6 Nov 2017

My Favorite Films: Part 2

Having already covered the first 10 movies of my Top 100 I'm as keen as ever to look at #90 to #81.

#90 - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)


 Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman is one of the most recent films to make this list. I wondered how much of a punch the acclaimed Best Picture winner could punch and even with high expectations it completely blew me away. I haven't revisited it since that first viewing, but I have no hesitation in calling it one of the 5 best films I've seen come out of the 2010s. With the illusion of being filmed in a single take it's already an immense technical achievement, but it's only more appropriate given its psychological properties. It deals with the ego and the desire to reclaim a past era of greatness through the physical and emotional experiences of Riggan, who Michael Keaton revived his career to new heights by playing. Birdman is one of those exceptional films that is becomes its own experience.

#89 - Donnie Darko (2001)


I first saw Donnie Darko in high school and initially felt it to be a pretentious exercise without any meaning. When I rewatched it a few years later however I thought it was nothing short of a masterpiece and I still hold it up as one of the highest standards reached in modern independent cinema. It's a shame to hear that Richard Kelly's other films are hardly anything like it, but Donnie Darko is a vision like no other. I'm not any less aware of the inherent weirdness that'll turn a lot of people off this film, but I'm really drawn to its unique take on a time-travel plot that still works in the love and adolescent angst you'd expect from a (dark) teen film. Visually stunning and a joy to work out.

#88 - The Haunting (1963)


Following to highly psychological modern films is one of the high points of the haunted house genre that has a few psychological properties of its own. Director Robert Wise is more commonly associated with the sci-fi masterpiece The Day The Earth Stood Still and the musical masterpiece The Sound of Music and to see him make a horror film of this caliber really illustrates his brilliance as a storyteller. The Haunting doesn't throw an enormity of spooky images at you or even offer a clear answer as to whether there's any real paranormal activity going on at Hill House. It's a question of whether or not it's all in the mind of its troubled leading lady Eleanor, played by Julie Harris. For something that's over 50 years old it still manages to unsettle the audience like few others. I'm astonished this wasn't well received on its initial release and it needed a cult status to be fully appreciated.

#87 - Scream (1996)


Scream is a fascinating case where one of the best horror movies happens to satirize the genre. The result was something fresh and I'm thankful to director Wes Craven for revitalizing the slasher film for the 1990s. Perhaps Scream is a little outdated now when we consider how much horror has changed since, but I still hold it up as one of those few examples of slasher perfection, particularly with its own self awareness considered. I love the "whodunit" mystery, I love the depiction of 1990s teen culture, I think Ghostface is one of the all-time great slasher villains and I love the referential and comedic nature of the script. Maybe Scream is a little less relevant to the wider audience now, but I think genre enthusiasts will always cherish it.

#86 - King Kong (1933)


Film is subjective, but with King Kong I think it really is fair to say that it's one of the greatest films of all time. I would only credit maybe three or four films as being equally as important to movie history. A revolutionary in its time, and today a classic adventure. We'll always remember unforgettable scenes like Kong's climbing the Empire State Building and really what made all of this possible was the ambition of all those involved in the project, from the exciting script to the impressive stop motion effects. They're really something that you'll never get tired of watching. There's too much history to talk about regarding the significance of King Kong, but it'll forever be something for cinema fans to admire and worship.

#85 - Doctor Zhivago (1965)


Epic films with a wide scope and dramatic historical setting are a recipe for cinematic brilliance, and director David Lean applied this rule repeatedly through his career. Save for another film further up on this list he didn't do this better than with Doctor Zhivago, a turbulent tale of love and loss amid the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Not only does Lean bring the time and place alive with prowess, but he also manages to add a unique visual beauty that gives Doctor Zhivago a near-fantasy quality. Try telling me the Ice Palace set is anything but stunning. While I wouldn't put too much faith in the accuracy of its historiography, this film soars as far as this genre is concerned and had it not been for a certain other film by David Lean I feel is superior I'd call Doctor Zhivago his masterpiece.

