In my opinion, Manhattan is the greatest movie of all time, the perfect confluence of all things Woody Allen, the greatest film director of all time. In it, the man’s two guiding lights are clear. The cinematography of Fellini and the conversational narrative of Bergman, though neither of the two who most influenced Allen would dominant Manhattan like they would in Interiors or Stardust Memories. Manhattan is reserved in that sense and completely Woody, unmistakably so, even more so than Annie Hall. Yes, Manhattan may be just a romantic comedy. But it’s the smartest one ever made.
In many ways, Mark Borchardt is the anti-American Dream. A “deadbeat,” Borchardt exemplifies all the things AM radio jockeys rail against. Conversely, the man is wholly American. Artistic, dreaming, uncompromising, Borchardt gets beaten down only to pick himself back up again. Along with his sweetheart of a friend, heavy metal minded and long haired, Mike Schank, we watch as Borchardt attempts to make a movie (Coven), all the while living in his parent’s basement in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. And though Borchardt never succeeds in completing his original vision, watching him try is fascinating and heartbreaking and, also, kind of wonderful.
Shot exquisitely, endlessly compelling, this is the best Martin Scorsese ‘picture.’ I really like how he calls movies, ‘pictures.’
The Sound of Music
I was probably about seven or eight the first time I experienced The Sound of Music. And even at that young age I remember thinking, this is good. These songs are solid. This story is memorable. The Sound of Music is just how movies should feel.
Cries and Whispers
If you ever need to watch something oppressively sad and at the same time rather beautiful, you might want to watch this.
As I’m sure others from Generation Y remember, I remember, very distinctly, the first time I saw The Matrix. Suddenly we, our country’s youth, were discussing ontological iterations within “The Matrix” vs. The Real World and whether Neo represented Jesus or Siddhartha or both. In hyperbolic terms, it came as an earth-shattering left hook to our cerebral cortex, our pleasure-deriving medulla oblongata, all thanks to the seminal special effects and seemingly novel script. It cut the sludgy fat of our thinking! In reality, it was an above-average action film with a hero, perfectly cast. Other possibilities for Neo existed. Will Smith. Nicolas Cage. But only one man combined effortless good looks with confused stares so well, Keanu Reeves, precisely the reluctant savior. The next two after this, Reloaded and Revolutions, wouldn’t complete what was promised. We envisioned Neo flying around, slaying virus wizards with his Jesus powers. Instead, we got car chases and philosophical grandstanding. Still, there’s the first installment, and its purity nears holiness, even when it runs on TNT every Saturday.
Alan Rickman makes a great villain. His Welsh cum London accent is smug and evil and in Die Hard he uses it to perfection. Honestly, to me, when I watch this movie now, it’s almost sad to see him done in by Willis. But, you know, that’s America. Whoever won the battle, though, Die Hard has so many memorable action sequences, the walking on glass bit, Hans falling from the building bit, the elevator shaft sequences, so many in fact that it’s silly to write about this movie. It’s much better watched.
That crazy German, he is obsessed with man’s struggle against nature’s indiscriminate power. But, since Grizzly Man is such a beautifully shot story with such a polarizing main character, the same old Herzogian themes don’t seem so tired.
Everything’s been said about The Godfather so how about we do a little seven degrees of Stephin Merritt? Nina Rota wrote the soundtrack for The Godfather. Stephin Merritt wrote the song “Reno Dakota” on 69 Love Songs. On the song, Merritt rhymed the words Reno Dakota with Nina Rota, who, as we said, wrote the soundtrack to The Godfather, which is really good. Have you seen it? You should see it. It’s really good.
When your nickname is given to you by Harry Houdini, you’re destined to be a star. Thus is the case with Joseph Frank ‘Buster’ Keaton VI, maybe the greatest stuntman who ever lived. Admittedly, I am not a silent movie connoisseur, but I do recognize genius when I see it. Watching The General happens to be one of those times.
