“FIVE STARS” Part 3: “Fargo” to “Grizzly Man”
Director: The Coen Brothers
Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy
I realize a lot of people can’t get past the accents, but if you’re like me and not bothered by it, it’s a great film. The norms, values, and way in which people in that region interact are at times played up for laughs but it’s never done in a mean-spirited or derogatory manner. It’s a refreshing approach, since most movies revolving around a crime or crimes that take place in a small town only get solved by either a visiting big-city detective or a homespun one that acts and operates against the grain. It’s also a really beautiful film to look at as well, with the Coens employing the white snow-covered landscape to accentuate the individual characters.
Field of Dreams (1989)
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Starring: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones
One of the few movies starring Kevin Costner outside of the Western genre that I enjoy (along with "JFK"). If one could ever define the look and feel of a movie as "Americana" this is it; with its protagonist Ray (Costner) being a hard-working farmer whose life hits a bump until a mysterious voice compells him to build – of all things – a baseball field. Although most will say it’s about baseball, it’s really about fathers and sons. And James Earl Jones is absolutely great as the cynical counter-culture novelist whom Ray (Costner) is supposed to help.
The Filth and the Fury: A Sex Pistols Film (2000)
Director: Julien Temple
More than just a simple documentary about the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols, the editing and presentation make the film in and of itself an example of punk art, if there is such a thing. Through various clips and modern-day interviews with the band members (whom Temple curiously and perhaps wisely silhouettes so as to give them the appearance of being ageless in the eyes of their public), Temple tells a story of a group that was in essence the marketing scheme of a small record shop owner but was also every bit as raucous and uncontrollable as they were painted to be by their management and the British press.
Freaks & Geeks (1999)
It seems like this was the favorite show of anyone who was ever awkward at any point in High School. You would think, since there are so many of us, that this show would have survived; however, it was one of many shows that suffered from a broadcast network’s (in this case NBC’s) curious practice of hyping a show’s premiere all Summer then completely pulling all semblance of support from it the moment it underperforms rather than re-evaluating its poor choice of time slot. Thankfully it at least got a second life through DVD, making it one of the first television series to make people realize the potential for profit of television series simply through DVD sales. Unfortunately, it being one of the first also meant it was a few years too early for it to be put back on life support and be given a second chance.
The Fugitive (1993)
Director: Andrew Davis
Starring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones
The early 90s were wrought with film adaptations of classic television shows, with anywhere from mediocre to terrible results. The exception to the rule was this film, which was a success at the box office and in the entertainment sections of newspapers across the country. The film was expertly crafted and brilliantly paced, but the greatest benefit was in its two main stars, both of whom are such masters at the finer subtleties that many erroneously overlook them when discussing the great film actors of their generations.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, Arliss Howard
Everybody loves to quote this movie, in particular the curse-laden tirades from Sgt. Gunnery Hartman played by real-life former drill Sargeant R. Lee Ermey. However, those that would focus on that section of the film – which only encompasses the first act of the film. Equally as effective and twice as poignant is everything that happens after the boot camp, including Joker’s sojourn through the American military, its woefully daft and out-of-touch senior ranking officers, and soldiers crazy from heat, exhaustion, and the mental tortures of war. It’s perhaps the best film pertaining to the Vietnam War, and perhaps that’s because it doesn’t attempt to present all the arguments for what went wrong with Vietnam but rather what’s wrong with war as a means of foreign policy.
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergen, Edward Fox
It’s daunting to make a historical epic about a well-known figure like Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi. Expectations are going to be invariably high, to the point where anything less than greatness is going to be perceived as a major shortfall and disrespectful of the legacy of the title character. The film still has its detractors, particularly those that criticize the choice of Kingsley over an Indian national to play Gandhi (since it was a co-production of UK and Indian film studios). However, considering the performance he put forth, I cannot view that as anything more than nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. And in a brilliant move, Attenborough had a disclaimer appear at the beginning of the film that apologized in advance for not putting enough emphasis on certain events, noting that if one were to give equal weight to all the man’s accomplishments, the film would never be finished and the focus should instead be on conveying the heart of the film’s subject. More cynical folk will say that it’s a nice way of saying that historical accuracy gave way to entertainment value, but I’d counteract that by saying it gave way to making a greater film. And that’s what we got with this film, which is Attenborough’s best work and the role that Kingsley will always be remembered for, despite a career that has seen consistently great efforts.
