badlands martin sheen terrence malick

The Good (80 – 89)

The Good (80 – 89)

Title Director, Genre, Year

Rating

High and Low
Toshirô Mifune stars as a powerful shareholder in a major shoe-making company who on the eve of a risky move to take over the company, is targeted by a kidnapper looking for a ransom. Unfortunately, for him, he’s leveraged himself to such an extent that to pay the ransom will mean financial ruin and unfortunately for the kidnapper, he kidnapped the chauffeur’s son by accident! The first half of the film unfolds as a fascinating moral drama where Toshira’s Gondo sways between his dual determination not to give in to the ransomer and not to let anything happen to the child. The resolution is utterly gripping and peaks in a truly beautiful cinematic moment that sees both Mifune and Kurosawa at their magnificent best. But just when you think it cannot get any more tense, the police investigation begins in earnest, as the detectives demonstrate all the zeal and passion which Gondo’s sacrifice inspired within them. There has simply never been a better dramatisation of a manhunt and the forensic investigation involved as the great Tatsuya Nakadai runs his charges through the paces. Kurosawa brings a broad array of style and technique to this sprawling film. The early parts of the film see clever use of set design and some wonderful staging to set the claustrophobic nature of the close drama. Then the film moves assuredly into all the gritty splendor of the great films noirs as shadows and sound are fused in sublime fashion. The acting is immense too with Mifune revealing a vulnerable and layered character which grows progressively and at all times believably as the events unfold. Nakadai gives a reserved and intelligent performance as the lead detective and together they give Kurosawa’s deconstruction of integrity real substance.
Kurosawa, Thriller, 1963

89.9

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Badlands
Another blinding debut this time from recluse Terrence Malick. Badlands follows the kill-spree of two young free spirits in a thoughtful exploration of young adults playing by their own rules while trying to make their mark on the world. Martin Sheen gives the performance of his career as the James Dean wannabe with homicidal tendancies. Sissy Spacek is a revelation as the confused young girl who is just as culpable as her boyfriend yet just as innocent. This is a powerhouse of a film that will leave you with many unanswered questions and a great sense of unease but with Malick’s prodigious sense for visuals and sound and the acting of the leading pair it’s worth the watch and then some.
Malick, Drama, 1973

89.8

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Fitzcarraldo
The typically brilliant yet unpredictable Klaus Kinski headlines as Fitzcarraldo, an opera worshipping and eccentric businessman who attempts to exploit an inaccessible resource of rubber trees by dragging a steam ship over a small mountain to a parallel river. Driven not by monetary greed exactly, he is more concerned with doing something monumental and beautiful for the jungle which he loves in his own strange manner. The way in which he ultimately might go about building his monument takes many twists and turns and requires severe shifts in perspective but that is the ultimate point of this extraordinary film as his and the audiences’ perspective slowly become one. This is cinema at its most invigorating as Kinski and Herzog combine yet again in an artistic marathon. The former is electric as the white suited, blonde adventurer while Herzog frames it all in a way only he can as he brings both the jungle and story to life in equally impressive measures.
Herzog, Adventure, 1982

89.7

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Primer
Any attempt to summarise this film’s story will only serve to take away from the intellectual punch to the face it so remarkably delivers. So suffice to say that if you love thoughtful brains-over-budget sci-fi, then this film will leave your jaw on the floor. The production value is low as Shane Carruth literally taught himself how to make films while shooting this feature but its raw look only serves to enhance the power of this landmark project by strongly reverberating with what the characters are doing. Don’t be fooled by the insecurity brigade out there who denounce this film as nonsense simply because they haven’t got the patience (or brains) to understand it. It does make sense (really) but it will take between two and four viewings combined with some extensive rewinding and hard reflection. However, with every scene you learn something new and are flabbergasted at the cleverness of each revelation. And when it finally comes together, it feels like you’ve completed your first marathon. Do Not Miss!
Carruth, Sci-Fi, 2004

89.7

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
George Roy Hill’s iconic western is an inspired piece of film-making that takes a very different approach to the archetypal western. Adopting a humorous and light-hearted approach for much of the film, it gives the genre the time to breathe that it normally doesn’t receive and in focusing on one of the eras most legendary friendships it romanticises the old west in a manner more touching too. This was the first joint outing for Paul Newman and Robert Redford and they form an irresistible duo that easily goes down as the best on-screen partnership the medium has offered up. The two play off each other seamlessly and deliver two fascinating and novel characterisations. Newman is hysterical as the every-man Butch, the leader of the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall gang, while Redford is pitch perfect as the lightning fast gunslinger. The action only kicks in about half way through when in the midst of all the gang’s usual shenanigans, an breakneck chase suddenly erupts which sees Butch and Sundance being pursued across mountain and desert by a ruthless posse of specialists. Hill’s decision to never show the faces of the posse was inspired and it gives the near half-hour long pursuit a real edge. In fact, there’s arguably not another chase sequence that is as electric or effectively shot as this one. Katherine Ross comes to the fore more in the final act as the woman in the middle but never in between and adds a nice counterpoint to the pair.
Hill, G.R., Western, 1969

89.4

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The Thing
Arguably the best creature feature of them all, John Carpenter’s isolation horror is an atmospheric ensemble piece about a group of scientists based in Antarctica whose research station becomes infiltrated by a shape shifting alien bent on killing all of them and assuming their form. Carpenter’s talent for creating a sense of detachment has always been unrivalled and he brings all those skills to bear here as he creates a taut and paranoid ambience to complement the on-screen action. Rob Bottin’s special make-up effects were revolutionary at the time and they haven’t really dated even after 30 years. Ennio Morricone’s score plays a big part in setting the film’s pace and it’s a glowing compliment to Carpenter that the great maestro adapted his style to that of other Carpenter scores. The acting is first rate throughout and while there are too many top actors on show to name, Kurt Russell deserves special mention as the grisly MacReady.
Carpenter, Sci-Fi, 1982

89.3

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Battlestar Galactica
A miniseries it may be, but due to the fact that it beats the crap out 90% of sci-movies ever made and in every department, this one gets upgraded to film status. Picking up 40 years after the Cylon war the original television series was set during (and taking some well considered liberties in how it chooses to recount that war), this revamped extended pilot begins with the decommissioning of the now aged Battlestar Galactica. Edward James Olmos stars as the seasoned CO of the ship, Commander Adama (in one of many re-workings of the original mythology) who on hearing the Cylons have re-emerged after 40 years of silence to launch an all-out attack on the 12 colonies, takes command of the tattered fleet initially to mount a counter-attack but eventually to shepherd the survivors of humanity out of harm’s way. The dialogue is authentic and insightful in equal measure, the characters are richly drawn and all have edges to their personalities which are revealed in a variety of interesting ways once the conflict begins. The best of all, of course, is the contradictory Adama. At once both gnarly and erudite, he’s exactly what a veteran fleet commander/leader of a race should be and Olmos was born to play him. Within five minutes of his appearance on screen, it’s clear Adama is going to be one of the great sci-fi characters & Olmos spends the remainder of the feature living up to every word of that promise.
Rymer, Sci-Fi, 2003

89.3

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Caddyshack
Set in the hilarious Bushwood Country Club, the movie follows its caddies, the rich eccentrics they caddy for, and the various staff including its unstable groundskeeper. Michael O’Keefe is perfect in the lead as the likeable but cheeky Danny Noonan but this movie is as much if not more about the supporting cast of comedic heavyweights. Ted Knight is a riot as Judge Smails, Rodney Dangerfield finds the perfect vehicle for his unique brand of humour (“hey lady, you wanna make 14 dollars the hard way?”) while Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb is Chase at his skewed and improvisational best. Best of all though is Murray as the deranged groundskeeper Carl. This is easily one of his best performances and one of the most off the wall eccentric characters you’ll find in any film. From the “kill all the golfers” line to the “you wore green so you could hide” line Murray will have you howling with laughter for the full 90 mins and beyond.
Ramis, Comedy, 1980

88.9

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Under the Skin
Based on Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin begins with an extraordinary Scarlett Johansson assuming the guise of a human female in order to lure lonely men (played by unwitting non-actors who thought they were genuinely being picked up and who the crew filmed with hidden cameras) back to her apartment where human reality and that of her species’ morph into a gateway from the former to the latter. The purpose of this seduction is revealed in one remarkable scene that will chill you to the bone – a process of extraction that someone or something else takes care of while Johansson’s alien predator goes back out on the prowl. But with each foray into the world of humans and each victim she brings back, something changes within her that causes her to crave a fuller range of human experience. Within this stripped down narrative, Under the Skin achieves two equally daring and intangible objectives. Primarily, it offers an examination of human existence as an alien construct but within that aim is the ostensibly narrower but infinitely broader goal of pondering the oft dodged question of what alien consciousness might amount to. It does this not through abstraction or surrealism but through a dramatic realignment of the traditional realism in which movies are shot. Under the Skin has been compared by some to 2001 and it is this regard that such comparisons are warranted. For Kubrick is one of the very few to have previously addressed the hypothetical question of alien perception. Thus, like Kubrick does in the closing sequence of 2001, Glazer (albeit to a lesser extent) methodically probes what experience might be to a sentient being of an incomprehensible nature (incomprehensible to us).
Glazer, Science Fiction, 2013

88.9

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The Usual Suspects
Supremely captivating noir-ish crime thriller that spins an intricate tale about a group of elite hijackers who are brought together by an outside force and get mixed up with crooked cops, drug dealers, and an underworld boss who nobody is sure exists but everyone is scared of. This is one of those films that redefined the genre and, in doing so, it set a new standard for every subsequent crime film. High school buddies Bryan Singer (director) and Christopher McQuarrie (writer) became household names after this one and it’s not difficult to see why. McQuarrie’s hugely original and slick writing combines perfectly with Singer’s taut and stylish direction to give this film a truly unique look and a feel. Most of the actors on show give career best performances. Spacey got the Oscar but he is matched by Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, and Chazz Palminteri. However, this is undeniably Gabriel Bryne’s film as his broody, charming, and serious Dean Keaton more than any of the other character sets the tone for this film from start to finish. A special mention of John Ottman’s dual role is appropriate also as he not only gives us one of the most memorable scores of the 90’s but is also responsible for the film’s super slick editing.
Singer, Crime, 1995

88.8

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Few filmmakers could reconcile the ostensibly disparate tones of screwball comedy and piercingly perceptive drama like Frank Capra could and this cinematic classic is possibly his best achievement in that regard. In his first Oscar nominated performance, Jimmy Stewart stars as a wide eyed and patriotic scout leader, Jefferson Smith, who finds himself nominated to the senate. Unbeknownst to him, however, he’s expected to be play the puppet and take orders from his state’s wealthiest and most powerful man. When he learns of this and that his childhood hero, Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), has been under the same obligation, he attempts to fight the mighty corruption right from the floor of the senate. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of those rare gems so clear in conception, construction, and delivery that it cuts straight to the core of truth so that it’s as relevant today as it was to the time it was made. But there’s also a relentless fun to Sidney Buchman’s dialogue even when the heat is on as if Capra believed you can’t get too bogged down in the negativity of the system or you’ll drown and never be in a position to change it. Stewart is the best avatar he could’ve asked for in this regard using his broadly appealing magic to drive the point home with a naive charm. Jean Arthur’s “Saunders” is the cynical alternative to this stance, the next-best-attitude to Smith’s optimistic crusader if you will, and, if anything, she upstages Stewart in a sterling performance of delectable feistiness. Raines’ crooked senator adds complexity to the bad side of the fence but it’s fair to say, the remaining villains are as one dimensionally bad as Smith would’ve been good – if it weren’t for the depth Stewart brings by default. Capra’s typical energy behind the camera infuses it all with a giddy verve and with audacious moments of satirical wit and laugh out loud comedy balancing the perceptive political commentary, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is as well rounded yet deceptively sophisticated a film as there has ever been. Timeless.
Capra, Drama, 1939

88.8

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The Lady Vanishes
One of the great mystery thrillers, The Lady Vanishes is an impeccably constructed tale of suspense set on board a train in continental Europe during the heightened climate of suspicion that preceded the outbreak of WWII. Margaret Lockwood stars as a young woman who wakes up from a knock she received to the head and notices that the kind and elderly lady who had helped her right before she passed out has disappeared. On insisting as much to the other passengers, she encounters one curious denial after another. However, with the help of Michael Redgrave’s charming but mischievous musician she presses the issue and begins investigating what if anything happened to this lady. It seems like a simple premise and there’s not a whiff of complexity in how it comes across but this is as intricate a story as Hitchcock has tackled. But so accomplished is its execution and so enjoyable is its unfolding, that we barely stop to notice it, never mind appreciate it. The set-up is unusually protracted as the various soon to be passengers are introduced and fleshed out in one humour-filled (and not in any way suspicious) sequence after another as they hold up overnight in a hotel while the track is cleared of snow. Even when things take a turn for the strange, and that familiar Hitchcockian genre shift happens (along with the concomitant switch in leads), the film doesn’t skip a beat and so the experience feels quite singular. Balancing a breathless tension with the essential British comedy of the 30’s, would not seem the easiest of tasks but thanks to Hitch’s fearlessness, he makes it look that way. Thus, as Lockwood and Redgrave make their way through the train dealing with philandering judges, mistresses, quintessential English cricket fans, magicians, wives of propaganda ministers, and a world famous neurosurgeon, their steady stream of wisecracking interchanges are interrupted only for the most thrilling of incidents. The pinnacle of those also just happens to be one of the best external train scaling shots ever thanks to a seamless use of rear projection and sound. Lockwood and Redgrave are wonderful together and due to a nice pretext, they have all sorts of romantic tension to play with. May Whitty puts in a delightful turn as the eponymous lady and adds richly to the whimsical tone of the film. The shot of her belting through the forest handbag in tow on its own makes the film worth watching. Best of all are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s double act as the upper-middle class cricket fans who seem awfully put out by the search for the lady lest it delay them from their match. It’s the characterisations that make this story so special, not only for how those characters are acted but for how they are written. Each character has their own unique motivation which ties in deviously with the overall plot and in the process adds substance to the unusual mystery at the centre of the film. Combined with the maestro’s sublime technique and overall delicacy, this makes The Lady Vanishes one of the very best mystery thrillers, if not the best. Truly.
Hitchcock, Mystery, 1938

88.7

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Reservoir Dogs
Debut directors have rarely announced their arrival with such explosive confidence as Tarantino did with Reservoir Dogs. From the very first scene, we know that this guy has his own ideas on how to do things. The type of dialogue-embedded action that defines every scene was so new and fresh at the time that it signalled a revolution in cinema. But being the visionary he is, he realised that revolution must come from within and so we have a film full of self-referential flourishes (i.e., those which serve the story not vice versa). This film is a cinema lover’s delight from the colour coded names of the criminals (a nod to The Taking of Pelham 123) to the visceral and innovative action choreography (think John Woo at his best). As he did in later films to even greater effect, Tarantino blends a number of cinematic styles to create his own unique vision. Thus, we’re treated to an array of gorgeous dolly shots, low angle character perspectives, and some of the most subtly impressive examples of staging in modern cinema. The script is white hot and the awesomely good ensemble cast masterfully brings it to life with all the improvisation and genius that you’d come to expect from Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Penn, and co. If for some wild reason you haven’t seen it, then see it and see it now. If you have, see it again.
Tarantino, Crime, 1992