As a kid, you’re just not allowed to see some movies. Blue Velvet, Terminator, Robocop, those films were all forbidden to me. I had my E. T., my Neverending Story, my Labyrinth, until, eventually, I got old enough to watch R-rated movies without having to ask my parents. Fortunately, by the time I got around to see Roadhouse, I had no pretense of what it wasn’t, a film to be taken so seriously. Roadhouse is just a good time. That sounds like a line, I know, but it’s an earnest assessment. Roadhouse uses several classic formulas to its advantage, the David vs. Goliath, the ‘fixer up’ angle, even the ‘at any moment a woman could go topless’ motif. And, it goes without saying, though I’m about to say it anyway, if Sam Elliot is playing a backwoods bouncer sensei in your movie, you’re good.
For all the brilliance of Annie Hall: Truman Capote, Christopher Walken, Paul Simon, the love story, the NYC feel, the scene with Marshall McLuhan, the fourth wall breaking, for all of that and more, Annie Hall is great. Still, it’s a bit overcooked, which is why I could never rank it very high. It’s in my Woody top five, yes, but just barely.
The Money Pit
Tom Hanks is also, by the way, a comedian. Long before he starred in Da Vinci Code or stinkers like The Terminal and Catch Me if You Can, the man made comedies, really good ones. Starting with Splash, then Volunteers, Hank strung a series of really funny movies together in the 80s. But he never returned to this part of himself — maybe briefly in the Coen Brothers’ awful remake of Ladykillers — and that’s too bad, because those movies were great. After the underrated Volunteers came my favorite, The Money Pit, a ‘fixer upper’ movie of grand proportions. Watch it, and Splash, and, and Dragnet, and The Burbs, and heck, even Turner and Hooch.
Immediately before he directed The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson starred in Signs. And this is ironic, or maybe unexpected, when you contrast the two films. Because while Passion is terrible and a foretelling of Gibson’s later behavior, you also have Signs, another religious film, and it is actually very good, thanks to the interplay of Phoenix and Gibson, the strangeness of aliens actually appearing in the film, and several memorable dialogues which seem to hit a nerve on our nature as humans and as possible spiritual beings. Watch Signs. You might be surprised.
Scenes from a Marriage
I’m not a big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s earlier work. Films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, et al. are either too obtuse or purposefully unwieldy for a 21st century South Dakotan raised on Indiana Jones and Sunday night Disney movies. Not to say I don’t enjoy the aesthetic, I do. I just like the Bergman with a little more color, literally and figuratively. Cue Scenes from a Marriage. Originally a six-hour TV miniseries, Scenes was paired down for mass consumption to a ‘lean’ 3 hours, though I can’t imagine Bergman actually believed this to be a good thing. It’s logical to assume he did not as the man was notoriously independent, never venturing out of Sweden to film a movie and always holding complete artistic control. Scenes is tragic, and can be quite frustrating to watch, yet it is still an enthralling look at the emotions people go through during a marriage. Side note: Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s muse for nine of his films and mother of one of his many children, plays the lead female role and she is strikingly beautiful.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is not Martin Scorsese’s best film. What it is, however, is an expertly-shot (Scorcese picture after all) investigation into what it would have been like for Jesus if he truly were fully man and fully God. The movie is fictional, which is another misconception by moviegoers and exegetical types alike, it’s not meant as an actual representation of The Gospel (more fiction?). It’s a difficult movie to watch as well, mainly because not a lot happens and there is so much pathos delivered by about every character. It’s just not a ‘fun’ movie. But what I think it really does for me, what really makes me love this movie more than anything, is Harvey Keitel as Judas. The Wolf, Mr. White, playing Judas? Yeah, that’s not bad.
Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
After this and Snatch Guy Ritchie went on a downward spiral. Whether it was the Madonna effect or the influence power and money that made his movies unwatchable, it’s hard to ascertain, but, whatever the reason, he went in the toilet. Too bad, considering where he started with Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a Fiona Apple record of a movie title if there ever was one. Filmed in the south end of London, it brims with wry humor as well as real grit. Apparently, Vinnie Jones’ first day of shooting was his first day out of jail while Jason Statham was an actual street vendor before playing a street vendor in the movie. And Lenny McLean, who played the main villain, was an undefeated bare knuckle boxer and may have once killed a man. It’s these things that give Lock a very ‘real’ feeling but it also somehow feels like a whimsical ride in the able, young hands of Ritchie. Too bad, buddy.
While Werner Herzog can be accused of many things: abusing and exploiting his actors, purposefully fictionalizing documentaries, making up dialogue and plot as a film goes along, he cannot be called timid. The man has made some of the most audacious movies of last 40 years and Fitzcarraldo might be the most audacious of them all. Approaching three hours, the movie is a journey, though not a fantastical one. It’s arduous even, like a trip into madness itself.
The Royal Tenenbaums
I once loved the way Wes Anderson used that faux-old aesthetic. You know the one, the hints to 50s American literature, the French New Wave, all those quick cuts. I loved that, but what I especially liked about Tenenbaums was its heart. Sadly, this is the only Anderson film with any of that heart, save perhaps Bottle Rocket, maaabbye Rushmore. Films like The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling are just bile filled with clichés and in-joking and colloquiums which I can only imagine are funny to a select group of people, like the actors themselves. Be warned then, if someone tells you their favorite Anderson movie is post-Tenenbaums — run, they might very well make you watch Juno.
This movie is correlated to a sadness I can’t explain. Maybe it’s how pretty Elizabeth Perkins is and how sweetly she’s treated by the boy/man Josh and how that seems to affect her. Maybe it’s the innocence Hanks displays. But what I think it is, and it’s always been, is a couple of scenes I can see in my mind’s eye, ones filled with an unending melancholy. The first is when Hanks’ character is walking toward the Zoltar machine on the pier with Susan and she knows fully well she’s going to lose the man she’s in love with. The other is the last scene in which we see Josh, as a boy again, running down the street toward home, and as he walks inside we hear a tearful scream coming from his mom. I think that’s where it is, the connection with family, being loved. I know, it’s weird, but Big is one of my favorite movies.
More than likely the best movie the Coen Brothers will ever make, I saw first on VHS in the basement a friend’s house, probably sometime in early 1997. It would be the first movie I’d see which I could distinguish as being ‘different.’ And although it is not The Battleship Potemkin in terms of importance or Dwarves Started Small in terms of art house strangeness, it is a film loved by the some of the same people. For me, I can remember being engulfed, a blizzard whipping outside, completely awed at how great this movie was and knowing, somehow, it was ‘different.’ The Coen Brothers made other films, but this one set in their home state shines in so many ways it’s hard to point to another of theirs that’s even half as good.
Before Bill Murray starting playing sad men for alt directors, he was a comedic savant. And, depending on who you talk with, Groundhog Day is his most complete work, combining hints of that sad old man along with his trademark witticism, charm, and last bits of youth. It’s true, Murray may not belong in movies like Groundhog Day anymore and maybe it’s okay for directors to morph him into someone to laugh at and not with. But, whatever happens, we still have this.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry made the best love story of the 00s using a lead actor known for his role in a comedies about guys who crap their pants. Unexpected, to say the least. Still, Eternal Sunshine is a great film, no doubt, and benefits from repeated viewings. The fantasy elements of the Charlie Kaufman penned script interact seamlessly with the sincere emotion of Kate Winslet (see gorgeous) and the deadpan, yet quixotic at heart, Joel. It’s a movie for serious movie critics and at the same time is for high school kids in what they call love. I have no idea how that could be.