Director: George Stevens
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean
If you love old Hollywood, you’ll love this film. Epic and sprawling, it was the last of its kind and showed us what a loss it was to Hollywood to have Dean die at such a young age. His is a versatile performance that spans some twenty to thirty years, until he’s a broken down old rich boy who never quite grew to become a man. If you’re looking for deep meaning or heavy metaphors, you’re probably not going to get much out of this film. But if you’re looking for rich filmmaking and an engrossing American epic, you need look no further. Probably the last of its kind in Hollywood.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Director: James Foley
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino
There’s a reason why you don’t see more films these days with a heavy-handed all-star cast. It’s not just because it’s more expensive, but also that the more headlining acts you put in a supporting position, the more distracting it becomes to the main crux of the story. There are a few films that make an exception, and even fewer that work. "Glengarry Glen Ross" is one of those films, where the performances are so true and so brilliant that you forget you’re watching a single scene that includes Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Kevin Spacey. In fairness, for as much as Pacino reigned in some of his hammier tendencies for this project, all credit for it has to go to Jack Lemmon, who carries this film squarely on his shoulders. The others are very good actors as far as Hollywood "stars" go, but there’s a reason why they’re at their best in scenes that include Lemmon – he was one of those few actors that are so good at their craft, it makes the others working directly with him in a scene that much better.
Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher, Morgan Freeman
At 122 minutes, "Glory" is probably the shortest of any movie about the Civil War. All joking aside, it’s arguably the best, and not because of the relatively short runtime (did you ever manage to sit through Gettsyburgh in one sitting?). Telling the story of an all African-American regiment helmed by a white officer (played by Matthew Broderick), the film examines the complexities of the Civil War and largely unheralded achievements of all-black regiments…a theme which continued in American service leading up to and during World War II.
The Godfather (1972)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan
Do I really need to justify why this film works on the number of levels that it does? It’s the benchmark for not only quality filmmaking, but how to make an epic film out of a best-selling novel. Also, we get to see Marlon Brando redeem himself for letting his body and mind go to Hell in the years leading up to "Apocalypse Now" (whilst delivering a performance that in my mind does not deserve to be heralded in the manner which it is) by delivering the seminal performance of his career. Quickly followed by…
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Robert Duvall
Which some would call a sequel but is, in reality, simply a continuation of the story (as the entirety of the film is part of Puzo’s original novel). In this, the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as head of the crime family begins and is intercut with the rise of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), portrayed in the first film by Marlon Brando. In many ways its far more interesting in its choices than the first, and as such I’ve always preferred it to the original. In recent years, cable networks have decided to air "The Godfather Trilogy," which re-cuts all three films and puts all the scenes in chronological order. You should avoid it not just because it bastardizes the source material and strips the second of its artistic merits, but also because it includes the third installment – a film which is not nearly as bad as many would say, but still doesn’t belong anywhere near the first two.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard
When you think "Hollywood" and "epic," a handful of films automatically come to mind. "Gone With the Wind" is one of them. The last of the film to herald the "cast of thousands" moniker and helmed by one of the greats of the cellulite era (Victor Fleming), it lives up to its own ballyhoo. In fact, one of the things I love about this film isn’t just that it’s a great old studio pic, but it also manages in its presentation to trump itself up during the course of the film; you feel while watching it that not only are you watching something great, but it’s also yelling and screaming about how great it is. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and that’s a good thing. But boy, was it fun for its time.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
Director: George Clooney
Starring: David Straithairn, Jeff Daniels
Fair warning – when we have those discussions about actors who successfully transition themselves to the other side of the camera, we might have to start definitively naming Clooney as one of them. It may be too soon, since he’s only directed three films, but the first one was good and his follow-up – "Good Night, and Good Luck" – was absolutely great and mesmerizing. Telling the story of Edward R. Murrow’s railing against Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s community witch hunt, the film is careful to make Murrow and those behind the scenes appear human and grounded, which isn’t always easy with fifty years of hindsight and that undying urge we all have to make our heroes infallible. In terms of the visual style, it’s masterful in its ability to take us back to those smoky rooms of television’s golden age; when Murrow gives those famous impassioned pleas for sanity, it’s almost as if we’re seeing and hearing them for the first time.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
The other two installments of the "Man With No Name" trilogy from Sergio Leone also received a five-star rating from yours truly, but I only included this one for the simple fact that it’s the best of the three and exemplifies everything that’s great about these films. Plus, unlike the other two, there’s someone other than Clint Eastwood that’s worth mentioing in the cast; you have the mysterious charisma of Lee Van Cleef wearing the black hat (even if he turns out to be not quite the villain normally associated with the accessory) and Eli Wallach in a great, scumbaggish turn. The conflict and relationship between the three characters makes this film so dense that it’s worth seeing even if you hate and despise Westerns.