88.7

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The Long Good Friday
The best British gangster movie bar none, this film boasts a truly mesmeric performance from Bob Hoskins as the top boss of the London underworld who on the eve of a gigantic real estate deal is compromised by a series of sinister attacks on his men and properties. Hoskins’ multi-layered portrayal of Harold Shand begins by showing us an almost genial and wise cockney gangster who behaves like a father-figure to his men. However, as the pressure builds throughout the film we see more and more of his dark side and learn exactly how he managed to rise to such a prominent position in the London underworld. This is a fantastically stylish film with great writing and a wonderful score which helps to set a keen pace to the action. The night time shots of London’s backstreets are sumptuous and provide the backdrop to one of the greatest closing scenes you’ll ever see as Hoskins finishes off this tour de force effort off in spellbinding manner. Pure Class.
Mackenzie, Gangster, 1980

88.7

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers
One of the very best science-fiction classics, Philip Kaufman’s film is a flawless exercise in paranoia inducing film-making. With practically every frame he breathes sinister life into the world he creates from recoilng telehone cords to the gazes and half-looks of countless bystanders. Donald Sutherland has never been better as the San Fransisco health inspector working against time to figure out what, if anything, is changing the personailities of the town’s inhabitants. Brook Adams is strong in the co-lead and works wonderfully well with Sutherland as they both give slightly skewed performances which are in keeping with the overall feel of the film. Leonard Nimoy is excellent as the psychiatrist with all the answers and so too are Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright. This is one of the few remakes to actually justify its existence (of course it is from an earlier time when remakes were actually reinterpretations and not lazy, dispicable money-grabbing exercises) as it goes far beyond that of Siegal’s original in imbueing the audience with an unsettled and deeply disturbing feeling. This is filmmaking at its very best and watch out for one of the great endings in cinema history.
Kaufman, Sci-Fi, 1978

88.6

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Murder My Sweet
There are different varieties of films noirs but perhaps the most recognisable is the hard boiled detective noir. What’s more, Farewell My Lovely (renamed Murder My Sweet after audiences confused it with another Dick Powell romantic comedy musical) is arguably the best of this variety though fans of Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, and that other Philip Marlowe adaptation The Big Sleep will forever argue that point. What is for certain is that this swirling story of dark motives and murder is a glorious testament to the genre as a whole. Dick Powell steps into the shoes of the famous private dick as he becomes embroiled in a couple of cases that (as usual) may or may not be connected involving blackmail, missing persons, and of course, murder. This is classic Chandler territory so expect more twists and turns than you’d find in a bag full of corkscrews, overlapping plots, and hidden motives. Powell is truly wonderful as Marlowe in a performance that almost fully captures the subtle contradictions of Chandler’s characterisation. He’s not physically imposing but he’s got guts and brains to burn and an overarching and bulletproof cynicism that makes him nobody’s fool. There’s been much discussion as to whether Bogart or even Gould did a better job but fans of the books usually go with Marlowe and it’s difficult not to see why. There’s a greater honesty to the vulnerability he shows and it grounds the character like few noir detectives have been. It also makes his victories along the way all the sweeter because the audience are less certain of them. In support, Mike Mazurki made better use of his intimidating stature than in any of his other noir appearances as the dim heavy Moose while Claire Trevor is one of the more lethal femme fatales to grace the genre. Behind the camera, Edward Dmytrk was in spectacular form showing great innovation with his framing of practically every shot and conjuring some extraordinary images to capture the various sequences of delirium that Marlowe is hurled into. The lighting and staging seem finely tuned to the sly murkiness of Chandler’s words (adapted to the screen excellently by John Saxton). Of course, it’s these words that make this film so tantalisingly good as every line is immortal, every observation surgical, every wisecrack delicious, every compliment vicious. This is Out of the Past, The Maltese Falcon, and Miller’s Crossing level of verbal seduction. John Saxton’s adaptation shouldn’t be ignore either not only for his cinematic polishing of the dialogue but also the inspired structure he and Dmytrk give to both dialogue and plot. The structure not only does justice to Chandler’s story but like all the great films noirs, it also gets the most out of the mystery lying at the centre of everything.
Dmytrk, Film-Noir, 1944

88.6

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The Manchurian Candidate
John Frankenheimer’s magnum opus is a thoroughly captivating story that was of its time but also way ahead of it. Old “Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra plays the army major who returns from the Korean War with strange recurrent nightmares and an inexplicable liking for one of his subordinates who he always found decidedly dislikeable. Lawrence Harvey is that soldier, Raymond Shaw, who hails from a wealthy family dominated by his ruthless mother who will stop at nothing to install her puppet husband as vice president of the country. Sinatra is every bit the star of the show and his natural charisma ties you to the film. Harvey is excellent as the ill-tempered yet vulnerable Shaw and Angela Lansbury is terrific as his dangerous mother. Janet Leigh is kind of crow-barred into the story but it doesn’t hurt it in any way (it’s even hinted that she may have a previous history with Sinatra’s character either professional and/or personal but nothing ever comes of it). The film (based on Richard Condon’s novel) says much about the then recent McCarthy hearings and what it does say is especially insightful. The conditioning aspect to the story is reasonably well rooted in the science but naturally has to take some giant leaps into hugely improbable territory. Frankenheimer’s direction comes into its own during the conditioning scenes as he uses long dream-like pan shots and off-camera dialogue to expertly convey the conceptual sterility of the dastardly Dr. Yen Lo’s (played with relish by Khigh Dhiegh) methodical manipulations. And on top of all that there’s one of the earliest American kung-fu fights that builds wonderfully on Spencer Tracy’s explosive US debut in Bad Day at Blackrock. Unmissable.
Frankenheimer, Mystery, 1962

88.5

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Grosse Pointe Blank
A completely original black comedy with a razor sharp wit and superb performances throughout, Grosse Pointe Blank is that rare achievement where every aspect of the film’s production is perfectly tuned. That’s right, this film is perfect – from the immensely innovative action sequences, to the quirky searing humour, to its real sounding yet slickly cool dialogue, to the fantastic array of actors who one and all ‘get’ the script, this film is perfect. John Cusack plays Martin Blank, a hit man going through an existential (or just plain “guilt”) crisis who has to return to his home town for the first time in 10 years to do a job. Of course, it just so happens the job coincides with his 10 year high school reunion and still living in that town is the girl of his dreams (literally) whom he stood up on prom night to run off and join the army. Needless to say, much fun is had as he bumps into a series of characters all of whom he has a past with (pasts which are never explicitly mentioned) and goes from existential crisis to near on full melt down. And on top of all that, an utterly deranged colleague (played superbly by Dan Aykroyd) is lurking about as he attempts to force Martin to join a hit man union… or pay the price!
Armitage, Comedy, 1997

88.5

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Judgement at Nuremberg
Judgement at Nuremberg is a wonderfully complex analysis of the post-WWII tribunals which sharpened to a focused point societies’ discussion of the guilt and blame regarding the German people of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Rather than merely piggybacking this discussion, Judgment at Nuremberg immerses itself in it and the result is as engaging and integral a film as has been produced by Hollywood. The great Spencer Tracy headlines as a judge who is flown into Nuremberg some time after the sensational trials of military and political commanders have ended, to preside over the lower profile trials wherein the judges of The Third Reich are being tried for dereliction of their duty to uphold the law. Burt Lancaster plays the most distinguished of these judges and perhaps the one who feels most deeply about his role, however indirect, in the atrocities of the concentration camps and “final solution”. Maximilian Schnell stars as his legal representative in the trials while Richard Widmark plays the US army’s prosecuting attorney. Everyone involved gives thoughtful performances with Lancaster’s being much more understated than usual and Tracy’s being as pitch perfect as usual. There are so many standout moments in this movie (some harrowing, some eminently dramatic) that it’s difficult to pick a true high-point but Widmark’s opening salvo against the defence is as damning an indictment of the Nazi collaborators as any the medium has offered. It is truly one of the most arresting moments in film and that Widmark is responsible for it and not Tracy is perhaps nearly as surprising. True class.
Kramer, Drama, 1961

88.4

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Wake in Fright
There are films you watch and there are films you experience and this once lost classic of Australian cinema belongs, without any doubt, to the latter category. Once entitled “Outback”, during a dismally unsuccessful international distribution, Ted Kotcheff’s blisteringly pessimistic examination of the human condition – not to mention adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s autobiographical novel (!) – was rediscovered and re-released in 2009 to a very different and much more intrigued public to the one that decried it in 1971. With an opening shot that lands us lost in a desperate slow panning 360 degree scan of the Australian desert, we find our narrative vehicle in the form of a snobby school teacher John Grant, whose prim and polished exterior belies the agonising realisation lying on the horizon of his mind. With the Christmas break upon him, he leaves the one-horse town in which (rather symbolically) he is state bonded to teach for a definite period of time, and heads off for Sydney to ostensibly visit his girlfriend. However, when he lays over in the working man’s outpost town of Bundanyabba (referred to simply as “the Yabba”), his life’s previously creeping trajectory quickly crystallises into an extended five day session of drunken depravity wherein he descends into a nightmare of both physical and existential entrapment and the baser side to humanity. Thematically, what Kotcheff does here is a stunning triumph of reversalism and paradox. Within Grant’s rapidly closing parameters of existence, pastimes become gateways to excruciatingly endless stretches in time, the vast open territory of the Yabba and its hinterland becomes a sweaty cage, the relentless hospitality of its townsfolk sharpens into a belligerently wielded weapon, a horrifying alcohol-fueled nighttime slaughter of kangaroos morphs into a balletic even hypnotic ritual of hopelessness, while sensibility and sexuality are suddenly and violently reversed. However, that it all wraps up in a surgically precise metaphor for Grant’s life and for that of a generation of young men with no real prospects is even more astounding. His layover in the Yabba becomes a mythical journey as epic as any legend of Ancient Greece and equally poetic too. Donald Pleasence’s white hot presence as a disgraced alcoholic doctor who has shunned society by moving to the Yabba where his indiscretions are as oblivious to the people as they are to them is the wise man of this fable but also its monster incarnate. He sits slightly above the rest of the primal characters and expounds the realities of existence to Grant – comments on civilisation, “a vanity spawned by fear”, being the blunt edge to the film’s political statement. It’s an immense turn and maybe even the finest in the great actor’s distinguished career. Gary Bond’s central performance is the real hero though and with a face perfectly sculpted for a film like this – just as Peter O’Toole’s was for Lawrence of Arabia – it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off what he did here. He gives Grant’s sprawling descent an edged realism that haunts as deeply as what Kotcheff was doing behind the camera.
Kotcheff, Drama, 1971

88.4

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The Apartment
Classic comedy drama starring Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, a beleaguered insurance man who has to make his apartment available for his various superiors who are looking for a quiet place to take their lady friends. Things get sticky when he discovers that the girl he’s sweet on (a radiant Shirley MacClaine) is being taken there by the head honcho (Fred MacMurray) and they come to a head when she tries to kill herself in his bed after being jilted by the self serving boss man. Wilder always had a commanding grasp on the comedy knowing how to massage a story so that life’s inherent quandaries were incidentally examined, their ludicrousness stripped naked. Of course, it’s in that type of humour that a certain realism is also extracted and the poignancy of the story elevated. The Apartment is a glowing example of this approach made even better by the fact the it had two leads who faultlessly walked the fine line between comedy and drama, charming the audience in disparate manner. Laid out on a wide canvass of clean monochrome, Wilder does honour to the genre by gracing it with the visual class of a noir classic. On the writing front, he and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay is rich with lyrical wordplay and above all intelligence. The comedic riffs and onscreen dynamics are delicious and with Lemmon’s panache, MacClaine’s split second timing, and MacMurray’s egotistical brio, the scenes are made truly immortal. However, when all is said and done, the real key to The Apartment is that aforementioned juggling act. It tugs on the heartstrings but the manipulation and narcissism are constantly outdone by the whimsical optimism and rapier pragmatism of the comedy. There’s something irresistible about that.
Wilder, Comedy, 1960

88.4

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Le Cercle Rouge
Jean-Pierre Melville’s stunning crime opus is crime cinema at its most visionary and effective. Four men get drawn into the same gloomy world framed by opaque motivations and with an audacious jewellery heist at its centre. Alain Delon is Corey, a recently released prisoner who is recruited for a lucrative but difficult heist the day before his release by one of his prison guards. Corey is ice cool and with seemingly few (if any these days) weak spots. He follows the path of chance and spends little time procrastinating. When this path intersects with Gian-Maria Volenté’s recently escaped and kindred spirit Vogel they intuitively move forward together in preparing for the heist. Vogel’s involvement prompts the inclusion of an alcoholic former police marksmen (played wonderfully by Yves Montand) into the caper who, combined with the dogged but philosophical detective in pursuit of Vogel, closes the red circle in which their drama will be contained. Bourvil is that detective and it’s in him that the true point to the tale is subtly reflected. Le Cercle Rouge is a masterfully crafted film. From the photography and set design to the acting and writing, there’s an exquisite attention to detail so much so it seems the tropes are physically painted right into the landscape of the film. The deliberate pace combined with Melville’s awe-inspiring unobtrusiveness allows the film to glide over the drama only to rest softly on key moments. Rather than the immersivness of something like Reservoir Dogs, Melville’s lens seems to stay one step ahead of the drama and more specifically, the protagonists’ momentum. An interpretive quality whispers through the extended moments of silence as the writer-director auteur seems disinterested in the fuzziness of words and only concerned with the clarity of undiluted intent. The intensity of this world provides a focused heat as the cool calculating personalities (accentuated through the prevalence of the colour blue throughout every scene except the jewellery snatch itself) are warmed in a controlled manner. This is the Red Circle to which the film’s title refers. The four heavy hitters of French cinema are all scintillating in their roles with each offering a different but equally compelling interpretation on the slick antihero construct. In fact, any one of these characters on their own could serve as a basis to a classic crime feature so assured and magnetic is their presence. Therefore, that four such characters are colliding here in one film, indicates the impressive scope to this one film. Furthermore, the story is an intuitive blending of Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Dassin’s Rififi which ensures that the basis to all this reflection-heavy crime drama is rock solid. In fact, in Le Cercle Rogue, Rififi’s 35 minute heist sequence (where no sound is heard but the characters’ movements) is magnificently gestured to in a similarly shot 25 minute robbery. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that Melville’s film stands next to Dassin’s and Huston’s as one of the very best crime dramas we’ve seen.
Melville, Crime, 1970