#84 - Toy Story (1995)


Perhaps it's unexpected to follow a classic historical epic with a family movie made by Pixar, but I absolutely cherish Toy Story. The VHS tape I had back in the late 90s became subject to major abuse by my constantly watching the film over and over as a kid. While children do this a lot I think the film has an infinite rewatch value among all age groups and I liked to revisit this film every few years to be reminded of that carefree time. Pixar's animation is brilliant (if outdated by their work since) and the story of Woody and Buzz Lightyear concerns the ego's need for acceptance, friendship and the feeling of significance. Toy Story is a childhood favorite that remains important to me years later.

#83 - Before Sunrise (1995)


It's been incredibly long since seeing Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, but I do know that it's one of the great romantic dramas of our time and a fine example of Linklater's unconventional approach to storytelling (arguably the best aspect of all of his films). Exploring the scenery of the gorgeous city of Vienna, our two leads Jesse and Céline (played remarkably by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) get to know one another in a shortlived love affair while contending with their mutual awareness that it'll likely be their only night together. The dialogue has a sense that it's reigning free and that their conversations really could go anywhere. Before Sunrise, despite being very minimalist feels a lot less restrained than much bigger movies and I simply love spending its runtime with these two fantastic people.

#82 - Mystic River (2003)


It's been a long time since viewing Mystic River, at least five years, so I'll apologize if I'm vague in my discussion of it. Clint Eastwood has been one of my favorite directors for years and while his work has been patchy as of late, it was only just ten years ago when Eastwood was delivering truly exceptional films that set a standard for modern filmmaking. Mystic River is one of these. Is it a thriller? A family drama? A mystery? It's all three of these and the result is really something superb and the experience hard to describe. What's perhaps most remarkable about this film is seeing the change in its three leads, played by Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins. Their own unique stories and how they converge into a compelling force is what makes Mystic River wonderful. Just writing this puts me in the mood to see it again.

#81 - The Gold Rush (1925)


I'm finishing up Part 2 of this series with one of the greatest comedies of all time. In my opinion nobody can call themselves a real film enthusiast until they've seen at least of of Chaplin's Tramp comedies. I was equally compelled to choose either Modern Times or City Lights in this place, but I think The Gold Rush deserves a modicum of additional appreciation. A lot of things draw me to this movie. I love its cheery vibe, its slapstick comedy, cartoonish depiction of the real world and especially the antics of the Little Tramp. Structurally the film is seemingly made up of a few isolated episodes, but this factor I'm willing to overlook given the character's status in shorts for years prior. The Gold Rush is one of the happiest movies out there and I recommend it to all those looking for their first taste in the greatness of silent cinema.

That's all for Part 2. Here's looking forward to talking about the next 10 movies!

28 Oct 2017

My Favorite Films: Part 1

Ever since I started this blog I set out some writing goals for myself, many of which I still haven't completed. What I wanna do now is talk about my 100 favorite movies. They're the movies I find the most admirable, inspiring, entertaining and rewatchable. Putting such a list together is no easy task and it's always gonna be subject to change. It'll always truly be in a state of change, so consider this to be my 100 favorite films as of now. Attempting to revisit that many movies and write detailed reviews is way too ambitious for someone that doesn't do this professionally. For this series I'm aiming more for quantity. I'll be writing 10 installments each briefly talking about 10 films that I love in the hopes it can serve as a love letter to the cinematic gems that remind me of why movies is my life.

#100 - Spider-Man 2 (2004)


To be honest I'm really not a die-hard fan of the superhero genre. Countless films in this genre feel like carbon copies of one another, so it's really only the high achievers that get my attention. Spider-Man 2 is one of these. It's a dramatic improvement upon the original in so many ways, largely because of the emotional maturity of its content. This isn't to say that it sacrifices any of the usual joys of the superhero movie, because it boasts some truly exciting action sequences, but they're really secondary for me. Peter Parker's inner turmoil over serving New York City as the hero Spider-Man and its complicating the life he wants for himself is a compelling take on the embracing of responsibility we all deal with eventually.

