The darkening days of late Fall are heavy upon us, bringing their own special beauty and mystery. As that is my backdrop so I bring the second installment of my favorite films. Get ready for the next 11 masterpieces!
Pale Rider (1985)
Clint Eastwood, for all intents and purposes, invented the trope of the quasi-mythic gunman who single-handedly rights all wrongs during his appearance, first, in those spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone’s in the 60s (scored by the magnificent Ennio Morricone, whose music I am listening to even as I type these words). In this film, Eastwood achieves an apotheosis of sorts while saying good-bye to that trope. Known as “The Preacher”, Eastwood, appears as if in answer to the prayer of one Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny), whose dog was killed by a band of rogues looking to drive the local prospectors away from their camp in the woods.
The way in which the Preacher moves about while dealing with injustice is somewhat reminiscent of another of Eastwood’s pictures, High Plains Drifter, but there the townspeople are a surly , devious, and ungrateful lot. In this film, the prospectors are hardworking, simple folk, and relieved to discover a savior arriving in their midst.
Things come to a head – as they always do in movies like this – and the Preacher eventually squares up with Stockman, the ace-in-the-hole of Coy LaHood, leader of the diminished band of thugs who look to rid themselves of the nuisance the gunslinger has become. As you might expect, things do not turn out well for Stockman, who dies, riddled with bullets. In fact, per the usual Eastwood western, there are a lot of corpses piled up by the end of the movie. The Preacher rides of into the snowy mountains with the plaintive cry of Megan echoing in our ears.
This is good stuff. Pale Rider was the highest grossing western movie of the 80s, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a solid tale of the strong defending the weak, and with Richard Kiel (Club) as a bad guy turned straight by the Preacher, it contains plenty of comedic content that doesn’t detract from the story at hand. Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed this film, doesn’t attempt to make too much of the religious overtones of his character, which is good. He grants us enough of a glimpse behind the curtain in the inner workings of the mythic avenger to keep us hanging on. All in all, it would be apocalyptic if you missed seeing this film. Don’t make me tell the Preacher on you.
Nitpick: Two small nits here; first, Megan’s bra strap is showing as she and the Preacher ride away on back of the Preacher’s horse. It’s possible she had access to a time machine and scooped up some modern day undergarments, but that seems a slim possibility. Secondly, at the end of the duel between the Preacher and Stockburn, the camera pans in close, revealing the Preacher locking in an empty chamber in his gun and then firing it, finishing off Stockburn. Mystical bullets maybe?
For my money, the best western there has ever been. In this film, Eastwood, director and co-producer, strips away many of the conventions of what we expect out of a “shoot ’em up” picture, chief among those is the perception of the gunslinger as a larger than life creature of remorseless violence. You might say Unforgiven is the antipodes of Pale Rider in that regard. William Munny (Eastwood) is a former gunfighter who killed anything that moved, once upon a time. In this film, however, he is alone raising two kids and near destitute. Hearing of the abuse and disfigurement of a prostitute, Munny collects his best friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and heads to Big Whiskey, Wyoming to collect on the bounty for the guilty party.
This movie delivers on action but more importantly on the insight we get on the characters. For all of the mythos involved in the “old west”, it was a time which was largely populated by ordinary people. There is a disconnect between the myth and reality which is played up by the arrival to town of journalist W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) and English Bob (Richard Harris), the latter, whose reputation was built of primarily fabricated accounts of gunfights. Gene Hackman gives an excellent performance as the tyrannical Sherriff, Little Bill Daggett.
Two of the most memorable quotes from Unforgiven are one where Munny responds to the Schofield Kid’s false bravado inspired declaration after he killed for the first time, “Well, I guess they had it comin’.” Eastwood’s reply is terse, laconic, and one for the ages, “We all got it comin’ kid.” The other one occurs near the picture’s end just before Munny executes Little Bill. Realizing he is seconds away from death, Little Bill exclaims, “I don’t deserve to die like this! I was building a house!” Just before he shoots, Munny utters, ” ‘Deserves’ got nothin’ to do with it.” BAM!