88.4

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Sexy Beast
This British gangster movie stars the daddy of British geezer-actors Ray Winstone and a barely recognisable Ben Kingsley giving the most intimidating and ferocious performance this side of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Winstone plays the retired thief enjoying life with his wife in their Spanish villa. Kingsley plays the nutter sent to bring him back to London for one more job. Winstone has never been better while Kingsley simply burns a hole in the screen. This film has it all, great cast, delicious script, beautifully shot, razor-sharp comedy, and a sensationally clever metaphorical double bluff just in case you weren’t already impressed.
Glazer, J, Gangster, 2000

88.4

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The Longest Day
Very likely the best of all the WWII movies, The Longest Day is a masterful account of the preparation for and execution of the largest land and sea military action in history: D-Day. Starring practically every available movie star of its day and directed by a crew of directors including an unaccredited Darryl F. Zanuck, it’s a logistical achievement worthy of the momentous day it’s chronicling. All the major elements of Allied invasion are represented with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum taking on the roles of the commanders of the front line divisions, the former of the airborne, the latter of the marines. Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and Richard Burton also feature but more peripherally and the latter as leader of a British commando unit. The Germans are represented in force too (with Curd Jürgens doing particularly well) as the action constantly switches back and forth between both sides. Needless to say the acting is first rate with Mitchum especially standing out as the beleaguered general of those who were always going to be the hardest hit as they stormed the beaches. The battle sequences involving him and his men are by far the most thrilling and rightly so given how relevant they were to the entire invasion. That said, there isn’t a single battle sequence in The Longest Day which won’t have you on the edge of your seat and what’s more, they are all entirely different to each other in both logistics and execution. However, during all the back and forth shifting between battle sequences, it still finds the time for moments of quiet reflection and the tone which it sets during these moments is deeply affecting. The most impressive feature of the film is without a doubt the fact that at all times, The Longest Day never fails to intertwine the role and perspective of the individual soldiers with the broader strategic advancements of their respective units. The later A Bridge Too Far did this too when chronicling Market Garden but not as well as it’s done here. The Longest Day puts us right in the middle of the action so that we feel intimately familiar with the ebb and flow of the advance and it’s thrilling stuff. The film is shot magnificently and even though the US, British, and German episodes are all helmed by different directors, there’s a seamless look and feel to the whole thing. Overall, The Longest Day is a captivating piece of cinema which shows great deference to the momentous events of that day. There are some fine movies which focus on the same events but none are as comprehensively great as this.
Annakin, War, 1962

88.4

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Kiss Me Deadly
”Keep away from the windows. Somebody might blow you a kiss”. Private dick Mike Hammer gets mixed up in the murder of a woman and his subsequent investigations send him in all directions. Film noir, surrealism, and postmodernism all wrapped up in a good old fashioned crime story. Nothing will prepare you for where this film takes you and isn’t that what great cinema should be about? Robert Aldrich gives a masterclass in direction, casting everything in frame in delicate patterns of shadow and light and giving many things out of frame heightened significance. Turning the camera away from the darker events within a story has become a staple of modern filmmaking but Aldrich forges the technique here and in his own way lays the groundwork for the French cinema of the 60’s & 70’s. On top of that, his use of unorthodox camera angles and shadowy shapes has all the echoes of German surrealism and the story for the most part is classic noir. Ralph Meeker gives Hammer the appropriate weight of presence and he breezes through most parts of the film like a force of nature. There are more twists and turns in here than you’d find in a bag of corkscrews but stay with it because the payoff is enormous. Yes absolutely, this is what film-making is about. And, yes, that’s where Pulp Fiction and Repo Man got it from!
Aldrich, Film-Noir, 1955

88.3

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Bad Day at Black Rock
”I’m half horse, half alligator. Mess with me and I’ll kick a lung out of ya”. Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and the immortal Spencer Tracy star in this gritty WW II era western. Tracy stars as a disabled veteran who arrives in a one-horse town to look up the father of a Japanese-American soldier who saved his life whilst giving up his own in the process. Met with paranoia, aggression, and fear he soon begins to suspect that the townspeople are guilty of a dark secret concerning the Japanese father. Tracy was always the best at playing the iron willed moral compass of a film and in this film he hones that skill to a fine point in what must be one of his finest performances. The bad guys are all played with suitable menace with Marvin and Ryan standing out in particular. Director John Sturges lets the considerable tension simmer just beneath the surface for most of the film but when Tracy squares off against the various villains that tension becomes palpable. Though the drama builds up slowly, Sturges gives the story a real sense of urgency beginning with that thumping introduction as the camera moves in on Tracy’s train hurtling through the desert towards the dark truth. There are some truly outstanding action sequences including a tasty fight between Borgnine and Tracy where the latter gives us one of the earliest glimpses of martial arts fighting in a Hollywood picture. Bad Day at Black Rock is a remarkable film defined by some career-best performances, a brave story, and some extremely inspired direction that was well ahead of its time.
Sturges, Mystery, 1955

88.3

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The Philadelphia Story
Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, & James Stewart form a golden trio for this definitive comedy of manners. Hepburn is the iron clad “goddess” with an inside made of bronze, Grant is the ex-husband who resurfaces on the eve of her marriage next marriage to a new money magnate, and Stewart is the working writer sent to cover the wedding for a celebrity gossip magazine. The three way relationship is bang on perfect thanks to the three titans of cinema and deliciously worded back and forths present in Donald Ogden Stewart’s magnificent adapted screenplay and Philip Barry’s original play. Hepburn is immense as the quick witted socialite, Tracy Lord, who has learned to repress her more compassionate side. In any other movie, she’d own the entire thing but with Grant and Stewart on form they share the spoils equally. Grant is at his most charming as C.K. Dexter Haven and while only really coming to the fore in the second hour, he’s responsible for most of the film’s emotional thrust. As the one most responsible for its straight comedy, Stewart’s Macaulay Connor is the perfect foil for Tracy’s playful cynicism and indeed the funniest moments are had between the two of them. There’s a fine support cast on show too with John Halliday in great form as Lord senior. George Cukor does an exemplary job in coaxing the material out from the more constrained parameters of the stage and onto his luscious monochrome but simultaneously keeping the quick repartee as the central focus. The Philadelphia Story is one of those rare immortal comedies in that it has lost none of its sophistication as the years go by. In fact, with the relative dumbing down of the modern romantic comedy, it has only grown in stature.
Cukor, Comedy, 1940

88.1

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Network
Surely one of the most complete and effective satires, Network is a delicious take on the business of television programming, human relationships, and how both feed and feed off the impartial narratives that so many shows are built around. Peter Finch stars as the disturbed news anchor who upon hearing that he’s been fired launches an attack on his network live on air. So good are the ratings that the executives (an emotionally vacant yet ruthless Faye Dunaway and an equally ambitious Robert Duvall) order head of the news division William Holden to build a show around his deteriorating friend’s rantings. The script is pure gold with some of cinema’s most subtly cutting and scathing commentary threaded throughout. The characters are all in different ways reflections of the greed and selfishness of the modern world and are as good as the actors inhabiting them. The film is genuinely hilarious with Finch’s outbursts being the highlights. Lumet’s delicate touch is all over this and it is he who allows Paddy Chayefsky’s searing script to come to life in as stimulating a fashion as it does. Watch out for Ned Beatty’s thunderous cameo which ultimately more than anything else sets the tone for this cinematic monument.
Lumet, Satire, 1976

87.8

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The Train
Burt Lancaster stars as Labiche, the station master of a busy Paris train terminal which the Germans are using to evacuate their retreating troops and armaments. Labiche is also a resistance fighter and he uses his position to hinder the German train schedules, facilitate sabotage, and co-ordinate with the slowly advancing Allies. When Paul Scofield’s Col Von Waldheim, attempts to take the French museums’ greatest paintings to Germany, Labiche is called upon to protect the “national heritage” at all costs. The moral conflict and exploration of humanity that this set up facilitates is what makes The Train so completely compelling for it becomes so much more than just a blinding great action film (which it most certainly is). Ever the hardened soldier, Labiche sees the orders to save the art from the Germans as too great a risk to his thinning ranks of freedom fighters and appreciating that the Germans cannot be allowed procure such a potentially valuable war chest, he would much prefer to simply blow the train up. However, by seeing how much the art cargo means to some of his closest confidants, he gradually commits himself ever more to the task. If one were to stop and contemplate this for a second, one cannot help but be struck by the stirring conception of a hero this leaves us with. A seasoned and war weary hero protecting something even though he doesn’t understand or see the beauty in it but because he trusts those that do. That’s quite an over extension on the part of your typical hero and it’s a hair raising idea to build a film around. And that’s exactly what it does here.
Frankenheimer, War, 1964

87.8

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The Third Man
Carol Reed may be credited with the direction of this noir masterpiece but Orson Welles’ fingerprints are all over it. Joseph Cotten stars as the American writer who arrives in post-war Vienna to stay with a friend only to learn he’s been killed in an apparent accident. The more he learns however the more he suspects foul play but his investigations soon get him into trouble with the mismatch of British, American, Russian, and French law enforcement. It’s a thrilling story that zips along and thanks to the unorthodox camera angles and sublime use of shadow the viewer is kept in a state of disorientation that mirrors Cotten’s state of mind. The final act involves some of the most seminal photography in film history as that most riveting of chases through the sewers of the city unfolds. Graham Greene’s script is the equal of the Reed/Welles’s direction. The dialogue is full of wit and intrigue and with the arrival of the Welles’ character, it enters into a league of its own.
Reed, Film-Noir, 1949

87.8

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American Hustle
As much as great scripts inspire great performances so do great directors. That we have seen fewer and fewer Stanley Kowalskis, Michael Corleones, and Jake LaMottas in the last 30 years is a testament not necessarily to the lack of great actors but perhaps the lack of great writers and directors or at least the lack of all three elements at the same time. Well fret no longer because 2013’s American Hustle represents as explosive an intersection between all three elements as we’ve witnessed probably since Goodfellas. “Seminal”, “sublime”, “iconic”, “defining” are just some of the superlatives that might swirl through your head while watching David O. Russell’s latest claim to directorial greatness. A near perfect immersion in the era and (partly fictitious) personalities of one of American history’s most infamous sting operations, the ABSCAM operation. Christian Bale stars as the best conman in America, Irving Rosenfeld, who moves from one small time scam to another always staying off the radar. Amy Adams is the love of his life and partner in con artistry who eventually gets them in trouble when an eccentric FBI agent in the form of Bradley Cooper arrests her and forces the two experts to help him bring down a bunch of corrupt politicians and even the casino backing mobsters. What could go wrong? Well nothing – apart from Irving’s bipolar wife (a hysterical Jennifer Lawrence), a nice guy mayor (a brilliant Jeremy Renner) whom Irving is forced to double cross, and an infamous mobster who takes a dislike to Irving from the start (Robert De Niro in classic form). The first thing to strike you about this film is its authenticity. Linus Sandgram’s cinematography, Judy Becker’s production design, and Michael Wilkinson’s costume design help largely in setting the era under the auspices of Russell’s urbane vision. Along with the (thankfully) less obvious and excellent source music, Russell channels his sterling cast’s performances through this visual aesthetic and wraps the whole thing up in several quietly impressive innovations in camera angles, editing, and overall narrative construction. The performances are universally meritorious with the five leads rating as exquisite but in different ways to each other. Cooper and Lawrence are wired to the moon with the former doing particularly well in bedding his character’s temperament in a believable personality. It’s a gleefully incendiary turn with a fair dose of humanity to make you feel for him. Lawrence’s character is more extreme in her mania and wasn’t required to play it as close to the ground as Cooper did. She has less screen time than Bale, Cooper, and Adams too but her few scenes are a riot of alcohol-fuelled insecurity-bridging mayhem. Bale, Adams, and Renner have most of the straight acting to do. Adams is genuinely terrific in imbuing her character with a difficult conflict while Renner shows a charming level of humanity in his clever turn. Bale, on the other hand, does nothing short of deliver the best performance in a gangster movie since De Niro’s Jimmy Conway. From his barely noticeable hunch, his biting attitude, his touching concerns, to the intonations in his Bronx accent, he is simply sublime. The plot hinges on his quality and while Russell arguably spreads the story too thin by spending too little time on him, Bale ties it all together with his understated acting manoeuvres. The only other thing as exciting as watching him work is De Niro’s single scene in which he tantalises us with a powerfully intimidating piece of work that recalls the menace of his very best gangster roles.
Russell, Crime, 2013

87.8

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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
John Cassavetes’ crime thriller is as inspired and masterful a contribution to the genre as you’ll find. Imbued with the experimental style of the 70’s and the unique and independent-minded styling of Cassavetes in his directorial prime, it tells the story of a proud strip-club owner who is ordered by the mob to murder a local competitor of theirs in order to square off a debt. Ben Gazzara is phenomenal in the central role bringing a level of improvisation and focus to the role that is comparable to De Niro’s Travis Bickle. It’s powerfully confident turn and it must surely go down as one of the most under-appreciated performances of the 1970’s. It must be pointed out that Gazarra is surrounded by a fine support cast with the highly idiosyncratic and combustible Timothy Carey adding strongly to the spirit of improvisation and unpredictability as the mob’s enforcer. However, it’s the understanding between Gazzara and Cassavetes that allows this film to work. The two seemed perfect for each other in style and sensibility and the latter’s use of the camera and sound is every bit as inspired and unconventional as Gazzara’s acting. Unafraid to let the camera linger, Cassavetes’ focus here becomes the moments in between the lines of dialogue or in between the more overtly dramatic moments. Moreover, the sense of space he evokes and manipulates is palpable and whether it’s through the physical blocking of his actors’ faces as they deliver their lines in order to focus our attention on the reactions of peripheral characters or the angled framing of the main characters’ facial reactions, Cassavetes makes us intimately familiarity with the characters and their dilemmas. And just when you think, it’s going to remain an art house examination of that personal quandary, he throws in some outstandingly captured action that gels perfectly with the subjective perspective he’s built so completely. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a remarkable film even by the 1970’s standards and one that should’ve had a more profound impact on the genre.
Cassavetes, Crime, 1976

87.7

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Strangers on a Train
Hitchcock’s totally original tale of a “criss-cross” murder where one man proposes to take care of another man’s problematic wife if he’ll do the same with his meddlesome father has inspired generations of crime writers and involves some of the cleverest cinematic devices in film history. Farley Granger plays the tennis pro (what was it with Hitchcock and tennis pros?) Guy Haines, who unwittingly enters into the aforementioned pact with Robert Walker’s unusually charming yet quite mad Bruno Antony. Ruth Roman is given less to do compared to typical Hitchcockian female leads but what she is given she does well. Watch out also for the director’s daughter Patricia as her sister. The story may not be the tightest in terms of plot holes but it is utterly captivating and combined with the maestro’s sense of timing and innovation it’s a treat from start to finish.
Hitchcock, Thriller, 1951

87.7

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The Conversation
The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s Sword of Doom.
Coppola, Mystery, 1974