Francis Ford Coppola’s movie about the Vietnam War was such a trail to complete there’s a movie dedicated to the making of it (Hearts of Darkness). Apocalypse, a mediation on a whole bunch of themes, really is an impressive feat. To give an analogy, imagine a director at the top of his game now, maybe a Nolan or Del Toro, and he’s just finished filming two of his most successful movies, both critically and commercially, and instead of continuing on that path of success, he retreats to Saudi Arabia or Israel or some other American sympathizer to make a movie about the Iraq War. He does this for FIVE years and, in doing so, he loses his sanity, most of his friends in America, and all his money. But no one does that now. So instead of Apocalypse Now, we get Jarhead.
This could have been a cash-out of the Scorsese archetype. An easy play at making a movie employing all the tricks. Mafia, DeNiro Pesci, narration, whackings, misogyny. But then Scorsese had to go and make it three hours long and almost something you’d see on PBS After Hours. It’s brilliant, is what I’m saying.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
I’m not usually one to sing the praises of obscure Danish directors from the 20s but Theodore Dreyer made a masterpiece. Seeing those very close shots, almost like Polaroid pictures, of Maria Falconetti, who might be one of the most beautifully captured actress in any movie, ever, is just mesmerizing. That sounds like hyperbole, but my goodness, her sad lips, so transfixing to watch. As for the master copy of film itself, it was famously found in a mental institute in France in the early 80s. It was thought to have been destroyed in a fire, even the alternate print Dreyer had was lost in a fire. So, while I’m not sure what kind of fires were busting out in early 20th century Denmark and I don’t know why they targeted art house films, I’m glad they spared at least one copy of this, it’s gorgeous.
The Big Lebowski
Upon initial release, Lebowski did very poorly. Then, after it’s run in the theaters, it was released, rather timely, just as DVD began to take hold. Then the internet happened and Lebowski hasn’t looked back since. And while I’m glad that happened, the film is great, I still wouldn’t rank it above Fargo or No Country for Old Men. But that’s just me.
Breaking the Waves
Whether Von Trier thinks he has to make audiences feel physically sick in order for a movie to be good or whether he’s just an idiot, it’s unclear. The man doesn’t give many interviews and he doesn’t come to America, which is funny since he’s made ‘America Trilogy’ films, harshly criticizing our policies and ethics. Still, I’d like to believe Von Trier makes movies like he does because very few other directors do. Breaking the Waves would fit that ‘no other director would make this’ bill. Emily Watson is otherworldly good playing the twisted lead of Bess in this indictment of Calvinist Christianity. Not too mention the paintings/songs which separate each chapter are so lovely. The ending, I’ll admit, is a bit cheesy, but also kind of heart-rending.
La Dolce Vita
I love the otherness of Fellini movies, the ethereal feel, the European flair, and of course, the women. Fellini, his movies just seem to fill a void I would otherwise be missing from my life. His movies, they just make me feel cool.
It’s okay to love musicals, romantic comedies, Victorian period pieces, as long as you counter that love with Scarface. And, true enough, the testosterone and power in Scarface is overwhelming. Written by Oliver Stone, this film has a magnetic sense of machismo not found in many other films, maybe before or since.
Some movies just confuse me. Primer, for example, never ceases to leave me upside down. Neverending Story continually blows my mind. And while confounding an audience is okay, to unintentionally confuse, well, then you just have a bad movie. I don’t think 12 Monkeys is a bad movie. Terry Gilliam just isn’t too keen on giving pat endings. That could be because he’s British, or more aptly an American who became British-American, then just British which, I think, makes you even more British? Or at least gives the desire to become the most British you can be? Anyway, the duo of Brad Bitt and Bruce Willis is brilliant, Pitt playing the madman (which he does well) and Willis playing the befuddled reluctant (which he does quite well). It’s a joy.