Nitpick: In the scene where English Bob is getting disarmed, an American flag can be seen in the background, and it has 13 stripes, looking like 50 stars. Must be another time travel trick because flags like that weren’t around until after July 4, 1960.
Fargo is another Coen brothers’ gem of a movie. In a mere 98 minutes, we are treated to a vivid and sanguinary tapestry which depicts the plight of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who falls into financial adversity of a desperate sort. How he decides to get himself out of that trouble is the genius of this movie. If anything, this film informs us that as bad as things can be, they can always get worse. Again, I get my ‘Buscemi fix’ as Steve Buscemi stars as one of the two hoodlums (Peter Stormare) with whom Jerry arranges to kidnap his wife. You see, his father-in-law is wealthy, and Jerry sees the ransom money as the answer to his money woes. Things never go as they’re supposed to, and I’ll let any of you who haven’t seen this movie (Yes, you two recently relocated from Mars!) to watch how it plays out.
Part of the Coen brothers’ acumen for making an entertaining story seems to be the ability to keep the story moving at an edgy pace – not necessarily fast – always leaving room in every scene for uncertainty as to how things will actually turn out. A case in point is the scene where Sheriff Marge Gunderson (the always delightful Frances McDormand) questions two hookers after they spent the previous night entertaining the two hoodlums. The scene is fairly procedural, and we quickly understand that these two ladies aren’t the brightest crayons in the box, when Marge asks the blond if her partner had any distinguishing marks. I will relent, at this point from giving the hooker’s specific answer, but it has to do with a part of the male body, and is still outrageously funny to this day.
Nitpick: The poster in Scotty Lundegaard’s room spells the word ‘accordion’ as ‘accordian’. C’mon, guys! Don’t accordions get enough hate without misspelling their name??? Also, it wasn’t snowing in Minnesota during the filming of this movie, so all the snow is fake. Not a real nit, actually. But I lived in Minnesota for 23 years, and there were years when it seemed as though there were more months of snow than non-snow. Like I said, not a nit, just insider’s knowledge. On the other hand, who wants to be in Minnesota in the winter?
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Produced and directed by Kevin Costner who also stars as Lt. John Dunbar, this fills nearly 4 hours, and is told in the most sweeping and bucolic way. Even the battle scenes play out with a touch of old world melodrama. We are frequently invited to bask in the wide open prairie, feel the glint of the fading sunlight, and allow the vast outdoors to romance us in a most genteel way. Dances With Wolves is not a perfect picture; none on my list are with few exceptions which I will be discussing in the 3rd installment. For the present, this movie has some strong revisionist tendencies; relationships with Native Americans are presented with pathos, compassion and often, humor. Far from being a traditional in scope, this film displays this continent’s indigenous people as possessing many of the same hopes and fears we all do. They are not mindless savages.
There is something undeniable appealing about seeing Lt. Dunbar find his niche in the world, and in the most unorthodox way. What began as a somber and lonely assignment on the edge of the frontier became a portal for his transformation as a man. This is an outstanding effort for Costner’s directorial debut.
Nitpick: Remember the guy who dropped Dunbar off at his post? Yea, he was shot full of arrows, later, and died. How come it took only one arrow to drop a humongous buffalo during the buffalo hunt?
An epic among epics, with a stunningly rich, evocative score from Miklos Rosza (Yep! It’s playing in the background!), this film never gets old for me. Taken from the eponymous novel by Lew Wallace – himself, a colorful figure of history – , this movie tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (played with all stentorian valor by Charleston Heston)) who runs into his childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd, in a role he was meant to play) who now commands the Roman forces in Palestine. You know the story: an accident occurs, Judah’s mother and sister are blamed for it, and he and they are sent away to punishment – they, to prison, and he as a galley slave. The movie is billed as “A Tale of the Christ”, but Jesus is only briefly depicted, and never face-on. It’s more a tale of revenge, and how even a well worn resentment can be healed by Christ’s forgiveness. I would also add: watch your left turns! That chariot race! Wow! It still shines!