87.7

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Miller’s Crossing
A rare gem of a film that has remained relatively unacknowledged (when compared to more commercially successful Coen brothers films), Miller’s Crossing stands alongside The Big Lebowski as the Coen’s best film to date and indeed as one of the finest examples of its genre whether that be the Gangster or Noir genre. Based loosely on The Glass Key, the film is set during the prohibition era and follows kingmaker Gabriel Byrne in his attempts to play two rival gangs against the middle for reasons that are never entirely clear. This is a film that boasts perfection from all quarters from the acting, the casting, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, to the scoring. Of course, its standout strength is the dialogue which is not only the best example of Coen dialogue but perhaps the most powerful use of dialogue in modern film. The main thrust of the film’s quick and steady pace comes from the lyrical and relentless back and forth between the film’s characters (and in typical Noir fashion, this is usually between Tom and someone else).
Coen, Gangster, 1990

87.7

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The Wicker Man
If one reason why we have been given so few uniquely original films is because derivation is a natural feature of how we think, then film makers such as Robert Hardy and Anthony Shaffer deserve all the more credit for breaking free of our mental shackles and fashioning this dizzyingly novel and utterly enthralling masterpiece. Edward Woodward plays devout Christian Sergeant Howie whose jurisdiction includes some of the outlying islands off the Scottish coast. When he receives word a young girl has gone missing from Summerisle, an isolated island where the inhabitants long ago eschewed their beliefs in Christianity in favour of more ancient pagan ways, Howie heads off to the island in his sea plane. It’s not long before he suspects foul play which he believes is wrapped up in customs that disturb his Christian sensibilities. The Wicker Man is a nuanced film that cleverly and playfully examines the subject of religion by contrasting the island’s traditions with more conventional ways. The action unfolds to Paul Giovanni’s seminal folk soundtrack that sets the film’s tone perhaps better than any other score has done before or since. Recounting the rites of their religion, the songs are otherworldly, feel incredibly authentic, and wondefylly capture their seeming irreverence for things Christianity holds sacred. Such is the calibre of the music, that at many points it feels like we are watching a musical as the island’s inhabitants belt out one pagan number after another with gusto. Hardy’s direction is solid to the hilt and he brings the island and its people to vibrant life like few other horror film makers would choose to do. He almost unassumingly contrasts Summerisle’s perfectly normal features with the abnormal behaviour of the island folk so as to make the island oddly and quite sinisterly inviting. Shaffer’s script is as clever and mature as they come and there isn’t a word out of place. The final jewel in the crown is the acting. Woodward is perfect as the straight-laced and increasingly incredulous sergeant and he is matched every step of the way by Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Lee seemed to intuitively understand the world which Shaffer envisaged and it is through his eloquently delivered speeches that the soul of Summerisle is conveyed to us. It all builds up to one of the most memorable and chilling finales that will leave you fittingly unsettled. Masterful.
Hardy, Horror, 1973

87.6

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Gun Crazy
John Dall and Peggy Cummins star as a husband and wife sharpshooter, turned stick-up team who, piece by piece, unfold a romantic tragedy across the American Midwest. Joseph H. Lewis’s masterpiece was revolutionary for myriad reasons but most notable among the trails it blazed were the technical innovations of the movie’s shooting and its unflinching account of a homicidal woman and her guilt ridden husband. Lewis improvised a number of unique methods with which to stage and capture the various heist sequences including an early use of insert cars and modified camera cars but what stirs most effectively is the simple tale of desire and morality that’s spun at the film’s core. Armed with some heart wrenching dialogue and thrillingly shot set pieces, Gun Crazy ever develops a subtle power as it moves through the reels, so much so that its wonderfully staged finale will linger as long in memory as the outlaw mythology it so deftly taps.
Lewis, Film-Noir, 1950

87.6

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White Heat
”If I turned my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it, there’d be a hole in it.” Raoul Walsh was behind the camera but this firecracker of a film is all about a 50 year old James Cagney proving that he was only reaching his peak. Cagney is insatiable as he eats up the scenery in one of the most charismatic and intimidating of all screen performances. He plays wanted felon Cody Jarrett, the leader of a ruff-neck gang of thieves who only cares about one thing: his mother, an iron willed woman who is as devious and vicious as he is. He ain’t a nice guy, in fact he’s outright mean but you cannot help but weigh in behind him as he and his gang stay one step ahead of the police. Only the introduction of Edmond O’Brien’s character as the police’s inside man keeps the audience on the moral high ground and the dynamic he strikes up with Cagney is perfect. Margaret Wycherly is great as Ma Jarrett and Virginia Mayo scores well as Jarrett’s wife but all fall in the shadow of Cagney’s whirlwind performance which inevitably builds towards one of the most explosive endings in movie history.”Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
Walsh, Crime, 1949

87.6

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The Verdict
Sidney Lumet’s must have felt that having made what is generally regarded as one of the best “court-room” dramas in history without shooting one scene inside the courtroom (12 Angry Men) that he was obliged to at some point, actually make a great court-room drama. Paul Newman stars as the washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser Frank Galvin who sees an opportunity for redemption in a malpractice case which nobody thinks he can win. Lumet perfectly demonstrates how a great director can have the subtle power to imbue even as slow moving a film as this with theme, tone, and meaning as he fully conveys the sense and weight of Galvin’s desperate life. Newman was quite simply never better and he gives one of the truly great acting performances the medium has offered in its long history. With every word, look, and movement we see a depth of decay and self-loathing constantly threatening to consume him but ultimately staved off by the very thing that is bolstering them: his innate decency. Jack Warden is as always pitch perfect in support as Galvin’s old mentor and James Mason and Milo O’Sea do their utmost in helping to sound some of the film’s more menacing tones. This is as satisfying a film as you’ll see which is a feat in itself given it tells an ostensibly depressing story. But it’s to Newman’s and Lumet’s credit that they not only manage to root out the story’s humanity but to also shine such an honest light on it.
Lumet, Drama, 1982

87.6

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The Taking of Pelham 123
The daddy of the 70’s Thriller gives us Walter Matthau’s best performance as the smart talking Subway Transit cop who has to negotiate with the legendary Robert Shaw’s nasty hijacker. This is exactly what a thriller should do. From scene one when that thumping David Shire score (which on its own could have defined the best decade in American cinema) jumps out at you, this movie has you and it keeps you right through to the closing scene. The tension is built up in sublime fashion as Sargent takes his time introducing the various characters and their even bigger personalities. In fact, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect to the movie is watching the various headstrong characters playing off each other (each one a walking, talking force of New York nature) as they each do their bit to solve matters to their own satisfaction. This film directly inspired Tarantino in his writing of Reservoir Dogs, and it’s not difficult to see how as Peter Stone’s screenplay is eaten up by the uniformly splendid cast. And yes, forget about the remake!
Sargent, Thriller, 1974

87.5

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Double Indeminty
One of the most defining movies of its genre, this masterpiece helped teach generations of film-makers how to tell stories. Barbara Stanwyk plays the femme fatale like it had never been done before, darker and more seductive. Fred MacMurray plays the killer (revealed in the first scene – another new trick), the charmed insurance salesman whom Stanwyk convinces to kill her husband for the big pay-off. Stanwyk and MacMurray are perfectly in tune with each other and in retrospect, both performances seem to embody the very essence of what we’ve come to expect from a female and male lead in a film noir. Of course, one shouldn’t forget Edward G Robinson’s endearing turn as the wily insurance investigator, the man MacMurray is attempting to outsmart. Behind the camera, Billy Wilder gives a masterclass in the use of light and shadows but more than anything it is the technique and style of Wilder’s and Raymond Chandlers story-telling that blazed such a magnificent cinematic trail. The structure of the story opened up all sorts of new and fascinating exposition while the dialogue is outright sizzling. The barrage of quick and slick back and forths seems to almost hypnotise the audience and like the very best film-noir it carries the audience through the picture at a unrelenting pace. Unmissable.
Wilder, Film-Noir, 1944

87.5

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Point Break
One of the most underrated action movies of the 90’s and one of the very best action films of any era this is a white-knuckle ride from the first scene to the last. Keanu Reeves (in one of his best roles to date) plays the FBI agent Johnny Utah who goes undercover to infiltrate a gang of surfing bank robbers while Patrick Swayze (in arguably his finest performance) plays the magnetic Bodhi whose addiction to life on the edge is as compelling to those around him as it is dangerous. The chemistry between all concnerned is fantastic as is the cinematography and the rip-roaring soundtrack which is excellently counter-weighted by Mark Isham’s serene score. The surfing-bank robbery angle might sound like a cheesy premise but it provides the platform for some of the coolest action going as Katheryn Bigelow proves long before the Hurt Locker that she had the chops for action. High points include the first bank robbery which became the template for all later bank robbery scenes (even masterpieces such as Heat took their cues from it), the sky-diving scenes which have yet to be outdone to this day (even by dedicated sky-diving films), and best of all that foot-chase which goes down as one of the most outstandingly realistic chase scenes in screen history. “Little hand says it’s time to rock & roll!”
Bigelow, Action, 1991

87.5

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MASH
Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour.
Altman, Satire, 1970

87.4

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Anatomy of a Murder
Anatomy of a Murder is a near flawless courtroom drama infused with lashings of charm and the most delicate touches of wit. James Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, the former district attorney of a sleepy Michigan town, who elects to represent the defendant in a murder trial involving the possible rape of a woman and the reprisal of her army lieutenant husband. Bemused by the inherent duplicity of both the alleged victim (Lee Remick) and her husband (Ben Gazzara) and eager to pay the bills, Biegler sets about constructing his defence. As the case wears on, the drama shifts increasingly towards the courtroom where he, the opposing district attorney, and a specialist prosecutor sent down from Washington D.C. (George C. Scott) engage in one clever duel after another. Otto Preminger’s directorial class is all over Anatomy of a Murder. At 160 minutes, it should be a long watch but it never feels that way. The movie glides along from scene to scene as Duke Ellingtons jazzy score spirals in the background. The soft charm, cutting humour, and darker themes of jealousy and vengeance are seamlessly realised and, at all times, they are working towards the same end. The acting is pitch perfect from all concerned with Stewart and Gazzara excelling in parts that were fully complemented by their own unique charm and charisma. Remick is a delight as the mischievous party girl and Scott adds his usual commanding presence. Wendell Mayes screenplay (adapted from John D. Voelker’s book) is of course the most powerful feature of the film and whether it be its sublime capturing of legal procedure and etiquette or its even more impressive ambiguity when it comes to Remick and Gazzara’s characters, it drives the tone of the film more than any other feature.
Preminger, Drama, 1959

87.4

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
This superb adaptation of John le Carré’s novel ranks as one of the great spy thrillers if not the best of the lot. It also gave Richard Burton perhaps his finest ever role as Alec Leamas, a British spy charged with bringing down the chief of East Germany’s spy network during the height of the cold war. To say more about the plot would take away from the effect its intricate construction has on the audience. Suffice to say the story favours intelligence, intrigue, and psychology over the type of action and explosions which the majority of spy features have unfortunately placed a premium on. Opening with a languid tracking shot which poignantly mirrors the tiring strain of the cold war and the machinations of its soldiers, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold sets its stall out as a slow burning examination of the loneliness of a life in the shadows of Cold War Europe. The earlier parts of the film are set in London and infused as they are with the distinctive grey-glitz contrast of the city during the 1960’s, it’s a visually striking film with some truly memorable sequences. Director Martin Ritt uses each of these to obfuscate the drama that is unfolding and when combined with the slow build up and its deviously clever dialogue, a lot of things seem to happen without it looking that way. Burton’s Leamus seems to embody this pace and atmosphere more than any other character to the extent that his various personas bleed into one another leaving the audience wondering when his character is putting on an act or not. From the point of view of a le Carré novel, this central ambiguity is essential and every bit as intuitive as Gary Oldman’s recent turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The familiar support players from le Carré’s novels are all present with Cyril Cusack giving us an interesting and layered take on Control. Claire Bloom is outstanding as the love interest and Oskar Werner makes for a compelling East German spy master. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a bleakly shot and acted film steeped in the grim paranoia of the times and so, hugely effective as a cold war vehicle. Through Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper’s elegant screenplay and le Carré’s unique insight into the phenomenon, it not only functions as a first rate thriller but it also provides an interesting comment on the perversion of the motives and the philosophies of the various nations involved in the cold war. Few films manage to achieve such a balance.
Ritt, Thriller, 1965

87.4

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North by Northwest
One of Hitchcock’s funnier thrillers and certainly one of his most epic, North by Northwest is an exquisitely shot and expertly paced thriller which ticks all the boxes. Cary Grant has never been wittier and commands the screen in his own inimitable way. He stars as a wealthy businessman mistaken for a spy by secret group who get him mixed up in the assassination of a UN diplomat. Eva Marie Saint is perfect as the mysterious female and James Mason is typically nefarious. The action sequences have gone down as some of the most memorable in history for many reasons but none more important than their choreography and cinematography. All in all, this is a sweeping tale that will keep you enthralled no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Hitchcock, Mystery, 1959

87.4

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A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s sci-fi classic is a truly phenomenal achievement. Rarely has the spirit of a science fiction novel been captured so completely and impressively in film form as Linklater does here. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover police officer in a Los Angeles of the not too distant future. So as not to reveal his identity even to his co-workers he wears a scramble suit, a suit that prevents people from seeing his real identity. Thus, the only time Arctor is seen in the flesh is when he’s undercover and given that he’s playing a junkie strung out on the mind-bending substance D, the stage is set for one hell of an existential crisis. Dick mined this fascinating premise for all it was worth and it’s fair to say that Linklater got every bit of the quickly deteriorating yet seductive world of Bob Artcor down on film. Choosing to digitally rotoscope the entire feature was a master stroke and the quality of the work is extraordinary. Reeves is very good as the slipping Arctor, a role that couldn’t have been easy to conceptualise let alone play while Robert Downey Jr. clearly loved every minute of playing the role of Arctor’s untrustworthy accomplice. Winona Ryder and Woody Harrelson round off the primary cast nicely in different but equally complementary ways. However, A Scanner Darkly is all about Dick & Linklater in what must be the best adaptation of the former’s work since Blade Runner.
Linklater, Sci-Fi, 2006

87.3

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My Darling Clementine
Few if any directors had an eye for scene composition and linearity like the master John Ford had and this here classic is about as good an example of it as you will find. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play the legendary duo of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday who along with Virgil (Tim Holt) and Morgan (Ford regular Ward Bond) Earp get drawn into a blood feud with the nasty Clanton clan. That genial old soul, Walter Brennan, plays their murderous patriarch is just one of several factors that makes Ford’s treatment of Earp’s time in Tombstone arguably the most memorable of the lot. Another is Fonda who compliments his oak exterior with all manner of playfulness that gives the Old West legend a genuine humanity and, with that, the edge on the likes of Russell or Costner (to name but a few). Mature didn’t always seem comfortable in his acting skin but he too counts as one of Ford’s aces as he captures the contradictory mystique of his character with presence and pathos alike. Holt and Bond are nothing more than bit players but Linda Darnell turns in a typically brash performance that further embellishes the movie’s emotional quotient. They’re all aided considerably by Samuel G. Engels’ script which is a veritable peach of mouth watering turns of phrase but, also, seems a little conflicted in how it incorporates the titular Clementine into a plot that inevitably builds towards the showdown at the OK Corral.
Ford, Western, 1946

