FIVE STARS Part 1 – “12 Angry Men” to “Brokeback Mountain”
The Introduction (for those who need/missed the explanation behind this)
This is going to be broken up into many, many parts. Also, I was going to save this for the end of this post, but I might as well let you know right now – I sincerely doubt that future installments are going to be this long or nearly as in-depth. I might write only one or two sentences for each movie/series, and some might not get a write-up at all. It’s just that this took far longer than I anticipated.
That being said, let’s get movin’, since we got a LOT of ground to cover.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, et al.
A fantastic cast and a riveting approach to the concept of justice in the United States make this essential viewing. Perhaps this isn’t so much an accomplishment of the film but the script itself, since a previously produced teleplay that aired during television’s "Golden Age" was also well-received and provided the inspiration for this big-screen adaptation. Whatever the reason, you won’t find a quicker hour and a half in such a confined space: the film only takes two brief hiatuses from the deliberation room, into the bathroom of all places.
25th Hour (2002)
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper
A small-time drug dealer stays in the game a day too long and stares down the consequences in this largely unheralded film from Spike Lee, which I actually count among his best of the past ten years. Norton’s character ("Monty") deals with the repurcussions his actions had and will have on the various relationships in his life and the suspicion from former associates that he somehow "cut a deal" at the last minute. The two biggest accomplishments, however, come in brief forays. The first is a monologue Monty has seemingly with himself where he examines the sociological relationships between the various ethnicities contained in the "cultural stew" of New York City and how that’s reflected in our day to day dealings with people. It’s a scene that – whether intentionally or not – was the firstnoticeable attempt by a filmmaker to make sense of the conflicting feelings coming out of America post 9/11. The other moment comes towards the end…and to spoil it would spoil the film, since it literally ends with it, but it’s one of the most beautifully presented "bittersweet" endings I’ve ever seen on film.
30 Rock: Season 1 (3-Disc Series) (2006)
My familiarity with Tina Fey before this series aired on NBC was her work on Saturday Night Live. While many always lauded her as the next great comedienne, I always had alternating feelings of apathy towards her writing and outright disappointment in her performance as head writer of the show. With time I’ve come to learn – well, perhaps assume – that it couldn’t have been her fault, because the next show she gave NBC was one of the funniest goddamn things the network’s done…well, ever.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
When talking about this film, fans will often note that not only was it not well received upon its initial release but the presentation simply seemed to confound critics and audience members. There’s an insinuation in the comment that time has proved those people wrong, but while critics may have changed their tune a bit since 1968, this film continues to be one of those works that people will either love and become mesmerized by or completely loathe and denounce as either pointless or self-absorbed pretentiousness. Obviously, I don’t belong to the latter camp, and part of the reason is the first of many times you’ll see me admit an undying love for more or less everything Stanley Kubrick ever committed to film (with the exception of "Eyes Wide Shut" though I still thought it had its moments). It doesn’t require appreciation so much as patience and a willingness to let go of the dada-esque turn the film takes in its final minutes.
Director: Spike Jonzes
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tilda Swinton, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper
Yes, a film starring Nicholas Cage of all people made this list, but it took the likes of Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, and Chris Cooper to make it happen. Screenwriter Kaufman is a master at taking wildly inventive approaches to storytelling and in this case self-examination while doing so in a manner that teases (but doesn’t) cross the line into surrealism. In the process, the seemingly ludicrous twists and turns in the narrative become that much more fascinating while maintaining their weight and relevance. "Adaptation" in particular is, so far, Kaufman’s seminal work in that it encapsulates everything that’s great about him as a screenwriter. Let me put it this way: Kaufman made himself the main character and presented it as a writer’s struggle against his own demons, insecurities, and the Hollywood machine, but at no point in the film do you get the sense that it’s autobiographical in any way. That takes a special kind of genius.
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
If it weren’t for this film, I probably wouldn’t have any appreciation for anime whatsoever, nor would I have sought out anything in the genre. There are some that will semi-jokingly note that I might have been better off. However, it was my first exposure to animation that aspired to be something more than kids’ fare that adults could at least sit through, and for that it’ll always have a special place in my film-loving heart. It’s also a damn good movie on its own merit, even though it’s gained its detractors in recent years who claim it hasn’t held up over time. However, that’s more for all the conventions of the story and animation that were borrowed by other animes than any weaknesses in the film’s plot or presentation.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
This film, one of the great Japanese director’s last, is a beautiful collection of shorts that successfully brings the strange beauty and pensive cohesiveness of dreams to life on the big screen. I’d argue that maybe only one other film – Richard Linklater’s "Waking Life" – was more successful at it. Highlights include "The Tunnel", where a former officer in the Japanese military encounters those who died under his command, and Martin Scorcese’s strange turn as the dream version of Vincent Van Gogh in a struggling artist’s dream.
