(Author’s Note: If you missed Part One, here it is – Friday List Blog: 101 Favorite Films, #101 – 91.)
Films #90 – 81
90. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
“Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy, and you know where it’s been.”
To this day, I still don’t know what possessed me to see this film at the theaters. My friends and I weren’t part of the art-house movie set – my art-house sensibilities hadn’t quite kicked in yet – and somehow we ended up seeing this film. For the better part of 2 hours, we sat there, entranced by director Peter Greenaway’s sumptuous and abrasive use of bold colors, and repulsed by Michael Gambon’s extraordinarily over-the-top portrayal of an out-of-control gangster whose penchant for gastronomic excess and his need to assert his control via humiliation, mayhem and murder. We sat at a diner after the film, not saying a single word over what we saw, because, I think, we must have realized no words could have described what we’d just seen. Then one of us made a crack about whether or not the restaurant served roasted cock (a reference that makes no sense if you haven’t seen this film), which broke the silence. Almost compulsively, we ate our meal and talked endlessly about The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, seeming grateful for taking the chance on seeing this film. I’ve seen The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover on several occasions since that first time, and I’m always blown away by just how gorgeous that film is, despite its’ explicit themes.
89. Nikita (aka ‘La Femme Nikita’)
“There are two things that are infinite: femininity and means to take advantage of it.”
Whenever a conversation, in person or online, turns towards the most bad-assed female characters on film, the usual suspects tend to come up: Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Beatrix Kiddo (aka the Bride), etc, yet the name Nikita, the street punk turned government assassin, never comes into the conversation. A shame, perhaps, because I think Nikita is the direct link between Sarah Connor and whichever bad-assed female ass-kicker usually portrayed by either Angelina Jolie or Milla Jovovich. As it is with any Luc Besson film, La Femme Nikita is unapologetically cool, stylish to a fault and often entertaining, as ridiculous as the plot may seem – the plot being a smack-addled street punk is given the choice between facing execution for the murder of a cop or serve her country as a super-sexy yet super-deadly assassin can be a bit too contrived, but Anne Parillaud (whatever happened to her?) is utterly believable, dangerous yet vulnerable as Nikita, who isn’t so much an ass-kicker as she is a survivor. Given the choice to kill on behalf of France isn’t much of a choice, but she pays for that freedom with body and soul. And, eventually, she learns of a way out, survivor that she is.
88. Inglorious Basterds
“Oooh, that’s a bingo. Is that the way you say it, “That’s a bingo?”
Using the Holocaust as a backdrop for a film can be a tricky subject to broach. Most directors would shy away from any kind of film that wouldn’t treat the systematic murder of 6 million Jews without sobriety, but, then again, fuck it, this is Quentin Tarantino we’re talking here. And QT loves to fuck convention up its’ ass. Yeah, Inglorious Basterds, as a film, shouldn’t work whatsoever – it’s pitched as a revenge flick, with Brad Pitt lead a band of Jewish-American soldiers terror-assing throughout Nazi-occupied France – but it works gloriously, with all the now-familiar Tarantino trademarks – extended monologues, overlapping storylines, pop culture riffing, ultraviolence, etc. – firmly in place. Of course, the entire notion of vengeance-seeking Jews out to exterminate Nazis seems like role-reversals, but in Tarantino’s parallel WWII universe, everyone is fair game, and there are no heroes and villains, only like-minded killers all wearing different uniforms. This contradiction is most evident in the part of Col. Hans Landa, played with cheerfully sociopathic abandon by Christopher Waltz (in a career-defining role); Waltz’s Col. Landa, a notorious “Jew hunter” isn’t bound by some oath to Nazi Germany or a particular hatred towards Jews (although in the film’s opening scene, a brilliant monologue in which he backhandedly praises Jews by comparing their knack for survival to that of rats), but more by his own need to satisfy his particular ego. Landa lives for the thrill of the hunt, the desire of playing cat-and-mouse with his prey, and you find yourself actually rooting for him. Will he finally capture Shoshana Dreyfuss, the sole survivor of her family’s massacre at his hands? Will he successfully trap the Basterds? You want him to do this, really, you do, and that’s Tarantino’s genius in both identifying the anomaly in being compelled to actually like a character that’s so charming yet so loathsome. Waltz steals every single scene he’s in, and he’s a huge reason why I love this film, so utterly suspenseful, ridiculously funny, breathlessly bloody, and a fine work of art.
“In one way or another I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt and I’ve found someone to feel with. To play with. To love in a way that feels right for me. I hope he knows that I can see that he suffers too. And that I want to love him.”