I’m old enough to miss the days when Hollywood would produce a picture like this. It didn’t suggest the studio heads were in the least bit sympathetic to Christianity, but they knew what the public wanted and they delivered. This is a polished, well-acted, and visceral tour de force. Will anything remotely like this movie ever see the light of day again? I still get a kick out of the guy who played the hortator (the guy who calls out the rowing cadence). Imagine getting paid for beating a drum! Oh well, the scenery wasn’t great from the hold of the ship, and I believe if your ship was sinking, you went down with it with the rest of the unfortunates who were chained to their oars. I could be wrong. *sigh* I miss how those guys would chew the scenery in those days.
One last thing: My oldest son was born during the naval battle in this movie. Right in the middle of the melee, Jeremy greeted the world for the first time. Don’t worry. I was in the waiting room and was right there as soon as he was ready to go (for those of you who were ready to judge me).
Nitpick: In 3 1/2 hours, there’s bound to be plenty of nits. I’ll settle on two: Did you know there was at least one Volkswagen Beetle present at the chariot race? Let’s see six or so of those jalopies going ’round the course! Also, modern books can be seen in some scenes. Those were plainly not invented yet.
Rear Window (1954)
Here we go! the first of two Hitchcockian favorites, and it all took place on one massive set! That’s right; no exterior shots. Unfortunately for set designers Sam Comer & Ray Moyer, they went unnominated for their outstanding work in this picture. The same pair were already duly Oscar winners for Sunset Boulevard. however.
This was James Stewart’s 2nd of four collaborations with Hitch, and he fits the bill with finesse and plenty of the darker charisma that Stewart readily called upon, though he was often typecast in many peoples’ minds as a perennial good guy. He was, after, an Eagle Scout as a youth!
Grace Kelly gave a supernal sophistication to every role she played, and as girlfriend, Lisa Fremont to Jeff (Stewart), she inhabits the persona with ease and …well, grace. This claustrophobic movie punches all of my drama buttons. I like the clean, subtle lighting, the mid-50s décor and fashions, and you can’t go wrong with Thelma Ritter as Jeff’s nurse.
The voyeurism, the smothering heat (it was summer in the movie), and the near manic intent splayed all over Stewart’s face as he peers into his camera, looking for pieces to put together a puzzle that spells, “murder”, and you have one of my favorite movies.
Nitpick: How come Jeff, a professional photog, never takes shots along the way as he’s piecing his puzzle together? The only picture he takes is of the garden, and when he does it, it’s not known to be a critical shot. I’ve been giving two nits, so here goes with another: When we see through the telephoto lens, the shot looks circular, but when you look through an SLR camera, the aperture is rectangular. I know; so very picky,
North By Northwest (1959)
Have you come encountered the old joke? While running through a corn field, which way does Cary Grant run? The answer: You guessed it. North by northwest! Actually, I just made that up. Have pity on me; it’s late, and I’m trying to get this post out by the end of the week.
My second Hitchcock masterpiece stars the ever suave Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, who, in a case of mistaken identity gets embroiled in a deadly chase. Along the way he meets up with the vastly underrated, Eva Marie Saint, as Eve Kendall. Given the exalted chemistry between the two stars, this film repays repeated viewings in spades. This movie reminds me of how much I miss the ingenious way the slowly evolving romance evolves between the two leads. Oh, it’s not a syrupy, gushing sort of romance; Hitchcock didn’t do that sort of movie. But there is a patient, vigorous jousting going on here with well-timed innuendoes. Now that’s cinematic art!
Even though the Mt. Rushmore scene at the end was a reconstruction (Hitchcock couldn’t get permission to film on the actual monument), the climax still packs a wallop. Hitch had a thing for blonds, after all, but I’ll let you read more about that from another source. James Mason turns in a smooth, villainous performance as Phillip Vandamm, along with Martin Landau, his henchman. Yes, I am using italics for the character names this time. It’s inconsistent, and I know it, but I’m taking the 5th for bloggers (I don’t know what that would be, but I’ll come up with something).