All the King’s Men (1949)
Director: Robert Rossen
Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru
The thing that makes an adaptation of a novel truly successful on film is its faithfulness to the source material. By that, I don’t mean that it includes every scene in the specific order and exact manner in which it was originally written, but rather that it captures the message, feel, and tone of the work. Rossen’s film does that quite beautifully, thanks in no small part to Broderick Crawford’s amazing performance as hick wannabe lawyer turned corrupt political demigod Willie Stark.
American Beauty (1999)
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari
Alan Ball writes, Kevin Spacey stars. Really, that’s the only justification I need to give to myself. What really makes this a tremendous film, however, is that Spacey’s character does what on the surface would be horrible things to his family in his quest to recapture his youth and free himself from the constraints of late-90s materialism. However, as much as it might make the viewer ask questions about it, you simply can’t find it in your heart to hate him for it. The secret, of course, is that Lester Burnham is simply a representation of our own guilt and regret over our perceived failures in our relationships. But even without reading into all that, it’s a good looking film with a great pace to its narrative. It’s just a shame that all the films Sam Mendes has directed since fell short of what he achieved here.
American History X (1998)
Director: Tony Kaye
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D’Angelo
In a very real sense, this film took on a shockingly lazy and safe message: neo-Nazis, and racism as a whole, is a bad and ugly thing. But while this film is a bit too heavy-handed with an obvious message, it still manages to be about much more than that, even if racism stays at the center of all the peripheral messages of the film – including but not limited to the negative attitudes and learned behaviors children pick up through what many would perceive to be harmless chatter at the dinner table. Don’t ask me whatever happened to Tony Kaye – depending on whom you believe he either didn’t endear himself to Hollywood during the editing process of this film (where he accused Norton of going behind his back to New Line and subsequently hijacking his film) or the first victim of Edward Norton’s alleged control issues.
Animal Crackers (1930)
Director: Victor Heerman
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx
Every self-professed comedy troupe owes it to themselves to not only pay homage to the Marx Brothers, but to apologize for once again failing to achieve the standards they set in the 1930s. "Animal Crackers" is by far their best work…but also check out "A Day at the Races," which should in my mind also be required viewing for anybody with even a remote interest in comedic acting.
Annie Hall (1977)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, and Carol Kane
If any of the synopses of entries from Woody Allen are brief, it’s only because many of the things I love about him as a filmmaker are present in all of his best works. Quirky women, neurotic artists, New York City, and witty banter that doesn’t get pretentious but also isn’t afraid to get downright silly. In "Annie Hall," Allen examines the befores, durings, and afters of a relationship that’s doomed to fail but wonderful while it lasts. Plus, bits like Allen’s character pulling a famous media theorist out of thin air to confront an obnoxiously pretentious patron in line at the movie theater never get old.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Seasons 1 & 2 (2000)
There’s that old cliche of "if you get it no explanation is necessary; if you don’t, no explanation will do." That’s certainly the case with the early seasons of this show, which I always felt were successful in firing off rapid-fire non-sequitirs while being clever about it. It lost a lot of its cleverness, I felt, as the series went on. It’s really a prolem I’ve had with the "Adult Swim" lineup on Cartoon Network as a whole in recent years, but that’s a rant for another time.