87.3

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The Lives of Others
The story focuses on the actions of two romantically involved artists and the Stasi operative, Wiesler, assigned to monitor them, ostensibly for subversive activities but, in reality, because the woman is coveted by a lecherous minister who wants the man out of the way. As Wiesler’s superiors place increasing pressure on him to produce results, the once dedicated professional begins to see the ugliness of his duties (and of his state’s regime) reflected most powerfully in the couples passion for the arts and his superiors’ repeated threats to strip them of their rights to continue pursuing it. There’s not a step missed here. The spartan set and costume design elegantly captures the essence of state oppression with much of the dialogue outside of the couple’s apartment working to the same end in parallel. Only in the apartment, through the cables of the listening devices, and in the face of Wiesler as he listens above does the warmth of human emotion fully reveal itself. While the production design and writing work a treat in tandem so do the directing and acting as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck captures and quietly amplifies every flicker of emotion the sterling cast convey. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are superb in the role of the persecuted artists while Ulrich Mühe is just spellbinding as the even more tragic Wiesler.
Donnersmarck, Thriller, 2006

87.3

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The Big Sleep
Howard Hawks’ noir classic has Humprey Bogart taking on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in a blackmail case involving a wealthy retired army general, his two unruly daughters, mobsters, pornographers, and a host of other characters. If it sounds complicated, it is and if you miss a word you risk being lost for the rest of the film. But in this age of dumbed down blockbusters it’s very refreshing to find a film that makes you work to keep up. Bogart is brilliant as ever and Lauren Bacall is outstanding as the ambiguously motivated daughter. Hawks puts all this together skilfully and together with Bogart they build one of cinema’s most iconic characters, a character that became the template for many later Hollywood heroes.
Hawks, Film-Noir, 1946

87.3

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Dawn of the Dead
Arguably as good as its legendary predecessor and that’s all the more impressive given that it goes in a different direction story-wise. Not content to rehash the first film’s plot like so many modern sequels, George A. Romero expands on the concept and establishes a universe for a franchise that seemed to be about much more than just making money. Dawn of the Dead picks up some time after where Night left off, when the zombie threat has become widespread and cities are been overrun. Two SWAT cops hook up with a fleeing news helicopter pilot and his pregnant girlfriend and together the four of them occupy a shopping mall which they proceed to make their home. Romero takes a far more tongue in cheek approach than in Night but it only adds to the social commentary and enjoyment factors. The action is upscaled too resulting in some great concept scenes such as the one with the travelling hordes of bikers (which George Miller may or may not have taken noted of when making Mad Max a year later). And as if that wasn’t enough, Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger as the two SWAT guys form what must be one of the (if not the) coolest on-screen duos as their fearless and enthusiastic attitude towards zombie killing infects (some pun intended) the film with an irrepressible sense of fun. In Dawn of the Dead, Romero continues to harness his unorthodox writing and directorial style resulting in a thoroughly unique film experience. Don’t miss it because you’ll not see anything else like it. Like most of Romero’s other work, it is the essence of independent cinema.
Romero, Horror, 1978

87.2

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Zulu
Cy Endfield’s impressive account of the battle of Rorke’s Drift where 100 british soldiers stood up against thousands of Zulu warriors and held their position. Michael Caine is excellent as the privileged and somewhat effete Lt. Bromhead who must cede authority to Stanley Baker’s more dynamic Lt. Chard. The film is defined by the steadily built tension of the battle scenes and long interludes of boredom that came between them. Baker is a stoic lead and there’s a litany of decent journeymen who fill out the rest of the cast admirably. The battle sequences are extremely good and even stand up by today’s standards. No flashy cuts or ridiculously close close-ups. Just plain old-fashioned choreography and camerawork. Speaking of the latter, Zulu’s true distinguishing feature is Stephen Dade’s glorious cinematography which is amongst the most spectacular ever to grace a war movie.
Endfield, War, 1964

87.1

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Chinatown
Polanski’s masterpiece sees Jack Nicholson’s private eye becoming embroiled in a conspiracy involving a wealthy widow, her father, and the water department. Nicholson is nothing short of brilliant as Jake Gittes and it remains his greatest performance. Dunaway is also superb as the woman with the secret while Huston is immense as the grotesque Noah Cross. The real star here though is the director. Like all great film-noir, this film is at the same time both eminently watchable and deeply dark. The film seduces the audience with its palette of soft colours, its sumptuous set and costume design, and the cutting repartee of its protagonists so much so that we barely notice the growing stain until we are faced with it in its entirety. Noir has always been about achieving such balance between the seductive and the dark and Polanski does so well in this regard that Chinatown lingers longer than most.
Polanski, Film-Noir, 1974

87

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12 Angry Men
“You’re like everybody else. You think too much and get mixed up”. Few films manage to get to the truth of things like 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Inherit the Wind and it’s a shame those few exceptions are all from half a century ago. The premise is well known now: twelve white male jurors all sitting in a sweaty room debating whether a young man from the wrong side of the tracks is guilty of killing his father. Writer Reginald Rose and a 34 year old Sidney Lumet cleverly use the context to expose the varied prejudices which humans bring to bear on the world and the result is an insightful analysis of truth, perception, and moral fortitude. Henry Fonda is exquisite as the brave conscience of the twelve but there isn’t one of them (Lee J. Cobb and Martin Balsam especially) who doesn’t pull out all the stops. The standout performer here however his Lumet who rewrote the directors manual with the methods and devices he used to generate that sense of anticipation in the earlier scenes and to manipulate the tension throughout. Cinematic gold.
Lumet, Drama, 1957

86.9

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Samurai Rebellion
Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion is a lesser known feature from the jidaigeki genre but one of its most impressive examples. Set in the 1700’s, it tells the story of a dutiful vassal Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune) who has spent his life obeying both his objectionable wife and his clan’s elders for peace and quiet. As the most accomplished swordsman in his lord’s fief, he gets his small pleasures in life from discussing martial arts with his friend (and closely matched rival) played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Things change when his son is ordered to marry one of his lord’s former ladies, Ichi. Although, reluctant at first, things go well as his son and new daughter-in-law develop a proper bond and give him his first grandchild. However, when the lord demands the return of his daughter-in-law, he decides he and his family have taken enough and refuses to send her back. Things inevitably come to a head and a mighty showdown ensues between his clan and the lord’s men. The story is a remarkable one and even more remarkable is how seldom we have seen it anywhere given its obviously compelling and universal themes. It brings the best out in all the actors and truthfully this is one of Mifune’s best performances, even if it is less explosive than some of his more famous roles. It’s also a slow burner as the first 90 minutes are spent building the pretext for the action that is to come. When it does come, we are not disappointed however, as Samurai Rebellion offers up some extraordinary action choreography and direction. Another standout strength of the film is the cinematography and lighting which really comes to the fore in the scenes involving emotional drama or physical combat (two scenes in particular to look out for are the moment when Ichi is grilled by the clan’s elders and the final showdown as Isaburo hunts down the musketeers in the meadow). In many ways, Samurai Rebellion is a spectacular film. The actors are perfectly in sync with the directors’ immaculate pacing and as good as Mifune and Nakadai are, they are well matched by Gô Katô as Isaburo’s son and Yôko Tsukasa as Ichi. Above all, it is the heart-rendering story of love, family, strength, and courage which we remember best as this is one film that can be appreciated by fans of any genre and by people of any nation.
Kobayashi, Jidaigeki, 1967

86.8

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Seven Days in May
John Frankenheimer was a director of some renown but given the consistent quality of his work across a variety of genres over the course of five decades, he really should be better appreciated. That he made three of the very best films of the 1960’s in the space of three years is an emphatic testament to this. In 1962 he gave us perhaps the greatest Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, and two years later (right before he gave us The Train) he followed that up with a film that could rival The Manchurian Candidate for that title. Seven Days in May is a sweeping hair raiser that follows the efforts of the President of the United States, his closest advisors, and a Marine Corps Pentagon-based colonel to investigate the possibility of and, if necessary, expose a high level military conspiracy to overthrow the government for its left wing stance on US-Soviet disarmament. That the conspiracy seems to be led by a people’s hero, a four star general with strong right wing tendencies and a megalomania complex, makes matters all the more tricky as the investigation requires negotiating their way through fanatically loyal military brass and equally right leaning members of congress. The plot (adapted from Fletcher Kneble and Charles W. Bailey II’s novel) is rich with clever intrigue and set up impeccably against Frankenheimer’s clean black and white canvas which is further embellished with and a luscious balancing of key and fill lighting. It’s speared forward primarily through its beefy dialogue which is strengthened all the more by the fact that a host of the era’s great scene stealers are responsible for its delivery. Kirk Douglas is his usual mix of professionalism and presence as the honourable colonel who cannot tolerate what he sees as an overreach by his superiors. Frederic March gets to the core of his character’s predicament showing just enough strength and vulnerability. As you’d expect, Martin Balsam, Edmond O’Brien, and George Macready add substantially to the tone of the film as the presidents’ team who head out to investigate the different elements of the mystery. However, it’s probably fair to say Burt Lancaster’s power mad general dominates the movie. Lancaster had an ability to be truly intimidating when he wanted as his portrayal of J.J. Hensecker in Sweet Smell of Success demonstrated and the controlled menace he shows in this film is scintillating. If there’s one regret regarding his turn in Seven Days in May, it’s that he never got to share the screen again with Ava Gardner (his co-star from The Killers – that also starred O’Brien) who plays the jilted lover and potential threat to his reputation. In truth, the scope of the film doesn’t really allow for such indulgence. There’s a controlled but persistent energy to this film as the action skips relentlessly and with a knife-edge like tension between the White House, The Pentagon, aircraft carriers, military bases, congress, and dark alleys. The result is a movie that is the very definition of a thriller and graced as it is with pure class from the acting, writing, directing to Jerry Goldsmith’s low key but suitably paranoid score and that it taps a subject that kept audiences of its time in a state of dull fear, it’s easily one of the most arresting too.
Frankenheimer, Thriller, 1964

86.7

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Key Largo
John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall teamed up again to great effect for this film-noir classic set in the stormy Florida Keys. Bogart plays a retired army major who pays a visit to the wife (Bacall) and father of one of his men who was killed in action. Not long into his visit, he soon realises he has stumbled into a criminal caper involving a nefarious mob boss played with relish by Edward G. Robinson. Robinson is electric and his sinister performance paints a dark streak through the core of this picture. Bogart dials down his usual level of charisma to play a more understated but also more ambiguous good guy. It makes for some fascinating showdowns between Bogart and the surly bad guys as they attempt to out-manoeuvre each other. The more captivating of these showdowns come of course when Bogart and Robinson (whose characters reside at opposite ends of the ego dimension) lock horns. For her part, Bacall is as engaging as ever and makes use of her character’s more peripheral relevance. The script is lusciously dark and penned by the legendary Richard Brooks and Huston, it’s not difficult to see why. Huston’s introduction of the various characters is tantalising and in the case of Robinson coldly chilling. Furthermore, his use of the approach, presence, and aftermath of the tropical storm to evoke the varying tensions of the story creates an intuitively seductive atmosphere and combined with some hugely impressive lighting and that wonderful Max Steiner score, Key Largo becomes one of the most distinctive films noirs.
Huston, Film-Noir, 1948

86.7

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Escape from New York
John Carpenter’s (partly) tongue-in-cheek, seminal sci-fi classic is set in the not too distant future (in fact it’s come and gone) when New York has been turned into an island prison run by the inmates and plagued by all sorts of horrors such as marauding gangs of underground cannibals and people with awful fashion sense. Kurt Russell plays the iconic Snake Plissken, war hero turned criminal, who is given the opportunity to escape life on the island if he rescues the President whose plane has just crash landed there. Punk sci-fi might seem dated now but it was in movies like this and Mad Max where it crept into our subconscious. Carpenter was always an expert at giving his films an off-kilter feel and this is wonderfully realised here. The extraordinary set-design along with the miniature modelling and matte painting of New York all combine to feed this sense of other-worldliness and the result is a film unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. The film also plays well on cinematic stereotypes with Russell’s performance in particular being a delicious nod to those conventions that are closest to our hearts. There are many straight-up funny moments thanks primarily to Plissken’s no-nonsense/no-patience demeanour but Donald Pleasance and the great Ernest Borgnine are also a howl. The support players in general are brilliant and how great was it to see Lee van Cleef given another dose of scenery to chew on? Escape from New York is classic Carpenter. The palpable attitude, the way it all plays out so unorthodoxly, according to its own rules. It’s much more than a movie built around a great antihero as the film’s architecture reflects Snake’s personality on a grander scale. In the same way that there are superhero movies, Escape From New York is an antihero movie. In fact, it’s *the* antihero movie. Critics of this movie almost invariably bemoan the absence of the formulaic signature gloss of modern Hollywood pictures, claiming there are too many moments and incidents irrelevant to the plot (talk about not getting the point and behaving like a child watching a cartoon!). These are the concerns of the movie-going consumer zombie who (by lining up for one Hollywood dross-fest after another) is responsible for the decline of the industry into remake purgatory and reboot hell. The simple fact is that movies, at their essence, are about imagination and originality and Escape from New York is a testament to that ideal.
Carpenter, Sci-Fi, 1981

86.5

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The Princess Bride
True fairy tales should be completely immune to cynicism and The Princess Bride comes as close to this standard as any modern story. Full of all the classic themes of romance, adventure, revenge, and compassion director Rob Reiner and writer William Goldsmith serve up a tale that has universal resonance. On top of which, there are layers of rich humour which meet the most mature sensibilities ensuring this story can be adored by children and adults alike. The film begins as a young Fred Savage sits in bed recovering from a cold as his grandfather Peter Falk reads him the story of The Princess Bride. From that point on, the film swings softly and seamlessly between the world of Princess Buttercup and the boy’s bedroom where grandfather and grandson engage in some well timed relief and low key meta-analytical repartee. The true strength of the story within the story is the characters and from the first moment of entering this world, we are beguiled by an array of original, quirky, and instantly memorable characters each reflecting one of the many universal themes Goldsmith’s tales visits. Robin Wright’s Buttercup is exquisite in appearance and demeanour alike while Cary Elwes is as dashing a hero as any. He is fantastic in a role that required everything from romantic whimsy to intricate fencing. He’s even responsible for some outstanding physical humour towards the end. Chris Sarandon is suitably boo-hissable as the evil king and there are a host of top names from the US and British comedy worlds all perfectly placed and bang on form. Undoubtedly however, the most memorable character is Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya on a life long quest to avenge the murder of his father. His performance is just perfect and he gives his character’s quest a real touch of immortality as he draws on the honour and passion inherent in his character’s arc to sublime effect. In truth, there’s not one person involved in the cast or crew that isn’t on top of their game here. However, Reiner’s almost zen like direction and Goldman’s magical yet efficient script deserve special mention. The story moves forward with a soft yet unfaltering momentum as if every frame and scene was abundantly obvious to Reiner before he shot it and every twist and turn in the story to Goldman before he wrote it. And it does this all the while shifting between drama, action, and moments of timeless humour and also between the world of the princess bride and the young boy whose grandfather is reading him the story. The Princess Bride is a near miracle of a movie and it will stay with you forever no matter what age you are when you first see it.
Reiner, Fantasy, 1987

