Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Movie List: 30-26

30. “I think we oughta get to the bottom of R. P. McMurphy.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

I haven’t read the Ken Kesey novel on which the movie was based, and I’m sure reading it would affect this ranking one way or another. But as it is, the movie is a classic for a reason (or several), even if it’s not perfect. To this point on my list, it might be the most lauded entry. (Well, no, I guess that would be The Godfather Part II.) Cuckoo’s Nest was the second movie (after It Happened One Night) to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay). The supporting cast around Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (including Danny DeVito in one of his first movies) is very good, and the visual approach is appealingly unscrubbed. A mainstream picture set in a psych ward today would have crippling amounts of Twee Quirk. (See this trailer, for instance, for a bellyful of it.)

29. “You taught me that people will do anything for a potato.”

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Since it’s already taken something like 42 years to get around to this installment of the list, I’ll lean on something I wrote previously about this one: I’ve always thought this was Spielberg’s best work. It’s certainly his most underrated. Just about every scene is flawlessly shot, and while the last 30 minutes come apart a bit as Spielberg breaks out his Book of Morals, that hardly makes it different from any of his other Serious Films. Amazingly, Empire “introduced” Christian Bale, and you could do worse than have your coming-out party directed by Spielberg from a script by Tom Stoppard. Bale is impressive as James Graham, a young Brit in Japan-occupied China during World War II who goes from aristocratic brat to orphaned in an internment camp, where he has to grow up, but quick. Here’s a clip, which is only an average scene for Bale, but the slow-motion shot as he watches his favorite fighter plane glide by is pure genius. There are things to dislike about Spielberg, but when you see a moment like this, it’s hard to deny that the guy is a master of his medium.

28. “It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives.”

The Rules of the Game (1939)

I saw this for the first time not very long ago. Renoir’s mix of farce and tragedy, set on a country estate, ruffled upper-class French feathers when it was first released. Renoir cut it to appease critics, and the film has been slowly restored to its original intentions over the course of many years. Very funny at times, and ultimately heartbreaking, Rules is equally rich for historicist film snobs and audiences just wanting entertainment. It features one of my all-time performances, turned in by Julien Carette, who plays Marceau, a rabbit poacher who is caught and offered a job on the estate. Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, with its similar setting and juxtaposition of aristocrats and servants, is in several ways a direct homage to Rules. I’m not a big Altman fan, but I’m tempted to revisit Gosford Park (which I remember enjoying) after watching Renoir’s masterpiece.

27. “What's a logical explanation for a woman taking a trip with no luggage?”

Rear Window (1954)

I went through a mildly feverish Hitchcock phase when I was younger. Nothing like what a Hitchcock phase could be, but I watched at least half a dozen movies in quick succession and fell for the overall style. I keep threatening (in my mind, which is where I do all of my threatening) to go on a full-blown kick soon. As for this pick: If you need much more than Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, let’s face it, there’s something wrong with you, but there’s also something timelessly fascinating about Rear Window's set of one apartment building looking out onto another. In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said:
It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea. Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know. In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov. You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry. Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor; his face was exactly the same.
26. “No going to the dark side!”

Sideways (2004)

This is low, believe it or not, a (temporary?) concession to the wisdom of crowds. The backlash against this movie’s success was pretty severe, and people keep telling me that I overrate it (I saw it five times in the theater), and I’m cautious enough about the effects of time that I’m happy to temper my enthusiasm somewhat, pending a few more years of perspective. But when I left the theater after first seeing Sideways, I felt thrilled. I had laughed -- a lot, and not cheaply -- and I felt like Paul Giamatti’s performance as Miles, a schlubby, snobby, struggling writer, was almost perfect. But more than anything else, I thought the movie achieved a combined state that I think is enjoyable and rare -- the feeling of cinematic real life. Real life can be boring, or at least frustratingly un-narrative in two-hour chunks. Cinema can be too glossy and/or too contrived. But here, real life is approximated in several scenes: Miles and Jack (an ingeniously cast Thomas Haden Church) walk from their hotel to a local restaurant along a highway at dusk; the two friends and their girlfriends share an increasingly inebriated dinner, culminating in Miles’ famous drunk-dialing incident; the four of them retire to a hillside home and share moments both intimate and awkward. There’s something about the characters and the California light and the leisurely-but-still-compelling pace. . . . Oh, heck, it should have been higher. That said, it’s hard to say who it would have bumped -- the next 25 are heavyweights.



Blogger Levi Stahl said...

Well, this batch includes what is on most days lately my favorite movie, Rules of the Game, which I can watch over and over and over again. I'll be interested to see what 25 films top it.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

"Rear Window" has always been my favorite Hitchcock.

5:05 AM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

Rules of the Game is number one on my increasingly hypothetical list as well. I also have Gosford Park in my top twenty, so it's interesting you noted them together. I'm not sure what you have against Altman, but I suspect it's because you evaluate him based on his worst and most-hyped movies (The Player, Short Cuts). Or, because you're a running dog lackey of international communism. It's one of those two.

5:28 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I think Altman is massively overrated in general. I did like California Split, which was on my list a while back. And there are others of his that aren't bad. But The Player is awful. And while I liked Short Cuts when it came out, I think I'd feel differently now. McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a snore-fest. I never saw MASH (I know). Oh, and I liked The Long Goodbye OK. Couldn't get into Nashville despite its many apostles. Etc. Gosford Park is probably my second favorite to California Split.

Overall, I just feel like his style gets lauded even though it's antithetical to cinematic necessities. I don't mind muted conversations that I can't make out when I'm, say, at a bar. But in a movie, not so much. And his love of multiple, unresolved plot lines is supposed to be . . . what, literary? That's the sense I get.

I'm willing to give him a second chance, though. Where do I start? Don't say The Player.

11:36 PM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

I think Gosford Park is a masterpiece. I honestly think it will rank with one of the best movies of the last 25 years. I also highly recommend Cookie's Fortune, which nears the top of my "Underrated Gem" list.

Altman is surely uneven and The Player is unquestionably horrible (smug, self-satisfied and declawed as well). I haven't seen Nashville in a long time, and I never saw McCabe and Miller. I guess my support for Altman is based on the two movies I list above, although I feel like I must be leaving something out... too lazy to go wikipedia him. Other readers can chime in, maybe....

1:07 AM  

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