Arrested Development (2003-2005)
I’m not sure if there was ever a "situation comedy" on television that I ever found funnier than this show. It had a top-notch cast, fantastic writing, and David Cross proudly letting everyone know that he didn’t get the job yet, he just blue himself. And no matter what terrible events may occur during the course of this series, it always manages to present it in the lightest manner possible. This show had moments where I laughed for literally minutes (plural) after they occurred, which I don’t think I can say for any other show in the history of broadcast television.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Director: Andrew Dominick
Starring: Brad PItt, Casey Affleck, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Rockwell
Okay, I loved this movie so goddamn much in part because when I saw it, I was in the midst of discovering for the first time in my life that I freaking looooove Westerns. However, I think even if I do remove myself from that kick I was on, I can still say confidently that I think this should’ve been given the Oscar for best film. Hell, it’s got a great cast, stunning cinematography, brisk pacing despite at times little action or dialogue, and it has voiceover narration that actually adds to the texture of the film itself rather than serving as a lazy storytelling tool! Just for that it deserves an award.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshihiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyoko Kagawa
It occurs to me that it’s really silly to note who’s starring in a Kurosawa film when the only name we’ll recognize is that of Mifune (and that kick-ass walk of his). In one of Kurosawa’s many odes to American noir, a man marries the crippled daughter of a ruthless businessman, whom he holds responsible for an event that occurred in the past. That event, and his reasons, are a mystery that unfold in a tense and provocative manner.
Band of Brothers (2001)
This was the golden age of HBO, when that channel could seemingly do no wrong with its original programming. This mini-series, his turn in "Office Space," and other performances have me absolutely mystified as to why Ron Livingston isn’t one of the biggest freaking stars in Hollywood. One of the strengths of "Band of Brothers" that I haven’t seen noted elsewhere is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is and in that sense it doesn’t allow itself to getbogged down by swagger or bravado, which I feel is a common pitfall of many movies and series concerning war and in particular World War II.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee
Another Kubrick entry. An Irish farm boy’s quest to loosen the stranglehold of the aristocracy on his fate and break the glass ceiling of the European class structure takes us through the British Empire in the 1700s. It’s equal parts historical fiction, war epic, revenge fantasy, and harlequin romance novel. A precarious balancing act to be sure, and one which Kubrick pulls off flawlessly. That is, if you’re predisposed to that sort of thing.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1994)
There are cartoons aimed at kids, cartoons aimed at kids that adults can also enjoy, cartoons aimed at adults that kids can also enjoy, cartoons aimed at adults, and then there’s "Batman: The Animated Series." It’s a stunning accomplishment in that it inexplicably transcends all age barriers. It doesn’t insult the intelligence of adults nor does it go over the heads of children. I think the most perplexing aspect of this show is that it doesn’t seem to be trying to do so, but rather it’s simply inherent in its nature. It’s also a stylistic achievement that foregoes the traditional uber-buff slick presentation of a super-hero cartoon for a dark, jagged look that combines 1940s detective novels with Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis"…with modern technology, of course. And it still manages to come across as vibrant and organic! I’m honestly at a loss for words as to how this show worked, but it did. My God, did it ever.
Battle Royale (2001)
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Like many Japanese live-action films in the last decade, this movie’s a bit bloated and is way too over the top in the presentation of its concept to ever be taken too seriously for too long. Its entertainment value, however, simply cannot be denied and it’s surprising that the theme of teenagers in the future offing each other for the sake of good television hasn’t been adapted for American audiences.
The Beatles: Help! (1965)
Director: Richard Lester
Starring: John, Paul, George, and Ringo
The Beatles expand on the critical and commercial success of "A Hard Day’s Night" with a film that goes a bit further in its whackiness, and this time in glowing technicolor. There’s the musical interludes, of course, but this time it’s as a send-up to Cold War spy flicks. It’s a bit absurdist at times, which is why it doesn’t often get brought up in the same sentence as "Hard Day’s Night." And, in fairness, this is one of those sentimental picks: I LOVED this film as a kid, and I saw it a full fifteen years before "Hard Day’s Night."
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz…and of course, John Malkovich
The American psyche is wrought with fantasies that involve living the lives of those we admire, particularly when it comes to celebrities. In this film, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who also appears on this list with his film "Adaptation") teams with Spike Jonze ("Adaptation" again) to present this as a fantastical premise where a tunnel can quite literally put you inside the mind of a modern day celebrity. Kaufman ended up choosing character actor John Malkovich, which is far from the only running non-sequitur joke in this film.