Dancer in the Dark
Does Lars Von Trier hate women? In Element of Crime, very bad things happen to young girls. In Dogville, Nicole Kidman gets taken advantage of in about every way a woman can be taken advantage of. In Manderlay, Bryce Dallas Howard is portrayed as a white woman in heat, and, oh yeah, a racist. And then you have Dancer in the Dark, a film with a woman who’s hung at the end. Still, I actually don’t think Von Trier hates women, he just hates everyone, which sometimes causes his films to be melodramatic, though I don’t think that’s correct with this film. In this, the performances are just so good (good enough that Bjork lost it during shooting, but, in fairness, how much does it take to make Bjork lose it?). And the music is fantastic, the best Bjork has ever written. I just want to believe the beauty of those songs and the fantasy of it all saves it. I think. I hope.
2001: A Space Odyssey
We can find plenty of examples of pairs sounding great in theory, but, in practice, are actually terrible. For one, Randy Moss and Aaron Brooks with the Raiders. Brooks, who was known to have one of the strongest arms in the history of the NFL would finally be able to realize his potential with Moss running those patented fly patterns. But that didn’t work out, at all. How about one that did? Arthur C. Clarke, one of the best science fiction writers of the past century, along with one of the best filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick, coming together to make one of the most entrancing movies, ever. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d say drop everything.
Seven is Fincher’s best movie. He came close with The Game. Fight Club is okay, as a 90s zeitgeist-y thing, but watch Fight Club today and try not to think “heavy handed.” As for Seven, well, Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman were never so good and, though it’s pretty disturbing, it is watchable still (except for that one scene at the brothel, that’s awful).
I wonder if, as a child, instead of watching Time Bandits, I’d have instead been shown Brazil, what kind of adult would I have turned out to be? Probably uneven, as that’s what Brazil is. Still, Gilliam’s unique style is no more realized than in this, the flood of characters and plots and anti-plots and schemes and half-dialogues and the Lang-type metropolis really convinces the viewer into believing Orwellian living, it isn’t that far down the road.
My first truly forbidden movie-watching experience would be Kids. I suppose that experience of mine had to have been akin to someone watching a Cronenberg movie in the early 80s or someone born 20 years earlier than that seeing A Clockwork Orange, then back 30 years before that, The Blow Up. Though I wonder if the youths in those eras felt as sick I did watching Kids. Maybe it was the closeness in age of the ‘kids’ being portrayed on the screen (many were confused when the movie first came out as to whether it was a documentary or a fictional story). Whatever it was, it made me sick to my stomach. And I haven’t seen it since.
Of all the movies based on Stephin King novels, this one is the best. Sure, I kind of liked The Stand. It was large and important and I’d actually read the book. Misery would be up there. It and Pet Cemetery are creepy and Carrie and Shawshank are classic. But the real gem is The Shining, which is ironic because it’s the one King criticized the most. From the opening credits, though, this thing is brilliant. And it never wavers.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
It’s like Richard Yates once said, it’s an awful thing to write your best novel first. And I suppose, for Brad Dourif, it’s kind of like that. Lucky, and unlucky. A blessing, and a curse.
To watch the full 10 films which comprise The Decalogue in one sitting would be a heroic task. I’d recommend watching them one by one. Those episodes of Scrubs on Netflix, they’ll be there when you get back.
Good Will Hunting
The thing is, Damon and Affleck wrote a touching film. Oh, you you think it’s hackneyed? Then I guess I have to ask, when did they take your heart away?
It’s probably no coincidence Psycho II and Psycho III and Psycho IV were made after Alfred Hitchcock died. No one would’ve had the decency to make something so abhorrent while the man responsible for the masterful telling of the Joseph Stepho’s screenplay — based on the novel by Robert Bloch — still lived. The movie, based of a novel about the life and killings of Ed Gein, is the story of a deeply disturbed man as told by a true genius. Hitchcock’s taut rhythm and Bates subversive oddness never gives the audience a feeling this is going to end well. And, of course, it doesn’t, but the ride we’re given is deeply hypnotic.