86.5

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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
One of the most exhilarating movie going experiences, Weir’s adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novels is a breathtaking adventure of tactical warfare set on the high seas of the early 1800′s. Russell Crowe is magnificent as Captain Aubrey, a well learned and seasoned battle commander who must balance his concern for his men, his duty to his country, and his respect for his closest friend with his mile-long competitive streak. Sailing off South America, his HMS Surprise becomes embroiled in a game of cat-and-mouse with a heavily armed French frigate whose Captain initially proves more than a match for Aubrey. Aubrey’s friendship with the ship’s surgeon (played wonderfully by Paul Bettany) is the backbone of the story and it adds sincere touches of poignancy to the two and a half hour long pursuit. Director Peter Weir, perhaps the most consistently great director of the past 30 years, redefines this outmoded genre into something more explosive than even most sci-fi flicks offer. Although the choreography of the battle scenes is astonishing, it’s the battle of wits which proves most compelling in Master and Commander, as Aubrey finally meets and must out-think an enemy as crafty as he is.
Weir, Adventure, 2003

86.4

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Spartacus
One of the great sword and sandal epics has Kirk Douglas playing the rebel gladiator who unites the slaves of the Roman Empire in revolt and, after defeating their best legions, drives his army towards the sea and the freedom which lies beyond. The key to this film’s success is the impeccable intertwining of the three tales at its heart. The first concerns the relationship between Douglas and Jean Simmons through which the themes of freedom and courage are most powerfully realised. In this regard, Douglas is at his best, creating in his Spartacus a strong and passionate individual who places the simple joys of a free life above all else. Simmons puts in a measured but lasting performance which reflects that same calibre of strength and Kubrick gives their scenes all the time in the world to breathe. The second story is one of political intrigue and concerns the battle of wits which Charles Laughton’s wise and erudite Senator Gracchus must fight with Laurence Olivier’s ruthless but fiercely perceptive General Crassus. Set against the marbled splendour of ancient Rome (brought to life through the combination of some awesome production design and matte effects), this strand of the film is perhaps the most universally engaging thanks largely to the rich talents of both Laughton and Olivier. It’s not surprising Kubrick kept them apart for much of the film because so big and encompassing are their performances, it would have been a shame to negate one with the other. Not only does Kubrick also give these players considerable space to work their magic but he magnifies that power by softening the pace of their scenes to a seductive lull. Then blacklisted writer (credit Douglas with demanding he be brought on) Dalton Trumbo’s subtle and layered script comes into its own during these sequences with the Olivier and Tony Curtis bathing scene being particularly clever. The final story told is the broader tale of tactics and logistics in which the slave and Roman armies do battle. Here, Kubrick uses every second of the astoundingly choreographed battle sequences to amplify the passion and drive which the slaves’ self-determination fosters and weighs it fairly against both the cold and inspiring certainty of fate. In doing so, he gives those last twenty minutes an immortal quality which few films have managed to close on and sets the scene for one of the most iconic lines in all of cinema. All together now…..
Kubrick, War, 1960

86.2

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Leon: The Professional
Jean Reno plays the social recluse yet stone cold hit man that cleans up for the mob whenever they need something done right. Natalie Portman, in her feature debut, plays the young girl who he takes in after her family are killed by the utterly deranged Gary Oldman and his corrupt DEA unit. Along with Grosse Pointe Blank, Leon is the best film to deal with subject matter of the hit man. While there are many lighthearted moments to Leon they are counterweighted with scenes of powerful emotion and stark violence. Besson brings his unique brand of cool to the film as he crafts one sensational action sequence after another culminating in one of the most spectacularly conceived shoot-outs in cinema history. Rarely do you get so many great performances in one film either but Reno, Portman, and Oldman are all sublime with Oldman’s drug-fuelled and Beethoven obsessed madman ranking as one of the all time great movie villains.
Besson, Crime, 1994

86.2

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The Deer Hunter
The opening hour to Michael Cimino’s masterpiece is as real as life gets. Six young steelworkers from a small industrial town living it up for one last weekend of drunken mayhem and their ritual hunting before three of them head off to the Vietnam war. In this hour, we see both Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken giving searing performances that lay the groundwork for what is to come and the way in which Cimino switches to that darker war torn world almost in the blink of an eye is surely one of the most profound and punctuating of cinematic statements. Cimino’s craft in this film is all about pacing and trust in his actors and, with a cast that includes De Niro, Walken, John Cazale, and Meryl Streep the pay off was enormous. De Niro is as captivating as it gets and the film hangs on his shoulders. But none of the actors operating underneath him miss a step. The war scenes are few but so visceral and powerful are they that they will be with you forever. And just when you think it can’t get any better, it goes and ties everything together with one of the most poignant film endings.
Cimino, War, 1978

86.1

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Batman Returns
It’s too bad that Christopher Nolan’s overhyped Batman films have given a whole new generation of kids the wrong impression on what to expect from a Batman film. Nolan attempted to bring Batman into the real world by asking the question: what if there really were superheroes? This is laudable, though not original, and there’s no doubt that Nolan does it well (ok, in The Dark Knight he did it well). But in the final analysis, the very idea of a Batman is cartoonish, unrealistic, and from the point of view of the real world – just plain silly. As such, the idea of Batman is best explored in a comic book film. That is, a film where the world and its inhabitants are caricatured. That’s crucial because a caricature would never dream about questioning the validity of a man who dresses up as a bat because in his exaggerated world, where the laws of logic only tenuously apply, Batman makes perfect sense. A more realistic character, however, would laugh himself silly if a man dressed up as a bat took it upon himself to start fighting criminals. Burton understood this but he also understood the yearning for Batman (the most serious of superheroes) to be a little more gritty and real than the rest of the bright-tight wearing lot. And in attempting to be true to both ideals, he gave us the two most spellbinding superhero films ever. Batman is a tour-de-force of production design, direction, acting, and in particular screenwriting. Batman Returns doesn’t have the masterfully lyrical dialogue of its predecessor but it does have a more mature and sombre screenplay. Its main characters (Batman, Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shreck) are fascinatingly realised and brilliantly performed and Danny Elfman’s score is a darker and more seductive version of his seminal 1989 score. Where Batman Returns exceeds the quality of that first film is in Burton’s sublimely executed vision. Batman Returns is quite simply one of the most visually stunning films ever made, a film which is immersed in the expressionism genre where set-design, darkness, and shadow take on a life of their own. However, Burton goes one step further by marrying this expressionism with the comic-book genre in as honest and as uncompromising a manner possible. Thus, the bright colours of the Penguin’s circus army and giant plastic duck mobile and the gaudy decor of Max Shreck’s office are set against the impossibly black background of Gotham city to tremendous effect. One will be utterly spellbound if they let themselves take in what Burton serves up here. Thankfully, the story has the legs to compete with this visual spectacle mainly thanks to the quality of the characters and actors on show. Danny De Vito is perfect as the maniacal Penguin, and Christopher Walken gives us perhaps the most enjoyable comic book villain this side of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Michael Keaton is superb as Bruce Wayne and Batman both, balancing the different sides to his character with aplomb. His is easily the most spot-on depiction of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego in the increasingly long list of actors who have played him. The show stopper is of course Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. She is simply incredible as the feline killer blinded by mad rage and that moment when she, Batman, and the Penguin finally meet is not just a testament to her presence but to the quality of the entire project for in that moment we have the essence of Batman Returns. Boom!
Burton, Fantasy, 1992

86

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Aliens
The last survivor of the Nostromo, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), is found drifting in space after 57 years of hypersleep. Her account of what happened naturally makes the powers that be curious so they quickly order the colonists of the now populated planet to check out the co-ordinates where Ripley reported to have located the crashed spacecraft. When things inevitably go bad, Ripley is sent to the planet with a team of hi-tech marines to exterminate the alien threat. In taking on the unenviable task of creating a sequel to Ridely Scott’s original sci-fi classic, James Cameron pulls a masterstroke by bringing the premise firmly into the action genre. The result is a qualitatively different film to the original, allowing for a whole raft of new ideas to be explored. As is typical with all Cameron’s films, Aliens looks amazing. The set-design, the special effects, and the creature effects (Stan Winston – who else) are extremely impressive and are as good as anything you’ll see today. The chemistry between the various actors is splendid as are the performances themselves. Cameron regulars Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, and Lance Henriksen are all present and in top form. So is Weaver who, in this film, confirmed Ripley as the most interesting and authentic of all screen heroines. The dialogue is tight and tech-savvy and the tension is built perfectly through Cameron’s expert direction. Of course, the stand-out strength of this film is the action and Cameron again uses the science-fiction context to raise the stakes and create imaginative new ways to capture the audience’s fascination. He also takes his time building up to said action which makes it all the more rewarding when it finally gets going. It’s a testament to Cameron and co. that when all is said and done, Aliens will remain not just one of the best sci-fi films of all time, but also one of the best horror and action films of all time.
Cameron, Sci-Fi, 1986

85.8

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Goodfellas
Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster film dramatises the true-life story of Henry Hill (played wonderfully by Ray Liotta) who together with his mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and long-time accomplice Tommy (Joe Pesci), rise through the ranks of the Mafia as “Goodfellas”. Goodfellas’ major strength is how well it makes the viewer feel part of the world the mobsters live in. The film spans from the late 1950’s to the late 1980’s and Scorsese’s use of time-specific music (together with the immaculate set and costume design) transports the audience to whatever decade the action is taking place in. This is helped by the realness of the characters which are brought to life through Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese’s deeply insightful script and the utterly sublime acting from all concerned. Pesci’s incendiary performance as the utterly unhinged Tommy typically gets all the plaudits but he is matched by Liotta, De Niro, and Lorraine Bracco as Hill’s wife. In fact, one could argue that Liotta and Bracco’s performances are those with the most depth and range and on top of that they work spectacularly well together on screen. In addition to telling a great story, Goodfellas is also great fun to watch as all of Scorsese’s visual flourishes are on screen from the skip-framed shots of the Billy Batts hit to the renowned tracking shot of Liotta and Bracco entering the Copa. Goodfellas is a modern masterpiece of storytelling and film innovation that you will find yourself going back to time and time again.
Scorsese, Gangster, 1990

85.8

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Patton
Franklin J. Schaffner’s account of Patton’s effect on the African and European Theatre of operations during World War II is a gripping watch replete with iconic imagery. The great general is played by George C. Scott whose extraordinary performance exudes all the charisma and boundless confidence which has come to define the enigmatic US general. From the opening scene as Patton stands in front of a gigantic stars and stripes dictating his philosophy on the American soldier to his denouement, Scott draws the audience towards him with gravitas and ease. It’s a multi-sided performance too as we get to see the humour, the courage, the intellect, the ambition, as well as the viciousness that defined the man’s reputation since he rose to the media’s attention. How much of it is true, we’ll probably never know but you couldn’t ask for a better character to build a war movie around. Furthermore, Scott and director Franklin Schaffner seemed the perfect duo to get the most out of it. Schaffner continuously found all sorts of new settings, shots, and scenarios to convey the regal poise of Patton with the scene in which Patton is driven from Morocco to take command of the U.S. II Corps being a particularly impressive example of such. The battle sequences themselves are hugely impressive and because the audience are never brought down into the nitty-gritty of each battle, they play out on a uniquely broad cinematic dimension. This makes them all the more fascinating as the tactics which Patton used can be glimpsed with enough satisfaction to deepen our interest in the man. In a film such as this, support players can become less relevant but Karl Malden’s General Bradley offers a nice counter-point to the eccentric general. Patton has all the epic hallmarks of the great WWII movies but by building the action around such a powerful personality it goes beyond those movies and gives the audience something or someone they can tie in with with no trouble at all.
Schaffner, War, 1970

85.8

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Stalag 17
It’s not easy to combine comedy with drama, especially drama tinted with dark themes but with films like The Apartment and Stalag 17, Billy Wilder did it with ease. Stalag 17 focuses on the American POW’s of a German WWII prison camp, as they attempt to make the best of their squalor in between escape attempts. William Holden’s Sgt Sefton is the black sheep of the bunch, a man whose shrewd and self-motivated trading has allowed him to live in relative luxury only to garner the envy of the other men and even suspicion of being an informer. Wilder and co-writer Edwin Bloom find much humour in the tribulations of the men with the excellently realised buffoonery of Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck’s double act being their primary source. Stalag 17 progresses as a series of loosely connected but amusing episodes until retribution against Sefton’s perceived treachery sets him on a road to revenge. Holden gets his enigmatic character just right and in doing so becomes Wilder’s reflective surface for some well weighted commentary. It’s through Sefton that Wilder reveals his interesting take on the hero construct within the context of restrictions typical to the scenario. While the other prisoners both poke and have fun with their German captors and while the latter are portrayed as a bunch of near genial but harsh taskmasters, it’s Sefton’s cold cynicism which laterally reminds us of the darker tones to WWII. This is subtle and by no means the main thematic thrust to a movie that is more interested in the camaraderie of men at war. Instead, Wilder frames this classic around the touching and peaceful acceptance of life in harsh circumstances but thanks to its confidently handled humour and Holden’s crucible, it’s never smothered by those more positive observations. The result is a multi-layered comedy drama that steels the soul as much as tends to it.
Wilder, War, 1953

85.8

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Mad Max
The movie that raised the stakes on all car-chase films by giving us one visceral and frenetic chase after another on the open roads of a futuristic Australian outback. The original of the franchise is not as relentless as the second in terms of its pace and savagery but it is more subtly disturbing in how it portrays the breakdown of law and order. In fact there are few post-apocalyptic movies that have matched writer/director George Miller and co-writer James McCausland’s startlingly obtuse conception of the future. The mannerisms and dialogue of the nomadic bikers, the tattered remnants of the legal system, and the breathless momentum of the action all combine to give one an utterly gripping sense of a desolate future. But like Kubrick did in A Clockwork Orange, it’s how they tie all this to what we would recognise as the modern world that makes it feel so authentic and thus so disturbing. On top of that, Miller also wonderfully juxtaposes the chaos of the roads with the sanity and calm of Max’s family. All of this is crucial as it roots Max (and the subsequent more frenetic world of the Road Warrior) in an all too credible world. Mel Gibson has never been better as the rogue cop who ultimately takes to the road in his bloody pursuit of revenge. Hugh Keays-Byrne on the other hand provides one of the more memorable and interesting bad-guys as Toecutter. It may be much more of a slow burner than its successors but Mad Max never disappoints because once it gets going it doesn’t stop as Max races 150mph straight into the Road Warrior.
Miller, Sci-Fi, 1979