#99 - Frankenstein (1931)


It's one of the most iconic tales in the history of fiction and a landmark achievement for the horror genre. Director James Whale terrified audiences in 1931 with his cinematic take on Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein novel. I've never read it, but it's known for a gothic quality that I feel is wonderfully reflected here. Even if one has never seen the movie they're bound to know something about it, whether it be Henry Frankenstein's mad exclamation "It's alive! It's alive!", Boris Karloff's towering performance as the Monster and the eventual downfall at the hands of a hateful townspeople. It's the ultimate story of man attempting to play god and a great piece from a Hollywood that's long gone.

#98 - The Searchers (1956)


I'm a major enthusiast for the Western genre. I really want the cinematic western to be revived to the popularity it experienced in the 1940s and 1950s in a new form. All modern westerns should use John Ford's The Searchers as an inspiration. It's one of the most beautifully shot films of its time and conveniently one of the best too. John Wayne's performance as Ethan Edwards is what really makes the film. You're uncertain as to whether the Confederate veteran is more motivated on his quest by a love of family or a hatred of the Indians. The Searchers is a western in the spirit of the Eisenhower era through its contrast of American ideals with a world that doesn't appear ready to embrace them.

#97 - Dirty Harry (1971)


While The Searchers encouraged a 1950s era ideal, Dirty Harry similarly is about the disillusionment with these values. Harry Callaghan is a personification of a society distressed by the Vietnam War, racial tensions, the Nixon administration and the end of the post-war boom. The more entertaining side of Dirty Harry however is its grittiness. It was a time when Hollywood films were becoming more concerned with lurid subjects and this film combined a deeply flawed hero, a depraved villain inspired by the Zodiac killer and puts them at odds with one another in a truly hideous social environment. It's known for right wing-leaning tendencies, and I appreciate it for being so strong willed.

#96 - Oldboy (2003)


Much of the best cinema today comes out of Asia. Chan-wook Park's Oldboy is as thrilling as it is disturbing, and really has some great ambition in terms of exciting and disturbing the audience. The tale of Oh Dae-su's imprisonment and subsequent search for vengeance and an explanation is one that pushes some astonishing psychological boundaries. There is some real beauty in Oldboy, but it's matched by some truly uncompromising shocks and twists. Park was inventive with this film, taking full advantage of some out of this world techniques and a play on structure that absolutely maximizes Oldboy's ultimate payoff.

#95 - Gladiator (2000)


Perhaps it's a little odd to follow a unique Eastern film with something more in line with traditional Hollywood, but the Best Picture-winning Gladiator by Ridley Scott is an outstanding example of historical fiction that puts us right in the middle of Ancient Rome's world of gladiators and the aristocracy. I see the film as predominantly one of values explored through Maximus and Commodus, played wonderfully by Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix. Gladiator is about justice and the value of democracy, and in expressing the importance of these ideas it paints a stunning image of the Roman Empire through extravagant sets and costumes, great special effects and gripping screenplay.

#94 - TIE: Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)


This is the first tie in my list, but could you really blame me? Alien by Ridley Scott and its sequel Aliens by James Cameron both stand on their own as some of the all-time best in science fiction. It's amazing because the former takes the approach of a horror film and the latter an action-thriller, and both perform beyond admirably in both respects. The films are great largely because of their inner mythology. There's a sense that this universe is endless and we're only getting a glimpse into a small part of it, and Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) acts as our guide for learning and growing from its horrors. But above all they're beyond intense. I can only recommend that you watch both Alien and Aliens and appreciate that they offer their own experiences.

#93 - Catch Me If You Can (2002)


It's been a while since I've viewed this one. I happened to see Catch Me If You Can when I was just starting to get serious about film and it instantly became a favorite. While at the time Spielberg was concerning himself with dramas with big questions (films like Amistad and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), this was the fresh return to the escapism that marked him as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. The premise is superfluous to the point that it's unbelievable that Frank Abagnale is a real person. What I really love about Catch Me If You Can is that it's so high-spirited and in spite of some intense and downright despicable moments it leaves you feeling good.