Swiss Family Robinson
Sunday night Disney movies at the Ellinger household were a sacred affair. At 6pm on Sunday we sat in front of the TV for an evening with the movies. The red blanket put down so us kids (mostly me) wouldn’t spill our soup and sandwiches on the carpet. And while I don’t remember many of the featured movies, I do vividly remember Swiss Family Robinson. Living in a tree house with operating plumbing, heating and cooling, modern amenities? It seemed impossibly cool. And the preparation for the final fight scene? It was like watching the Lord of the Rings, long before Elijah Wood.
Bad News Bears
On the blasphemy scale of movie remakes, Bad News Bears with Billy Bob Thorton has to be at top of the list. Others could vie for the crown. Psycho, Lolita, then there’s Ladykillers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Solaris, Wicker Man, the list goes on. But the second Bad News Bears is maybe the worst. It is so bad and the first one is so good. Walter Matthau as a lovable curmudgeon drunk teaching a group of kids baseball? Yes please. The original Bears gushes with springtime and heart, while the remake gushes bile and hate. No wonder guys take steroids these days.
The Princess Bride
Very few movies feel as good as The Princess Bride. Not just on an emotional level, but on a real, physical one. The movie casts a calming wave over the viewer and lifts their problems into a problem pile for later. None of this is really overstating it, that’s just what it does.
When you first see Oldboy, you may later wonder, are all Korean movies like this? Which makes you think of all the lists you’ve compiled in life regarding what’s edifying to consume: literature, music, films, the things you use to define personal taste, and then you wonder how many great indie pop bands from Iran have I missed out on? How many great Kenyan novelists? How many Jamaican sculptors? It’s a scary line of thinking.
This is easily is my favorite David Lynch film. Blue Velvet would be second (see: Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper) but those two are the only other Lynch films worth your time. Go watch Lost Highway or Dune or Wild at Heart and tell me Lynch is a genius with a straight face. The fact is, Lynch has no idea where his story is going and has his actors overact. In Mulholland Dr., they’re put in check, and most of that is probably because of the unusual, yet perfect casting. Still, for however much I dislike the rest of Lynch’s work, I love this movie that much more. It exemplifies everything the man does well, but in a restrained way. Some filmmakers may ‘say’ their movies are like watching a dream, this one is actually watching a dream.
I don’t recommend filmmakers try and make three-hour biopic films based loosely on the life of a painter from 500 years ago. But Andrei Tarkovsky was not just any filmmaker. The man made films of exceptional beauty and he could do whatever he wanted. Now I can’t say, after watching Andrey Rublev, I know more about the man, I know he likes to fly hot air balloons and he wears a robin hood hat and talks with Greeks about the nature of God, but I don’t really care. Tarkovsky made art.
I don’t know if I can watch this without getting emotional. Maybe it seems odd to say, but I don’t know of another movie character I identify more with than Adam Sandler’s in Punch-Drunk Love. You can take that as you will.
Jacques Tati most well known movies: My Uncle, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Traffic are just Tati in an ever-expanding array of gags. Playtime is his paramount work. For this, the man invested his own money to complete construction of the massive sets needed, which, by the way, took three years to build. Once built, he acted out some ingenious physical jokes, which had to be funny, non-verbally, considering the movie has no real dialogue, save for a few background conversations akin to the warble of that Peanuts teacher. It is a bizarre film, and wonderful.
Dinosaur movies before this one, they were cheesy, uninspiring. Jurrassic Park, for me at least, took my breath away. I can still remember being in a Sioux Falls movie theater and seeing the scene when the Brachiosaurus stampeded. It felt like being lifted on air. The movie stays grounded to this day with the wit of Jeff Goldbum, the blubbering idiocy of Wayne Knight, and the smoking coolness of Samuel L. Jackson. The rest of the characters acted just as they should, with the correct amount of awe for dinosaurs (except for, you know, the guy who built the park). This is a great movie by one of the greatest movie directors of all time, and it’s about dinosaurs. Can’t say much else.