Being There (1979)
Director: Hal Ashby
Starring: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas
Peter Sellers is a simple gardener who becomes a superstar when the social and intellectual elite of New York City become convinced that his simple gardening tips are heavy metaphors for the socio-economic turmoil of the 1970s, all the while not even suspecting that all his responses are taken verbatim from the various television programs he watches. Rather than simply poke fun at the upper-class, it’s also a bit dark and distressing in its tone. Sellers is also fascinating as a man whom one would feel a deep great sympathy for, if only he had the mental capacity to realize what a lonely existence he led.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (Joel Coen credited)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore
I’ll be honest, more or less every Coen Brothers film is going to appear on this list. Same goes for Wes Anderson. And of course Kubrick, as already mentioned. Yes, okay, I fetishize my obsession with some filmmakers, so sue me. Anyway, "The Big Lebowski." While I wouldn’t rank it above "Fargo" or "The Hudsucker Proxy," it’s still every bit as quotable and fun as people make it out to be. Jeff Bridges deserves praise as well for delivering a low-key performance that still manages to become iconic. Although it helps that the character of "The Dude" is, by Ethan Coen’s own admission, based entirely on Jeff Bridges.
Black Adder: Series 1-3 (1987)
Those who have only seen Rowan Atkinson in his role as Mr. Bean might not be aware of what a truly talented, brilliant, and versatile performer he is. Take for instance the "Black Adder" series, where Atkinson plays various members of the Blackadder family throughout famous periods in English history. While each struggles with similar underlying themes and situations, each series contains a truly unique approach to the Blackadder character that simultaneously differentiates from the prior incarnation while still giving the viewer that sense of familiarity that keeps them tuned in. I opted not to include the final installment (Series 4), although its final episode is one of the best final episodes of any television series on either side of the pond.
Black Robe (1991)
Director: Bruce Beresford
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau, Aden Young, Sandrine Holt
"Black Robe" is one of those rare period pieces that is so engrossing and authentic in its presentation that you don’t find yourself working at all to suspend your disbelief. The film is also able to convey a real sense of hopelessness and struggle in terms of both the journey set in the dead of winter and the clash of Christian and Native cultures in the New World in the 17th Century.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman
There’s quite simply nothing about this movie I don’t love…other than Heather Graham, but she’s not nearly as prominent in this picture as some of the adverts suggested and her performance in this film was just fine. It’s darkly hilarious, but also tragic. Which I suppose could be a criticism of the film – it tends to have moments where it strays off in some aimless directions. But none of it’s ever boring.
Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Director: John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne
John Singleton accomplished something that very few filmmakers have in the past three decades: no matter what he did or will continue to do as a filmmaker, he made one film that was so goddamn good and socially conscious that it became engrained in the American psyche and culture and forever cemented a positive legacy for the filmmaker. If "Boyz N the Hood" were simply a ‘message movie’ as some would claim, it would most certainly date itself. And despite the presence of Ice Cube and other aspects of hip-hop culture at the time, the movie still manages to seem fresh and amazing even after seventeen years.
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson, James Robinson, Patrick McGoohan
Oh, sure. We all tire of seeing this movie, and we especially dislike the people who love it for all the wrong reasons. You know, the drunken frat boys who just want to see the blood, decapitations, and shallow revenge fantasy that the film delivers on its surface. I also admit that taking Gibson’s recent history into consideration, it becomes more and more clear that his ego and Christ complex often gets in the way of his work; it wouldn’t be a true Mel Gibson affair if there wasn’t a representation of himself (or himself literally) being tortured for an extended period of time. That being said, it’s an epic movie that doesn’t feel like an epic movie, and Gibson is careful not to let the large battle sequences overwhelm the overarching story of Scotland’s William Wallace. Even though some historians would contend and Gibson would probably even admit that it’s only loosely based on the real Wallace.
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas
It’s one thing to make an obvious and almost cartoonish tribute to film noir and the old crime novels of the early twentieth century, but it’s another thing to be able to pull it off while maintaining a balance of being engrossing while simultaneously not taking it too seriously. "Brick" does just that with a great cast to deliver the densely inorganic dialogue. A lot of credit goes to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who for my money is hands down the best film actor under the age of 30.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhall, Michelle Williams
In the past year or so there’s been a backlash against this film. It has nothing to do with the passing of "Prop 8", or the debate over gay marriage, or the level of acceptance (or lack thereof) of the gay community in the United States. Rather, it comes from the more snobbish film geeks who accuse the film of being overexposed and receiving undue praise simply because it featured Hollywood stars in a gay cowboy tryst. The simple defense is that taking the gender of the two protagonists out of context and examining it as both a love story and an examination of human relationships, it still holds up as one of the best films released in the past decade. For all the praise Ledger’s performance receives, lost in the shuffle is that of Jake Gyllenhall, whose performance relays a deep sense of tragedy even before the film’s stunning climax.
NEXT: "Capote" to "The Elephant Man"