85.8

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Nightcrawler
Movies that tread new ground are a rare breed these days but Dan Gilroy’s grimy psychological thriller gets neck deep in a premise, plot, and movie perspective that’s unlike anything we’ve really seen before. Jake Gyllenhaal headlines as Louis Bloom, a degenerate dork looking for a vocation in which he can shine not to mention make a quick buck. Happening by a late night accident, he rapidly immerses himself in the world of sensational nighttime news and places himself at its forefront by videotaping crimes, accidents, and anything that bleeds and delivering them to Rene Russo’s desperate news director fresh off the blood-soaked pavement. Nightcrawler introduces us to one unsavoury character after another but each are rooted in a desperate need that makes their wretched deeds all too relatable. Gilroy lures us through this looking glass of fast food media and successfully captures the upside down personal morality of all involved. Everything seems a little too incredible but at no point do we disengage. Gyllenhaal is electric in a performance that reflects the movie’s creepy themes of the ‘real unreal’ on a singularly focused level. Gilroy was certainly taking a risk building the movie around the one truly irredeemable character but the entire film gravitates around Gyllenhaal’s magnetism and though we loathe him, we definitely enjoy doing so. Russo is wonderfully complicated as the TV exec who crawls onto his web, soliciting everything from the audience’s pity to their curiosity. The always great Bill Paxton pops up in a compelling cameo as a fellow nightcrawler who crosses paths with the manic Bloom and Riz Ahmed rounds off the cast with a sympathetic turn as the latter’s weary assistant.
Gilroy, D, Thriller, 2014

85.7

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Sorcerer
William Friedkin’s thunderous examination of human desperation is one of the best films of the 1970′s. It follows a series of men who for different reasons (shown in the first 30 minutes of the film) end up hiding in the back end of the world in some nameless South American country where an oil company is building a pipeline. Desperation brought them there but desperation also drives each of them to want to escape the torturous way of life and lethal working conditions. When an oil well explodes four of them are given the opportunity to earn enough money to do just that. The only catch is they must drive two trucks loaded with unstable dynamite through 200 miles of the roughest terrain imaginable. Friedkin is in his element here and he captures the ferocious journey like few others could. He also takes his time in the buildup allowing us to become familiar but also unfamiliar with the four protagonists as the mystery within each of their characters deepens. Roy Scheider heads the cast in one of his finest performances as a former getaway driver and Bruno Cremer co-stars in an excellent turn as a French businessman on the run for fraud. On the technical front, John Box’s raw production design deserves special mention for managing so well to depict the sweaty squalor from which the four men are attempting to flee. Equally impressive is Tangerine Dream’s nightmare-like score which counts as one of their best and which Friedkin uses to sublime effect. Sorcerer is more of a visceral experience than a conceptual one and in that sense, it is a complete triumph. There are few films imbued with such passion and determination in terms of both the story it tells and the Herzogian like efforts that went into making it.
Friedkin, Adventure, 1977

85.7

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Bullitt
Cracking crime thriller about a detective charged with protecting a key witness in a case against the mob. Though remembered mostly for its great car chase Peter Yates’ film is an intelligent thriller that resists all temptations to signpost or summarise the plot developments for the audience. This can result in long stretches without dialogue but if there was ever an actor to carry a film on subtle mannerisms alone it was Steve McQueen. McQueen is ice cool in the title role and as always brings something different to a well established role (i.e., good cop against superiors with selfish agendas). As most of the action centres on Bullitt, the supporting actors don’t have much to do with the exception of Robert Vaughn who excels as the detestable politician out to make a name for himself. This film isn’t for everyone especially for those who are only interested in car chases. But if you like clever, slow-burning thrillers then this is for you. Not a bad score either.
Yates, Crime, 1968

85.7

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Lolita
Stanley Kubrick’s admirably brings Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel the silver screen, with James Mason turning in a brave and insightful performance. As is often the case with Kubrick’s work, there are really two movies going on here, one a wickedly black comedy and the other a disturbing study of personal descent. Opening with what will become the final shot, we find James Mason’s Professor Humbert Humbert wandering through a decadent mansion intent on punishing Peter Seller’s grotesquely manipulative Clare Quilty. The film then drifts into the telling of the story that got him there. We learn how he became a lodger at the house of the uncouth Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters) only to become obsessed with her young teenage daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), and we see how he used Charlotte’s affections for him to get closer to Lolita. This is a story of manipulation as everyone present is quite adept at getting what he/she wants through emotional and/or intellectual influence and it is in this part of the film that the most fun is had. It also shows the consequences of such insidious behaviour even if some of the characters remain so deluded they don’t notice it. Shot beautifully in misty black and white, Kubrick captures every bit of these flawed character’s delusions and ambitions on screen and with some iconic images to boot. The dialogue is cutting and deeply funny even throughout the darker half of the picture. The acting is first rate with Mason and Lyon working extremely well together. Of course, Seller’s Clare Quilty is one of the more memorable characters and perhaps more than any other character captures the funny/disturbing dichotomy that defined the film as a whole. Over all Lolita is highly recommended if you’re looking for brave and intelligent cinema which hits all the right notes in the entertainment department too.
Kubrick, Drama, 1962

85.7

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a forgotten gem of the crime genre starring Robert Mitchum in one of his finer roles from the later stage in his career. As the title character, he plays a wearisome small time thief forced by a hot shot young cop to inform on the criminals he works with in return for a reduction on his sentence for a recent conviction. “Eddie Fingers” has become largely philosophical about the world he lives in and the rules which everybody needs to obey on order to get by but he refuses to go to prison at his age and leave his family to fend for themselves. Richard Jordan is the ambitious cop who equally understands the dark underworld Eddie hails from and even shows some compassion for his stool pigeon. However, to him, the bust comes first. Peter Boyle is the truly despicable hit man who himself is under that same cop’s thumb but is far more shrewd and treacherous in how he makes his deals. With such talent in front of the camera, it should be no surprise that one of the major strengths of this film is the acting. Boyle is perfectly sinister and will make your skin crawl. Jordan proves yet again what a vast under-tapped talent he was and his scenes easily prove the most enjoyable. He’s sharp and honest up until a point. But he’s also human and there’s a well structured sting operation in which he shows all the adrenaline and fear which go hand in hand with that type of work. Mitchum was probably better here than in any other film since the height of his popularity and he lays his characters emotions bare for all to see. It’s another brave performance from a man who made his career on such fodder but it’s a more touching turn than any of his other jobs with the exception of Out of the Past. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is steeped in gritty authenticity as the always underrated Peter Yates shot on location in Boston, in flat lighting, and was generally happy to let the script and actors dominate the feel of every scene. It proved a wise decision too because Paul Monash’s script (adapted from George V. Higgins novel) is superb and way ahead of its time. Capturing the straight shooting perspective of the street and juicing it up with slick dialogue the likes of which Michael Mann would salivate over, it must surely rank as one of the best crime screenplays. The characters are entirely believable (and in some cases disturbingly so) and each is defined by a distinct lack of glamour. Coyle himself, is in many ways a run of the mill working man married to a normal looking woman. His aspirations are modest and there’s no super street skill bubbling under the surface like with so many characters today (no “best of the best of the best” here). There’s a degree of street wisdom but nothing that will prompt anything spectacular. There are some well conceived bank robbery sequences run by more clever criminals and they do the job of impressing the audience (those familiar with Affleck’s The Town will see a couple of key similarities between their robberies and those that feature here). The Friends of Eddie Coyle resists all temptations to give a popcorn audience what they want and instead, it is satisfied to tell an honest story about an interesting central character. At first blush, this might seem like a modest ambition but because of its degree of unconventionality, the audience might find it rather shocking. The final 10 minutes in particular will keep you guessing right up until the end and while the popcorn brigade will be dissatisfied, there are rich rewards for true cinephiles.
Yates, Crime, 1973

85.7

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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
A masterclass in screen adaptation, pacing, and the use of special effects to augment story, Peter Jackson’s first installment of the Tolkien trilogy just shades The Two Towers as the best of the three. It sets the pretext to the drama wonderfully (evil force creates ring to corrupt and rule mankind) with a long but compelling monologue and then eases you into the story (ring is found by a Hobbit and a powerful wizard who set out for the evil lair in which it was created to destroy it). This allows the audience to see the best of Middle Earth and, therefore, ensures that they genuinely lament its demise at the hands of the Orcs of the west. The Fellowship of the Ring literally redefined how every aspect of a fantasy story should be portrayed on film and in doing so, it gives us one of the most original and engrossing stories of modern times and in a manner that complements the talent that went into writing it. The cast is uniformly excellent with Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen doing particularly well as Aragorn and Gandalf respectively. The production and costume design are utterly flawless and the makeup and special effects have yet to be equaled. In the latter regard, Jackson and his team show all the discipline, restraint, and intelligence that made the adaptation itself so successful. Everything included in this film is there because it helps the story be realised. There is not a single instance where style is put before substance and the result is that the audience comes to completely trust the director. This is a rare accomplishment and perhaps most relevant to fantasy films where the audience must follow the director and story-tellers into often impossible territory. Fairy-tales work because they are told to us by those whom we trust implicitly. The Lord of the Rings trilogy works on screen for the exact same reason.
Jackson, Fantasy, 2001

85.7

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Road House
“Always be nice, be very nice. Until it’s time not to be nice”. One of the all time great action films, Road House is the coming together of a razor sharp script, an outstanding central performance, perfectly orchestrated fight scenes, a rip-roaring soundtrack, and some of the best tongue-in-cheek villainy in screen history (“Prepare to die”, “You are such an asshole”). Add a tantalising supporting cast into the mix (best of all being Sam Elliot’s “Wade Garrett”) and you’re talking an epic action feature matched by few other films. The story focuses on the number one “cooler” in the business (Patrick Swayze), a philosophical, tai-chi practicing bouncer who is brought in to the rowdy “Double Deuce” to clean it up. Things come to a head when the owner of the bar is targeted by the nasty Ben Gazzara (in blistering form) and his hoard of henchmen who come equipped with dagger boots and a Monster truck. The only reason why this film never got the acclaim it deserves is that those who deride it didn’t realise the bad guys are supposed to be caricatures, while those who love it think of it as a so-bad-it’s-good type movie. Both are wrong. If you compare the dialogue of the good characters with the bad you’ve got two different scripts. The bad guys’ lines are overtly cliched while the good guys’ lines are as fresh, original, and cool as anything even Tarantino has since dished up. That’s right, Road House was an early taste of the self-referential cinema that was to define the 90′s. Swayze epitomises this interesting brand of cool and, more than anything, the pace of the film is set by his understated performance. He doesn’t say much but when he does speak it’s a treat to listen to, not only because of the subtle sharpness to his lines but because of his slick delivery. With every nod, salute, and half smile Swayze sinks the hook in deeper and by the time he starts kicking ass he’s firmly got a grip of you. On the ass-kicking note, western film makers never properly understood why eastern actors look so good in martial arts films but essentially it’s down to their Chinese opera training which involves a lot of co-ordinated dancing. Being a dancer himself, Swayze always looked great while fighting and his natural feel for movement makes the fight scenes in this film (just as they were in Point Break) magnificent. They’re also great fun as director Herrington makes the most of the sh!t-kicker bar setting so that the bottles, glasses, chairs, and tables are flying back and forth to the terrific music of the Jeff Healy Band in the background. Michael Kamen’s score is also scintillating but largely because it reminds us of that other seminal action film Die Hard, which Kamen worked on that same year. In fact it’s identical in parts. Given the hidden class of Road House, it’s more than appropriate that this more obscure movie has such a tangible link to what is most likely the greatest action film of them all. Appropriate because it’s only about two films behind it in the rankings.
Herrington, Action, 1989

85.7

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Stagecoach
The film that blew moviegoers away when it was released was the first Hollywood picture to employ those deeply staged interior and exterior shots that became the trademark of John Ford’s filmography. It certainly raised the quality of the movie experience as hard and square angles were replaced by angled shots that ran along the lines of the rooms or off forever into the distance of the exterior shots. The story is thoroughly gripping as a varied collection of characters are huddled together on a stagecoach that must ride through Apache held territory to find the shelter of a union fort. This is the film that turned John Wayne into a megastar and it’s not hard to see why given that excellent introduction and the way he varies himself throughout. Wayne’s Ringo Kid is the tougher of the stagecoach’s complement and it’s his backstory that threads through to the end to make for one of the great western showdowns.
Ford, Western, 1939

85.6

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Salem’s Lot
It may be a miniseries but this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is a lesson in atmosphere setting. David Soul stars as a writer who moves back to the small town he grew up in ostensibly to write a new book but in reality to face a childhood fear of an old house he could never shake. His arrival coincides with a new series of murders that have all the hallmarks of vampirism and he’s not surprised to find that it traces back to that house. Soul is terrific and he is surrounded by a top supporting cast which includes Bonnie Bedelia, Geoffrey Lewis, and the great James Mason as the man at the centre of all the dark happenings. Some of the make up effects have dated but thanks to Tobe Hooper’s brilliant direction, it doesn’t seem to diminish the film’s ability to scare. On the contrary, Salem’s Lot is one of the more frightening film experiences and it’s got the floating child vampires to prove it!
Hooper, Horror, 1979

85.6

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Night and the City
Film noir was always much more than just hard boiled detectives going up against vicious criminals. It’s about volatile personalities following their dark and natural trajectories to an increasingly inevitable collision point. Night in the City is one of the purest examples of such. Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, “an artist without an art”, who spends his nights crawling through the underbelly of London’s nightlife looking for the next big thing. When he thinks he’s found it, he drags everyone from his devoted girlfriend (the always radiant Gene Tierney) to his bloated boss into a scheme which will make or break him. Widmark is outstanding in a difficult role which required the audience to dislike him yet simultaneously root for him while the supporting cast, one and all, give their characters colourful flourishes which make them instantly memorable. Tierney is unfortunately a little underused but steps up admirably when she’s needed. Jo Eisinger’s screenplay (adapted from Gerald Kersh’s novel) catches the cold cynicism of the darker characters with every uttered syllable and Jules Dassin gives post-war London a style and verve rarely achieved yet brilliantly uses the still rubble-laden areas to frame Fabian’s lower moments, particularly his ultimate descent. Night and the City is one of the great film noirs built around the tension of one man’s desperation and the uncomfortable but unstoppable inertia of that despair. In short, it encapsulates what the genre is about.
Dassin, Film-Noir, 1950

85.5

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Manhattan
Woody Allen’s greatest homage to his native city pits an array of characters on different sides of the love divide as they each embody the contradictory nature of the city he loves so well. Shot in sumptuous monochrome and giving a virtual masterclass in the use of lighting this is perhaps Allen’s most technically accomplished work. And as is typical with Allen, the script ain’t half bad either!
Allen, Comedy, 1979