#92 - Gran Torino (2008)


There are some great films dealing with old age out there, but Gran Torino approaches the subject with a ferocity that I find very alluring. It's all about the transformation of Walt Kowalski, played by director and star Clint Eastwood, by overcoming the past and in doing so improving the present and the lives of those around him. We all have at least one demon that gets at us, and I feel Gran Torino is about sticking the middle finger up to those demons and reclaiming what you believe is yours. Of course this is all inside the character and there's far more to talk about in the external premise, but it's really about an ageing man's response to being disillusioned with a place he once loved.

#91 - North by Northwest (1959)


This is the first of many Alfred Hitchcock movies on the list, but believe me when I say that it's still one of his best. This thriller is about a case of mistaken identity, and how the consequences of this lead to absolute chaos. We spend so much time with Roger Thornhill that we begin to feel as though we're in his shoes, meaning we feel the same anxieties, distrust of others and overwhelming frustration. Predominantly a thriller, North by Northwest is a very impressive mixture of many genres, which widens its appeal beyond Hitchcock enthusiasts. It's humorous, romantic, exciting and most importantly very character-driven. The only flaw I feel in North by Northwest is that its ending is rushed, but I'm willing to overlook that and imagine it's part of the fast-paced experience Hitchcock intended.

That's part 1 finished! I don't know when I'll be getting to part 2, but I think I'm gonna have more fun writing that than I did this!



Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

Directed by: Sean S. Cunningham
Written by: Victor Miller
Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan and Kevin Bacon

On the topic of slashers, one of the most prominent questions is what the very first slasher movie actually is. Commonly you hear people citing Halloween and Black Christmas and others credit earlier films like Peeping Tom and A Bay of Blood. However, the question neglects to consider the quality of these movies or their role in mainstreaming the genre. Friday the 13th is not the first slasher movie or even the best, but it's the one with a legacy that warrants a particular celebration. You don't spawn 9 sequels, a crossover film, a remake and even comics and video games without immense appeal. I wanna overlook all of this however and simply review the original classic as the longtime fan that I am.

Beginning in 1958 two promiscuous counselors at Camp Crystal Lake fall victim to murder by an unknown assailant. In 1979 the camp is being reopened despite its now sinister reputation as 'Camp Blood' following the murders and the drowning of a young boy a year prior. After ignoring the warnings of a local crazy the new camp counselors one by one fall victim to a murderer out in the woods. Is it the same killer responsible for the murders two decades earlier? Is it a vengeance spree? Is Crystal Lake really cursed? And who will make it out alive?

A common complaint  against Friday the 13th a tired old groan about how terrible it is that the iconic Jason Voorhees is not the killer in the film, like it's either a serious fault or it was a mistake that those involved couldn't predict the extent of the series' success. This complaint drives me to talk about an immense positive related to characters and performances. Betsy Palmer plays Mrs Voorhees and despite only being onscreen for the final act she leaves a solid impression. Her performance combines our perceptions of a loving mother and vengeful psychopath. Our villains need stories, and Mrs Voorhees' place in the story of Friday the 13th prevents it from falling into purely generic territory. Even some of the other cast in this film act quite admirably for the standard of a slasher movie, namely a young Kevin Bacon and the film's star Adrienne King.

I will confess that this isn't a perfect slasher film either, and I personally think that a small handful of sequels are superior. There are two majors flaws worth mentioning. Firstly, the lighting is poor and makes the relatively low budget of $550,000 very apparent. Secondly, it's sometimes paced very slowly and leaves you all too eager for what it does best: Depict brutal murders with the art of practical effects. Flaws aside, what the movie does very well has since become tradition. I personally am not scared at all by this film, but there's an element of fun that comes with its cheesiness, violence and its cinematic universe that makes it a joy to watch over and over again. I always find myself drawn into the world of Crystal Lake with its fictional history and each film's progression into a slaughter. The original film laid the framework for such a tradition. The fact that these movies are so fun to watch despite their cheap standard is something special that only fans will understand. The critics really need to lighten up a little.

To summarize, I don't think the original Friday the 13th is best entry into the slasher genre, the most important in history and I don't even think it's the best entry into the franchise, but there's so much I cherish in it, be it from nostalgia or my enthusiasm for the genre that I recommend it that highly. It's a classic.

My Rating: 8.5/10