Admittedly, sadomasochism isn’t my bag. I get it. I can easily see how and why some people would be attracted to it. But S&M isn’t something I would be readily willing to pursue. However, the sadomasochism subplot to Secretary is just that, a subplot that never drowns or overdramatizes the real driving force behind this film – a quirky love story about two emotionally crippled people who discover a mutual connection far beyond their need to punish and be punished. This was the film where I first noticed Maggie Gyllenhaal, who, as Lee, a socially awkward girl with a history of self-harm, plays this role with an interesting mix of vulnerability and scratching-the-surface raw sexuality, and she’s matched perfectly with James Spader (who’s made a career out of being quirky and slightly unhinged characters) as Edward Gray, the eccentric lawyer who hires the unpolished Lee as his secretary, thus beginning a mutually abusive relationship in which each other’s pain is the key to their recovery. Secretary was the kind of film whose emotional content, one which far exceeded the S&M subtext (which, by the way, is treated with fairness and delicacy, and carefully avoids any shock value or needless humor) snuck up on me; I most fell for that sequence towards the end when Edward swoops in to take Lee in, after she faithfully submits to his request to sit in his office chair without moving hands or feet until he returns; her willingness to test the boundaries of her love for Edward, and Edward’s eventual rewarding of her devotion by swooping her off her feet like a knight on a white horse serves to dramatically punctuate their relationship as being built upon more than just dominant and submissive roles; hell, even I swooned when Edward so delicately bathed and nurtured Lee (metaphorically) back to life, washing away her pain and sorrows. Now that’s love.
“You sell whatever you want, but don’t sell it here tonight.”
As a police procedural, Bullitt is at times unnecessarily convoluted, and needlessly confrontational; one never quite understands Lt. Frank Bullitt’s true motives, nor do we ever truly learn if Senator Chalmers (the de facto bad guy in this film) is either morally bankrupt or simply too ambitious. Such ambiguities are part and parcel of Bullitt, yet those ambiguities work quite well. What we see in Bullitt is a clear seismic shift away from the clichéd morally upright cop – Frank Bullitt, it should be pointed out, isn’t quite as upright, but he’s sworn to his badge – and towards a more accurate portrayal of the obsessive nature of police work and the protagonist as a rebellious, idiosyncratic, and insubordinate cop. But, frankly, all that is cast aside for two reasons: one, this is Steve McQueen we’re talking about here; McQueen as the tenacious Bullitt exudes the kind of Zen-like coolness I would punch a nun in her mommy socket for, and his coolness is a microcosm of the bend-but-don’t-give quality of this film (despite my misgivings about the plot); two, with the possible exception of The French Connection, there’s never been a car chase captured on film so impossibly riveting; it’s not just the breakneck stunt driving (McQueen did his own stunt driving!) or the frenetically-paced editing, but the sounds of the engines from Bullitt’s Ford Mustang GT and the hit men’s Dodge Charger 440 Magnum that punctuates how pulse-pounding exciting that sequence is. Those engines humming are like the sweet purr of a woman in the throes of orgasm, I tell you.
85. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
“Mmm. San Diego. Drink it in. It always goes down smooth. Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means “a whale’s vagina”
When asked about the buffoonish quality of the characters he often portrays, Will Ferrell correctly identified them as possessing “unearned confidence.” That description may be accurate for some of his other characters, but Ron Burgundy certainly earned his confidence. I mean, look at this man: he’s got perfect hair, spectacular taste in clothing, a fondness for Scotch, a gift for delivering the news on camera, and a libido that could drown every woman in San Diego, and Southern California to boot. On the other hand, Ron Burgundy is impossibly stupid, – he brags of owning books bound in rich mahogany, yet has never read any – insanely egotistical, unbelievably misogynistic and highly narcissistic. And very, very, very funny. Anchorman is a genuinely funny, very tongue-in-cheek, loving spoof of local news, especially anchored by the self-absorbed, self-important newsman, who, in the words of Ron Burgundy himself, is “kind of a big deal around here.” Watching Ron Burgundy is like watching the newscasters of any local news broadcast; Ferrell’s performance, while exaggerated around the edges, is dead-on accurate for its’ portrayal of the anchorman who believes he’s more important than the news. Anchorman also gives us the roots of Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell cementing their status as 2 of the funniest comedic actors working today, and a lot of credit I’ll give to Christina Applegate for hanging more than tight as the ambitious anchorwoman who gamely battles Burgundy and his crew’s not-so-subtle sexism with equal parts sexy and sassy. Stay classy, San Diego
84. House of Games
“It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”
It’s entirely possible to watch a film written by David Mamet and not be bothered with watching the film at all; instead you’re immediately and impossibly drawn to the innate rhythms of his dialogue, how characters don’t so much speak to one another as they do express themselves in musical cadence, like the great jazz musicians reveling and sparing in each other’s company. And, by the way, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t watch a David Mamet film, because he’s a fine director, but like Quentin Tarantino, you watch a David Mamet film to listen to how his characters interact with one another; House of Games, his directorial debut, is an outstanding example of how dialogue – and how that dialogue is wonderfully brought to life by Joe Mantenga and Lindsey Crouse – builds tension, suspense and deception. House of Games is a classic example of the con game as movie, and how the con game begets another con begetting another con, until you find it impossible to decipher who’s the con and who’s the victim. I love the intricacies of the con game Mike (Joe Mantenga) and his colleagues in crime play, as their deceptions are peeled away like an onion, revealing more and more untruths. As many times as I’ve seen this, I always find yet another Easter egg of dialogue, nuance or action that makes me love this film more and more. David Mamet’s a master of hard-boiled dialogue and plot, and House of Games is easily my favorite of his works, more so than the now-legendary Glengarry Glen Ross.