Nitpick: Speaking of the corn field: When Roger comes out of the corn field, his suit is dusty; when he gets out from under the truck, it isn’t. Does he have a self-cleaning suit? At the Mt. Rushmore Visitor Center, when the gun goes off, you can see a boy just before the shot goes off, putting his hands to his head as if he was anticipating. I believe he…uh…jumped the gun. Now I’m done. LOL
Many westerns abound in this list, as you have discovered, and Tombstone is one of the most all-around captivating ones in that genre. In fact, this is the movie my wife and I have selected to help us see in the New Year. Nearly every role is a standout. I could write an entire essay about the optimum level of characterization here, but I only have time for a few nods. When a picture boasts the likes of Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott & Bill Paxton as Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, respectively, you know you’re in for a ride. Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocious chews sufficient scenery as the leader of the outlaw gang, The Cowboys. Michael Biehn is darkly comic and lethal as Johnny Ringo. The exchange between him and and Doc Holliday in the initial introduction scene in the saloon is emblazoned in my memory for its pitch perfect tension and verbal virtuosity – some of it in Latin. Screenwriter, Kevin Jarre turned out a praiseworthy effort as this film is enriched with decorous and witty prose throughout. There’s excellent chemistry between Russel and Dana Delany who plays Wyatt’s paramour, Josephine Marcus.
I’ve saved Val Kilmer’s effort as Doc Holliday for last. It is rare when an actor so completely embodies a role that it’s impossible to think of another filling the same role. Kilmer drills his victim with drollery first before the first shot is released. Sorry for that, but I couldn’t resist (Doc Holliday was a dentist by training, so you connect the dots). No matter how many times I watch this movie, I’m still expecting Doc to keel over and perish from the TB he is afflicted with, and does eventually kill him at the end, by implication, if not in actual depiction. So, if you’re ever in the mood for a “Tombstone Party”, I’m your huckleberry! But by all means, see this movie. Like Doc says: “You’d be a daisy if you did!”
Nitpick: During the Earp Vendetta ride, the camera goes aerial and you can see tire tracks in the grass. Tombstone did not have electricity until 1902, yet we see lights above the pool tables. This movie takes place in 1881.
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen, aside from his many publicly known moral failings, has been a brilliant writer, director for decades, and in this frenetic, harried, and obsessive piece of cinéma vérité, we realize the diminutive neurotic on the screen is more like us than we’d like to admit.
This picture – inundated with awards – among them, 4 Oscars, for Best Picture, Directing (Allen), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), and Best Original Screenplay (Allen & Marshall Brickman) was a dark horse contender for awards, but wound up receiving an enormous amount. It’s typically not a draw for me when a movie has been so richly recognized, but in this case, it’s a testament to the ingenuity of Annie Hall.
There is no other film in which the 4th wall is broken with such astonishing and unrestrained hilarity, either. I’ve never been a Northeastern urban dweller, but I can relate to many of the inner foibles of Alvy Singer (Allen), as he obsesses over the loss of Annie (the basis of the entire film), or his recitation of his childhood exposure to familial quirks, plus the aberration that must have been his growing up under the Coney Island roller coaster ride. Also, thanks to the character of Annie Hall, I find myself occasionally uttering, “la-dee-da”, when expressing ironic amusement.
As Allen takes us on his own comic roller coaster ride of his experiences, we begin to relate, even if we haven’t slept over at a girlfriend’s apartment, snorted cocaine, or engaged a paramour in a trippy, existential rooftop conversation, complete with mental subtexts splashed on the screen. We relate because we’re human, and we are both entertained and illuminated by the neurotic stage lights shining brightly in our faces as we stumble toward a greater light.
Nitpick: In the final credits, Christopher Walken’s name is misspelled as “Christopher Wlaken.” Speaking of he who must have more cowbell, there is a scene where he (playing Annie’s brother, Duane) is driving Annie and Alvy back in his pickup. As the camera pans across from driver to Alvy, all are serene except Alvy. Why that is so is explained in the previous scene, and it’s high comedy, indeed.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
I saw this movie in the Summer of ’68 in gorgeous 70mm Panavision with stereo sound. My 11-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing then, and my 63-year-old mind can’t even now. To say, however, that one needs to understand a work of art in order to possess a rudimentary, even somewhat advanced appreciation of that work, would be approaching arrogance. Many theories have been spun since this film’s release as to it’s meaning, but it’s on my list for the panorama of sight, sound (the orchestral pieces included are interpreters, themselves), and beauty that it is. Sure, there was a sequel (2010: The Year We Make Contact – 1984), and I know both this movie and it’s sequel both came from the Arthur C. Clarke short story, The Sentinel, but I come back to this for its own stubborn insistence to be taken on its own merits. Why should we think we all need answers all the time? Or, why should everything be comprehensible to us? Questions to reflect upon and applicable for all of life, in my opinion.
