This is it – my last blog post. I’ll be publishing a bit of original reporting next week, but, as for my own opinions, this will be the end for a while. What better way to send myself off than with a “Top Ten Movies” compilation?
- Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990)
I know, I know, I’ve said multiple times in the past that Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas deserved the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, so much so that he got a token Oscar for the far inferior gangster flick The Departed (2006). The stylistically energetic GoodFellas is far and away a better mobster picture than Francis Ford Coppola’s classic but exhaustingly romanticized The Godfather (1972), which IMDB users voted second behind Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) as the best movie ever made; nevertheless, Dances with Wolves is simply and purely beautiful, both inside and out. Everything about it, from its epic cinematography to its moving story, is charmed, charming, and impossible to resist – GoodFellas may entertain me, but Dances with Wolves inspires me, and therein lies the difference between artistic filmmaking and cinematic filmmaking.
- Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002)
What’s up with all this backlash against Chicago? What works about it as a musical, for me, is the fact that the characters don’t literally break out into song and dance – it’s all in the starstruck mind of the homicidal protagonist, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger). It’s simplistic, not a very “subtle” or “nuanced” picture, but, hey, that’s musicals for ya, kid; they’re an expressionistic genre in an externalized medium: cinema.
- Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Is it bad that I just casually listen to this electro-classical soundtrack in my spare time? A Clockwork Orange is about a teenaged gang leader, Alexander DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), who rapes and murders and listens to Beethoven with his friends in a futuristic England where there’s nothing better to do; it’s not the “feel-good” movie of the century, but Kubrick wasn’t one for “pleasant” things, and A Clockwork Orange is as visually and musically thrilling as it is intelligent and important. You look at those statues of naked women used as fountain drink machines in Kubrick’s surrealistic, Western capitalist dystopia, where hypermasculinity and ultraviolence have finally taken over, then you look me in the eye and you tell me that that’s not the same thing as Carl’s Jr. using half-naked women to sexualize and sell hamburgers.
- Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987)
Fatal Attraction may not be wholly original – Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), had already introduced the world to Jessica Walter’s obsessive, knife-wielding woman scorned well before Alexendra Forrest (Glenn Close) ever boiled that rabbit – but Fatal Attraction surpasses Play Misty for Me, and nothing has surpassed it since (I’m looking at you, Obsessed; dat catfight tho, Beyoncé). Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction are equally disturbing and unforgettable, and they both succeed where Obsessed fails as far as dramatic tension goes when Clint Eastwood and Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), respectively, consummate their deadly relationships with Jessica Walter and Glenn Close, thus introducing a humanizing flaw to their protagonists and granting a legitimate motive for revenge to their antagonists (Ali Larter literally has no reason whatsoever to be as “obsessed” with Beyoncé’s husband as she is in Obsessed); however, Close’s Oscar-nominated performance in Fatal Attraction is more complex than Walter’s histrionics in Play Misty for Me, and, thus, more realistic, more “this-could-happen-to-you,” more haunting. Anne Archer’s fantastic turn as Beth Gallagher, Dan’s wife, was also nominated that year, but Michael Douglas (speaking of the wife he met through Steven Soderbergh’s stellar Traffic (2000), Catherine Zeta-Jones, and her “YAAAASSSS”-worthy Oscar for Chicago) wasn’t, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand that; between this, his femme fatale-lovin’ antihero in Paul Verhoeven’s underrated Basic Instinct (1992), and his Oscar-winning “greed is good” role in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987, waaaay more artistically justifiable than Scorsese’s headache-stirring The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – sorry, not sorry), Douglas’s “flawed character” acting persona is perfect for the part of Dan, who you want to see suffer for his infidelity as much as you want to watch Alex lose, which fills Fatal Attraction up with pleasures on both sides of the narrative dynamic, and Lyne – who went on to direct the wife-cheats-on-her-husband-and-the-husband-is-the-murderous-one companion piece, Unfaithful (2002) – is the perfect filmmaker for this “can’t-turn-away” psychological thriller.
- Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976)
One of the few good adaptations to be made out of a Stephen King novel (the “King” of Horror’s debut, no less – his name is misspelled in the credits as “Steven”), Carrie isn’t as “scary” for me as it is “tragic.” The flawlessly executed prom scene, the crown jewel of the entire production, brings nostalgic tears to my eyes every time. It’s a monster movie without a monster; if I were Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), and I had one happy moment for the first and only time in my miserable life (that moment being “prom queen,” pathetically enough), and those people ruined it for me, just like they ruined everything else, I’d be vengeful, too.
- David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014)
A modern Hitchcockian mystery, Gone Girl violates genre conventions in the same way that the “Master of Suspense” does in Psycho (1960): halfway through, Hitch kills off the protagonist when we expect her to see us all the way to the end of the drama, and Fincher turns his “missing-wife-suspicious-husband” Lifetime movie into the fairytale love story from Hell; nothing is sacred and nothing is safe. The body count is low in Gone Girl – one – and nobody gets graphically tortured, even in its most violent moments, but it’s still darker and more unsettling than many of its contemporaries. In the end, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliot (Rosamund Pike) finally get their happily ever after, their unconditional love, their perfect marriage, but only because one is too scared to disappoint the other, and if that doesn’t get you to shudder a nervous laugh, then you really are desensitized.
- James Cameron’s Titanic (1997)
Titanic proves all the Hollywood cynics wrong – it isn’t based on a comic book, it has no chance of being franchised into a sequel, and it isn’t a remake of anything, but the studios still gave it a big enough budget for it to tell its own story well, and it made history at the box office and at the Oscars. Old, classical Hollywood isn’t dead – it’s still very much alive in the spectacular, romantic love story between the star-crossed Rose DeWitt Bukater (superstar talent Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). That’s the reason people paid to go see the movies, even during the impoverishment of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and that’s why Hollywood is the Rome of the Americas, artistically and culturally; when a movie’s good, there’s nothing better, and a good movie, if not a “great” one, can be as easy to achieve as standing on the bow of the RMS Titanic at sunset with your arms opened wide.
- William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is cinema in its purest form. The acting, the special effects, and the story all come together to blur the line between fantasy and reality in a way that no other storytelling medium can. Like Carrie, it’s a horror movie that doesn’t “horrify” me all that much, but even though its battle between “good” and “evil” takes place in a twelve-year-old girl’s bedroom, it’s still biblical in proportion; with cinema, anything’s possible, and even the smallest things in life can be blown up on the silver screen for us to marvel at – Auguste and Louis Lumière make beauty, art, and innovation out of the mundane with their Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), and such was the historically recognized birth of cinema.
- Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003)
Kill Bill is a patchwork of many different movies, but it’s also unlike any movie you’re ever going to see. It’s Tarantino’s trademark violence at its most cathartic, as The Bride (Uma Thurman) uses her talent for murder to get back at those who wronged her, then ultimately renounces her bloody past. It makes no sense in the “real” world, but it makes perfect sense in the “movie” world, which we can recognize from the other side of the camera and access as our own, and get lost in this edited, aestheticized, better version of reality.
- Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)
No matter how many times you see Vertigo, or how long you think about it, there’s still something new to discover every time. The greatest film ever shot by the greatest director who ever lived and worked, Vertigo is as mysterious as the plot at its heart, and, like Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), we’re challenged to find the truth, but the truth is that we’re being set up to believe in a lie, lies like “death” and “the past,” lies which may not tangibly exist but are still as inevitable as the gravity separating Scottie’s fear of heights from the fall to his death (or his fall into madness… or his falling in love…). Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most personal film, one of the great works of art of the twentieth century, and just as full of endless life as it is of universal death.
I may stop writing here, but I’ll never stop watching (or loving) movies. As different as these titles are from one another, they’re all the same in the truths they teach us about the world, and about ourselves. Beauty is everywhere, even beauty we can’t see.
You’ve just got to get it on camera.