but has undertones of darkness, and one of my favorite opening scenes (after the credits). I read that director Billy Wilder took inspiration for The Apartment from a scene in Brief Encounter (a movie that almost made my list), in which someone lends an apartment to two characters having an affair.

84. “We gonna have a Holy Ghost explosion!”

The Apostle (1997)

This is a movie I hadn’t seen since ‘97, but in researching the list I rewatched a few extended scenes online. In it, Robert Duvall plays Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher in Texas who hits the road after committing a violent act and begins a ministry in Louisiana under the name “The Apostle E.F.” Two things really stood out: One is the natural feel of the cinematography. There are times when the movie feels almost like a documentary, partly because of the understated camera work and partly because of what seem like many amateur actors who make up the congregations. (OK, three things stand out.) The second is that The Apostle deals with religion in a complicated way, which is almost unheard of in movie theaters or anywhere else. Third, Duvall. The project was his baby (he wrote and directed it, too), and in his mid-60s he wasn’t going to waste his time on an ugly baby. His performance is among his best, which is saying something. A. O. Scott said that Sonny is not a fraud or a saint; he’s both. Well, I’d say there’s a lot more fraud than saint in him, but the point is well taken—Sonny is slippery and egomaniacal (and violent), but he also truly feels moved and inspired by something larger than himself. He is possessed. And Duvall’s performance beautifully reflects that. The supporting cast, including Miranda Richardson and Farrah Fawcett, is strong, and this was also that odd, small window in American history when Billy Bob Thornton deserved to be taken seriously. He has a potent turn as a local racist who threatens to destroy the church (literally).

83. “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.”

The Thin Red Line (1998)

I know there’s one thing about this movie that would really make me cringe today, even more than when I first saw it, and that’s the voiceover. There’s a lot of it, and it’s pseudo-poetic in a way that’s often cheap (to my ears). That said, Terrence Malick is a straight-up visual genius. And even the voiceover is in the service of a good idea, no matter how cloyingly it might sometimes be expressed. That idea is to essentially decontextualize war (World War II, in this case, a particularly bold war to decontextualize) and focus on universal themes of the natural world, suffering, and mortality. Saving Private Ryan came out the same year, and was the more conventional movie by far—stunning in some of its set pieces, but essentially a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story. And I’m not arguing that the distinction was meaningless in this case, but it’s a distinction that gets a lot of play. I felt like Malick’s work was the more daring artistic achievement; it risked boredom and occasional eye-rolling to approach a well-worn subject from a radically new (at least on film) place. Plus, the big, big-name cast is terrific.

82. “Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs...”

Die Hard (1988)

In the twisted ways of modern Hollywood, Jaws somehow leads to Avatar and When Harry Met Sally leads to What Happens in Vegas and Die Hard leads to the fetid career of Michael Bay. It’s the Law of Simultaneous Expansion and Degeneration. But it’s hard to blame the classics, and Die Hard is a classic action movie: Bruce Willis at his charismatic best, thrills that don’t rely (too much) on special effects, and the sense of a human scale even as superhuman feats are accomplished. It’s also hard to overstate how refreshing it is that Die Hard is funny, and not a self-serious ball of fire. It knew enough to laugh at the ridiculousness of big-budget action, in a way that winked at the audience and respected its intelligence, more or less. (Read this post at BLDGBLOG to find out why Die Hard is also “one of the best architectural films of the past 25 years.”)

81. “Eat your Coney Island.”
“Spit and say ‘I’ll never die.’”

Paper Moon (1973)
Ponette (1996)

Allow me to quote (or at least extensively paraphrase) myself on both of these:

Set in the American South during the Great Depression, Paper Moon was Tatum O’Neal’s first role. She was nine at the time, and played Addie, a girl whose mother has recently died. Ryan O’Neal plays Moses, a con man who sells high-quality Bibles to freshly made widows who never ordered the things. Hijinks ensue. Tatum is hysterically funny. The senior O’Neal is perfect as Moses, but the movie rests on the junior O’Neal’s shoulders. There are extended scenes of rapid-fire dialogue (clearly uncut) where it’s almost impossible to believe that she was up to this task. The story lags a bit (or maybe more than a bit) around the two-thirds mark, but that's a quibble.

Ponette is strange, an extended meditation (in French) on a single idea, acted out almost entirely by children, and probably wildly subject to personal taste (I liked it a lot). It opens with Ponette (four-year-old Victoire Thivisol) in a hospital bed, arm in a cast, sucking her thumb, watched over by her young father. We quickly learn that she was in a car accident with her mother, who didn’t survive. The rest of the movie follows Ponette as she moves in with an aunt and two young cousins, then into a private home for children, all the while repeatedly praying to her mother and God for a reunion. Not much else happens over the course of the film’s 95 minutes. But the job done by Thivisol is astonishing. What’s most amazing is how she convincingly progresses through the stages of not just grief but religious belief. When a woman at the school consoles a tearful Ponette by saying, “When God was Jesus on Earth, he also cried. But usually He’s as joyful as a child,” Ponette, confused at the sentiment, calmly shoots back, “It’s not joyful being a child.” Ahem.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous lfw said...

Oh, good. The percentage of your top 100 that I've seen just went way up. I've seen all six of these, and they're all great, or at least I thought so when I saw them. Before this installment, I'd only seen 4 or 5 of your bottom 15. It's been very good for the health of my netflix queue.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Hmm. Is this the second "tie" you've had so far? Not fair. You are restricted to 100. I kept mine to 50!

I saw "The Apartment" once and remember enjoying it mildly. "Thin Red Line" is great visually, but some of it really is insufferably ponderous. As far as WWII films go, there are much better out there. I saw "The Apostle" when it came out, but it didn't leave much of an impression on me. "Die Hard" is, of course, awesome. I agree with your comments completely.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Sangeeta said...

I love movies. Do you have more list

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6:47 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Yes, he does. We will get to #1 sometime in 2017.

8:40 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

It's the journey, not the destination, Dez.

And thank you for keeping my spambots company.

9:19 AM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

God I hate The Apartment. I almost made a list of movies I think are the most overrated. If I did, it would be on there. Cruel, stupid, and unfunny.

The Apostle is on my short list of ones to see. I loved Paper Moon, and at least enjoyed TRLine and Ponette. Die Hard was great when it came out, but I don't know how well it's aged. Haven't seen in a long time, so I have no idea.

7:20 PM  

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