That darn monolith! It’s very ubiquity is so annoying! It promises much to our meaning -starved minds, but it provides next to nothing. But it is humanity’s inclination to find that meaning, so off we go into the void! There is no dialogue in this film for nearly 90 minutes. And the space scenes, at times, move like a turgid ballet (accompanied by Strauss’s wonderful Blue Danube, but more about the music, later). On the eve of our own Moon landing the following year, this movie, in retrospect, feels oddly prescient. The acting award should go to the Hal 9000 computer. Douglas Rain, the voice of Hal, interacts with astronauts Bowman & Poole as if he were high on some funny space weed. The cool monotone becomes eerie, though, when things begin to go awry with the homicide of Frank Poole, courtesy of Hal the Hitman.
The classical music pieces are what lend to the arch-grandiosity of this film and to its sheer terror. The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, Jr, gives a serene, optimistic atmosphere to the scene where the space station is orbiting gently around Earth. But the portentous opening of our Neanderthal ancestors capering about in a primitive desert landscape is ably adorned by Richard Strauss’s (no relation) Thus Spake Zarasthustra. It’s recognized by all, if not identifiable, and this opening scene made the most of its otherworldly and bombastic fanfare. György Ligeti, a Romanian composer (d. 2006), is responsible for some of the most harrowing and nightmarish music I’ve ever heard. His piece, Atmosphères, is the narrator, if you will, of Bowman’s garish descent to the surface of Jupiter, cunningly depicted with stop motion shots of Bowman reacting with horrific facial expressions, and the landscape, over-saturated with chroma effects. I’ll end with Hal’s evocative interpretation of that old-time classic, Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built For Two). Has there been a more pathetic attempt by AI to avoid its own destruction by offering to serenade its executioner? Sweet dreams, everyone!
Nitpick: It’s a good thing I know my bones. The bone the ape uses to beat the other ape is a femur. You can tell because of the ball joint at the end. Yet, when the bone is tossed in the air, it’s clearly a tibia (leg bone). Thanks, Mom & Dad, for the encyclopedia when I was a kid!
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus (also the opinion of those who know much more about movies than I), this film exists in a grey area, fixed between good and evil. It’s not an easy movie to watch, much less re-watch (I’ve done so once). But the chilling and, ultimately, inspiring story of Oskar Schindler, an industrialist during WWII, who transitions from a Nazi supporter to a heroic helper of the Jews when doing so was risking one’s own life, remains a timeless tale. This is so since evil shall be with us until the end of this age. And until all things are restored (if you believe in such a thing – I do), we all need to be reminded of how deep the abyss of human evil can be, and that it currently exists in our time, as well.
Liam Neeson portrays Schindler with a searing intensity. We can readily see how he makes his uneasy journey from insouciant and arrogant businessman to a dedicated, selfless champion of the downtrodden. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the recognition of evil for what it is is, at times, thrust upon us, as it was for Schindler. Regardless, the Nazi atrocities are depicted in all of their ugly banality and cruelty. In particular, the scene where the corpse of the girl in the red dress is carted out past him marks a point of conversion. Both times I wept as that scene unfolded; the girl’s red dress, the only thing shown in color in a black & white film, burning the image deep in my heart.
The making of this movie came at a great emotional cost to Spielberg and to many of the cast. It makes me think again why I watch the movies I do.
At this point in my list, we are at the end of the second segment. Eleven more to go next time! Starting with this movie, the next selections will begin to assume a loftier significance for me, so there is a loose ordering, as I initially opined in the first segment. Whatever leaves you haunted when you’re finished watching is a worthy film. This one hits home with a resounding blow.
Nitpick: It’s almost shameful to nitpick this movie, in a way, but here goes: During the gassing story, the women are seen running their hands through their hair. On one woman’s hand is a ring. All the jewelry had already been confiscated.