83. Plan 9 From Outer Space
“Because all you of Earth are idiots!”
Okay, okay, I see you making that face. How is it that a film that’s universally considered to be one of the single WORST films ever made be on your list of favorites? That’s like saying that one Milli Vanilli album that every sucker bought is one of your favorite albums ever. Well, regarding the latter, I didn’t buy that Milli Vanilli record, and, as for the former, yes, it’s that astonishing badness that makes this film so endlessly watchable. You’ve got to give it up for Ed Wood as a writer and director; as bad as each frame is shot, as wretched as each line of dialogue is uttered with the straightest of faces, one can see passion in Ed Wood’s work. To dismiss Wood as a clueless hack is unfair. Clueless he was, but he was determined to make the films he wanted, no matter how bad those films truly are. As for Plan 9 from Outer Space, I’m not alone in saying there’s a special place in cinematic history for how truly awful this film is, yet I’m compelled (again, also not alone) to show this film a lot of affection. Tim Burton’s biopic sheds a lot of light on Ed Wood and Plan 9 from Outer Space – yes, Plan 9 is a spectacularly awful film, written and directed by someone with astonishingly little talent, but, dammit, Wood believed in himself and in his films, and you can see that in every miserably framed shot. And I think every Favorites list should include one film that is so bad, it’s good.
82. Spirited Away
“So, you were the one who carried me back into swallow waters, you saved me! I knew you were good!”
Hayao Miyazaki understands the key to animation better than no animator ever has: sure, if the kids love it, that’s great, but if the adults can relate to the fantasy without feeling like you’re being condescended to, then you as an animator have completely succeeded. Miyazaki’s brilliance as an animator stems from both his overactive and wildly vivid imagination and from the intelligence with which he treats his films and his audiences, and, as an audient, I feel like I’m always rewarded by the graceful manner in his filmmaking. Spirited Away is, in obvious regards, Miyazaki’s version of Alice in Wonderland, a madcap, visually stunning romp in which our heroine, Chihiro, gets lost in a fantasy world of spirits and monsters, and, in the process, learns to survive and adapt to both a fantasy world that is foreign to her, but a human world that brings her much dread and discomfort. I read a quote once from Miyazaki that I think reflects both on Spirited Away, his films, and his filmmaking process – “I created a hero who is an ordinary girl, someone with whom the audience can sympathize. It’s not a story in which the characters grow up, but a story in which they draw on something already inside them, brought out by the particular circumstances. I want my young friends to live like that, and I think they, too, have such a wish.” I don’t think I could have said it better myself.
81. The Seventh Seal
“You play chess, do you not? … As long as I resist you, I live. If I win, you set me free.”
There’s a perception that Ingmar Bergman’s film are always dour, sober, existential meditations on life and its’ hidden meanings. I tend to agree with that perception somewhat, but more often than not, the fact that Bergman can often be very funny tends to get lost in translation. Honestly, I never could get myself caught up in the whole existential dread and the themes of life and death, as characterized by Max von Sydow’s Antonius Block (who, as a knight, we never see him doing any bad-assed knight kind of things, but one gets the impression he probably kicked a shit-ton of ass while on the Crusades) and Death himself. And Death himself is, in a shallow and superficial way that only an Ingmar Bergman film can ever allow me to be shallow and superficial, the real reason behind me really loving this film. Death, as a white-faced man in a dark cape and aside from being one of cinema’s most iconic images, seems so matter-of-fact, so inevitable, so ever-present in our lives that he’s almost like one of us, constantly brooding, always searching, yet gravely determined to meet his goal, whatever that goal may be. Death is what it is, and while Block is determined to stave off death via a chess game (yet another iconic image from the film), Death cannot truly be reasoned with. It’s gonna happen, you know what I mean? The Seventh Seal, for all its’ art-house glories and pretentions, is never boring or insufferably hyper-intelligent. It is leisurely paced and quite chatty, but if you pay close attention, and realize this film is really a dark comedy, you come away with what Ingmar Bergman was trying to say, in no uncertain terms: life is a fucking joke, and then you die. The end. I mean, that dance of death at the end of the film (the final iconic image of The Seventh Seal)…people joyfully being led to their deaths by a pied piper of doom…you tell me if they don’t get the joke?