Director: Martin Scorcese
Starring: Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
I certainly wouldn’t call this the last good Scorcese picture, even though I wasn’t a fan of "The Departed" and don’t think anything he’s done in the last twenty years of his career tops what he accomplished in his first twenty. However, I will say that it’s the last undeniably GREAT Scorcese picture, and certainly the best executed relating to crime and/or the mafia. A former mobster who eventually rats out on his former compatriots relays the rise of him and his buddies through the heierarchy of organized crime, even though only one of them can become a "made man" due to their ethnic backgrounds. It not only works as a crime movie, but it also provides a unique glimpse into the life of mobsters from those that are just barely on the outside looking in; the guys who do enough to end up in jail for thirty to forty years, but not enough to reap all the lifetime benefits and spoils that one would expect from such risky ventures. It’s far from a perfect film, and I’m notsure if it deserves to be ranked as high as so many people rank it when it comes to naming the greatest films of all time. But hey, it was one of the first movies I saw that upon immediately seeing it made me say "hey, this is a really great movie." So it gets the nod here.
The Graduate (1967)
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, William Danielson
What’s astonishing about the post-college quarter-life crisis experienced by Dustin Hoffman’s character in "The Graduate" is that it’s perhaps more relevant in today’s climate than it even was back then. It’s best remembered for the May-December romance between the protagonist and the elder seductress "Mrs. Robinson" (Anne Bancroft; in reality the two actors are far closer in age than their characters were), but the film’s really about the changing priorities of youth enterting adulthood and false sense of security and accomplishment promised by higher education. And, of course, "plastics."
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Director: John Ford
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine
It’s amazing what a difference ten years can make. As in, if this film were proposed ten years later, the man proposing it would be identified on Capitol Hill as unamerican. However, at the height of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck’s tale of everyman Tom Joad’s class struggle, the harm that uncontrolled capitalism did to the United States, and the demonization of anything and everything that could be considered "socialist" resonated with audiences. Coming out of anybody else, the words of Tom Joad can easily become preachy and overbearing, unless it’s put in the hands of one of the greatest directors of all time (Howard Ford) and one of the best male actors of his generation (Henry Fonda).
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Director: Isao Takahata
I’m going to give you a fair warning: if you see this movie, you will cry. I don’t care who you are. Freaking Batman would cry in his cape and cowl if he watched this movie. The film tells the story of two children who are orphaned after their father disappears while serving for the military and their mother is killed by one of the many fire-bombings in Japan (a horror echoed in Dresden and overshadowed by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Their quest to survive in the war-torn countrysides of Japan is as heartwrenching as the circumstances that put them there. While there are many moments of genuine sadness and tears that are invoked through the story, at no point do you feel like it’s a "tear-jerker." I say that because I feel the term implies that it comes from a place that isn’t real, but despite the fact that the film is animated, you can’t help but see these events unfold and realize that this was not only a reality for children in Japan during World War II, but continues to be a reality to this day for children throughout the world who are affected by war and conflict in their respective regions.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
Timothy Treadwell never received any formal education or training when it came to grizzlies, but he loved them all just the same. He dedicated his life to "protecting" the animals he loved, which included living with them and documenting his attempts to "protect" them as he saw it from poachers and others that would do harm to their environment and way of life. Unfortunately, Treadwell’s misguided intentions coupled with his mental instability made him naive to one simple fact: bears are one of nature’s most effective and ruthless killers. It was ultimately his inability to accept this as a reality that ultimately led to the demise of both himself and his travelling companion/girlfriend, but in the hands of Werner Herzog it still manages to come across as a tragedy in a cynical era where most (including myself) would hear the story and say something along the lines of "well, you do that and you’re just asking to be eaten."
NEXT: "Hannah and Her Sisters" to "Justice League Unlimited" (no, really)