85.5

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The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah chipped in with his own meta-analysis of the Western in this uniquely poignant tale of an ageing group of outlaws and the extinction they face at the hands of politicians, modern war-mongers, and their mechanisms of change. Like Leone did in Once Upon a Time in the West, Peckinpah breaks the “rules” of film making in dramatic style but to telling effect by beginning the film in a manner more suited to the end of the more traditional westerns. Thus, from early on in the movie, there is a clear sense that the outlaws are wandering into a changed world that has no place for them. There is a brutal beauty as well as sadness to this and the master catches both superbly. It seems fitting too that the sterling cast gave their most memorable performances in a film of this stature. William Holden is supreme as he gives us one of the most iconic western anti-heroes, Pike Bishop, and he is matched every step of the way by Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom. Robert Ryan is also excellent as the ambiguously placed Deke Thornton. The violence and action have been much talked about but whatever your take is, there is no doubting the majesty of choreography that Peckinpah brings to bear on the first and last scenes in particular. And like everything else in the film, the violence tells its own part of the story too.
Peckinpah, Western, 1969

85.5

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In a Lonely Place
One of the more elegant and deeply psychological films noirs, In a Lonely Place tells the story of an off the boil screenwriter, Dixon Steele, who finds himself the chief suspect in a murder case after a young woman he hired to summarise a novel for him one evening is found dead that same night. The problem for Steele, beyond the circumstantial evidence, is his quick violent temper and an offbeat humour for the issues of death and murder, elements which even his friends and new love interest Gloria Grahame (and alibi for the murder) find potentially inculpatory. In a Lonely Place is a wonderfully sophisticated example of the doomed romance noir, as Bogart and Grahame are pulled unerringly into a spiralling relationship set against the sinister event of murder. Bogie is in rich form as the fiery writer with disturbing hidden streaks but it’s the manner in which he handles his character’s softening that strikes us most squarely. Grahame is pitch perfect as the agent of that change and the pair carry the audience along with them as Steele firstly embraces and then later, as the investigation heats up, rails against that change. The key to In a Lonely Place is its hidden depths. At all times director Nicholas Ray ensconces the viewer in an inviting and elegant production design coloured with the vibrancy of Hollywood’s golden age when needed and secluded from it during the more romantic scenes. But thanks to Bogie’s surly presence and that silky screenplay (courtesy of Andrew Solt), he’s able to stir up a torrent of dark emotions to contrast with the warmth of the outward space. The character dynamics feed this contrast with everyone from Steele’s long-suffering agent (Art Smith) to the drunken thespian he looks out for offering intriguing clues to Steele’s conflicted nature and temperament. However, it’s the central pairing that provides so much texture to this film. An inability to trust happiness lies at its heart and Bogart and Grahame are utterly superb in how they capture the turmoil of that conundrum and the swirling inevitability of their relationship. For Grahame and Ray, this one was very personal as they were an estranged couple at the time of shooting and given that Ray insisted that Steele’s apartment resemble one of Ray’s own earlier apartments, one cannot help but suspect that he, Grahame, or both of them were exorcising by some demons here. The raw power of the picture would support that.
Ray, Film-Noir, 1950

85.4

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Serpico
One of the great acting performances from one of the true greats, Al Pacino’s portrayal of Frank Serpico, a NYPD police officer who exposed the endemic corruption in his department, is an outstanding achievement. Few actors can say so much with their eyes as Pacino can and as the film opens we zone right in on them. From that point on, we belong to Pacino and to an equal extent his greatest collaborator the legendary Sidney Lumet whose iron hand in a kit glove unerringly carries this softly intense film through to its 130th minute. Serpico’s tale is an extraordinary one even in these more cynical times. That such a prestigious and massive police department could be running such systematic rackets was scarcely believable and that Serpico continually himself put himself on the line by refusing to take any money was just as movie-worthy. In retrospect, it seems as if nobody else could’ve conveyed the proper depths to this man as Pacino did. As he did in the Godfather, he shows us how an innocent and somewhat naive young man can be turned into a harshly cynical individual through circumstance. Perhaps his most significant achievement is how he portrayed the increasing fear that Serpico was living with from day to day. Ever confident in Pacino’s ability to hold court, Lumet populates the supporting cast with some real talent with John Randolph, Tony Roberts, and Jack Kehoe contributing strongly. This is a proper crime film that conveys the feelings and tone of the time and place in which it is set wonderfully. There’s gritty action, there’s full-tilt drama, and there’s a compelling tension held throughout.
Lumet, Crime, 1973

85.4

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The Professionals
”Maybe there’s only one revolution since the beginning. The good guys against the bad guys.” Three years before The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks wrote, directed, and assembled a middle-aged western heavy mob of his own with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode squaring off against a Mexican revolutionary played by (err..) Jack Palance, who has kidnapped a wealthy American’s wife (Claudia Cardinale). Marvin and co. play four specialists (guns, explosives, horses, tracker) who are put together to traverse the Mexican desert, rescue said wife, and bring her back across the border alive. Although The Professionals is not as overtly philosophical as Peckinpah’s later film, it has some wonderful moments of quiet reflection where times past and the politics of the modern world are considered in mature and touching ways. Rather than being seen as increasingly obsolete, however, the seasoned experience of the four heroes is taken more traditionally as a virtue, as their combined expertise is put to work in a series of well crafted and memorable set pieces. The Professionals is a technically superb movie on nearly every level. Conrad L. Hall’s photography creates an awesome backdrop worthy of the epic action and the use of the “day-for-night” technique gives the night time shots a striking beauty. Maurice Jarre’s score is as rousing as any from that vintage and used well throughout. However, the real strength of the film is the script and story. The plot was hugely original for its time and the manner in which it develops is disciplined and clever. The scenarios which the protagonists act out are its equal and the dialogue is about as good as any western has offered up. The cast is uniformly splendid too with Marvin and Lancaster having most to do and doing it with real presence. Although, it has unfortunately been somewhat forgotten over the years, The Professionals is one of the very best westerns of its era that takes a refreshing break from town marshals and nasty cattle ranchers to explore the more peripherally relevant themes of the wild west.
Brooks, Western, 1966

85.4

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Two-Lane Blacktop
Representing the essence of counter culture, this definitive American road movie operates between the lines, the lines of the page, the lines of the roads, where points A & B merely exists to frame the trip, where ambition is everything but an end result, where “satisfactions are permanent”. Two-Lane Blacktop came out around the same time as that other seminal road movie Vanishing Point and it’s remarkable how both field the same sentiments of their time but through polarised abstractions. Whereas Vanishing Point was a statement, a primal scream, Two-Lane Blacktop is anything but, it’s the slow exhale of the enlightened when the answer was that which was in front of the protagonists’ faces all along, soon to be behind them. Yes, there are the draws of the old life which threaten to bring back the old familiar hyperventilation and this is where the drama is focused. The semblance of story giving rise to this drama, begins with two men, the driver (James Taylor) and the mechanic (Dennis Wilson), who move from town to town in their rebuilt 55 Chevy where they cruise for competition. These races become the micro-metaphor as director Monte Hellman deconstructs them in various ways never showing us the complete race but segments, the space in between society’s conventional markers. The broader metaphor of course is the cross-country race they enter into with G.T.O (Warren Oates), an older man whose reasons for being on the road are not in any way clear to him as they are to the other two and hard as he tries, he cannot shake loose from those mores, from which the road offers escape. He is always going somewhere even if that somewhere is a lie, more so when it’s a lie. The inevitable interplay between the three men and ‘the girl’ they pick up along the way continually reveals the difference in perspective between G.T.O and the other two men as well as those last trials the mechanic and in particular the driver must pass through before they can switch permanently. This is Hellman’s project from start to finish as every frame is softly embedded in his meditative vision. It is an astounding 90 minutes of (intentional) near-formlessness culminating in that immortal ascension of an ending. It is nothing short of pure class. In fact, on the level which this film is at, it may not be appropriate to even review this movie so perhaps the…..
Hellman, Drama, 1971

85.4

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!). The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice. As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.
Ford, Western, 1962

85.3

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Kill Bill Vol. 2
The second instalment in the story of the Bride’s quest for revenge against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who left her for dead four years earlier is a very different animal to the first film in pace, style, focus, and even the genres it reinvents. And these are only four of many reasons why QT was right to tell the story over two volumes. Much more dialogue driven than Vol. 1, we learn a lot more about the primary characters that feature in this volume including the Bride and we also get to see Bill himself (in a career best performance by David Carradine). Thus, the acting comes to the fore here and Carradine, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen don’t disappoint as they give us some of the most unique action villains that have ever graced the silver screen. As in Vol. 1, there are an array of fascinating secondary characters populating the background of this story which together with the actors who play them (e.g., Gordon Lui, Michael Parks, and Carradine himself) represent a knowing and sometimes audacious nod to the genres that Kill Bill is exploring. For example, the old Shaw Bros. super villain (quite possibly the best in the genre’s illustrious history), Pai Mei emerges in stupendous fashion with a show stealing performance by Lui. These characters are largely responsible for the funnier moments (of which their are plenty) with Bud’s boss Larry (Larry Bishop) being a particular highlight. Although, the action takes a back seat to the dialogue, there are no fewer than three sublime action sequences, the first being the best martial arts training sequence since the 36th Chamber of the Shaolin and the last (the ultimate showdown between the Bride and Bill) being the swiftest and most explosive duel since Sanjuro. File under cinematic masterclass.
Tarantino, Martial Arts, 2004

85.3

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Ace in the Hole
Billy Wilder shows that film-noir can be done just as well outside the traditional confines of murky streets and shadowy cities by giving us a dry and dusty noir that has all the punch of the more famed classics. Kirk Douglas is the professionally exiled newspaper man who takes up with a small town paper hoping for a big story that’ll propel him back into favour with the big city papers. And when a cave-in traps an average schmuck who had been looting a local Indian burial chamber, he seizes his chance with both hands. Chomping down on some outright seminal dialogue, Douglas is arguably in the form of his career and his boisterous presence is the centre of the film. As the money craving wife of the trapped man, Jan Sterling is a streak of caustic self-regard, an underrated triumph in the femme fatale stakes. But Ace in the Hole remains a vehicle for Douglas and his director. Wilder peppers more languid moments of contemplation with a litany of amusing carnival type set pieces involving grandiose crane shots and wide contrasts. And on top of all this, he goes and gives us one of the great noir endings too.
Wilder, Film-Noir, 1951

85.2

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Batman
Christopher Nolan and his films may be surfing on a wave of popularity at the moment but Tim Burton’s original (and indeed his follow-up Batman Returns) is a far superior film to Batman Begins and just shades The Dark Knight. Coming from the mind of Burton, Batman’s darkness seems somehow more authentic than Nolan’s, yet it also remains more faithful to the comic book idea which Nolan was clearly moving away from. Burton’s vision of Gotham City and its colourful inhabitants is sumptuously brought to life through visionary set design, some of best screen writing in the business, and terrific performances from all concerned. Nicholson’s Joker has one immortal line after another to chew on while Keaton’s hugely under-appreciated Batman is the most layered portrayal of the Caped Crusader to date (Bale fans should remember that a mean throaty voice and a meanacing stare just doesn’t cut it). Basinger, Palance, Michael Gough, Billy Dee Williams, and Pat Hingle all offer strong support but this is Keaton vs Nicholson all the way. The action set-pieces are all masterfully directed with the museum-escape sequence in particular standing out. Danny Elfman’s score quickly became the template for all subsequent superhero movies and the film as a whole changed the genre forever.
Burton, Fantasy, 1989

85.2

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The Long Goodbye
Stunning, audacious, daring, provocative, ingenious are only some of the adjectives one could aptly use to describe Robert Altman’s affectionate parody of the Raymond Chandler novel. Elliot Gould is in the form of his career as the famous P.I. Phillip Marlowe but his isn’t the type of portrayal we saw from Bogart or even Powell. His is a scruffy, world-weary, mischievous, and ultimately more complicated Marlowe. As usual though, he gets embroiled in a couple of cases that may or may not be related to the apparent suicide of his friend who was on the run for the murder of his wife. As Marlowe carries out his own investigation he discovers some dark secrets that ultimately lead to a spectacular conclusion. Gould is sensational as the mumbling detective who lives with his cat and across from a hippy commune of naked women. The supporting cast is also fantastic from Sterling Hayden who improvised most his lines to Mark Rydell as the seriously eccentric and equally terrifying mobster. As usual, Altman’s documentary-like style adds a captivating quality to the proceedings and there is much fun to be had as he repeatedly tips his hat to old and new Hollywood alike.
Altman, Crime, 1973

85.2

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The Asphalt Jungle
John Huston’s iconic crime noir became the seed for a number of later classics of the genre such as The Usual Suspects and Heat and it’s not difficult to see why. A master criminal Doc Riedenschneider is released from prison and immediately sets about orchestrating his next daring score by assembling a top notch crew. Amongst others he hires a growling Sterling Hayden as his heavy and knarly James Whitmore as his driver. Sam Jaffe plays the Doc with a meticulous relish that made his character one of the most memorable screen criminals. Huston plays with the audiences’ expectations throughout changing the focus as the story moves forward. The craft employed in most of the scenes particularly when John McIntire’s Commissioner Hardy addresses the media is truly inspired and the film ultimately becomes more than just a heist movie as Hayden’s Dix defies the odds by heading for home. Huston’s gives the film a distinct look as he captures the city streets at different levels of population and his use of lighting is amongst the best in the genre.
Huston, Film-Noir, 1950

85.1

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Hard Eight
Paul Thomas Anderson’s lean and spotless neo noir sees Philip Baker Hall assume the well deserved lead role as a professional gambler who takes a vulnerable John C. Reilly under his wing and teaches him his trade. But when Gwyneth Paltrow’s waitress, moonlighting as a prostitute, enters their lives, a crisis soon emerges that requires all of his seasoned calm to resolve it. Hard Eight is remarkably efficient story telling even for a director who has specialised in such film making. Dialogue is used sparingly but plenty is said at the right moments and it always rings with sympathetic wisdom. For a cynical film shot with an aversion for the frills and warmth of more stylish directors, this forensic engineering of compassion is a true achievement. Like his casting, Anderson doesn’t shy away from rough edges and the three main players are presented warts and all. But the honesty of how their interactions are captured set against bare production design and dulcet score renders them all the more real and relatable.
Thomas-Anderson, Drama, 1996

85.1

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The Magnificent Ambersons
”The greatest film never seen” follows the fortunes of a vastly wealthy family, the Ambersons, and the complex relationships and dynamics that exist within it. Of particular interest is the spoiled grandson and heir to the family fortune (Tim Holt) whose grotesque self absorption ensures the emotional destruction of everyone around him. Among those to receive the worst deal are his mother (Delores Costello) and her long time friend and suitor (Joseph Cotten) whose ventures into the early days of the automobile industry eventually see him overtake the Ambersons in wealth as they ultimately slide into financial ruin. Welles had his own take on Booth Tarkington’s novel and added aspects from his own life as a spoiled child to enrich the already complex family dynamic. It’s piercingly insightful stuff too as the characters come off more real and humanly flawed than in practically any other drama from its time or from any other for that matter. With all this class and technique, the story drifts forward with a dreamlike quality, as Welles constantly winds the tension imperceptibly tighter until the emotional terrain of the first one and a half acts is comprehensively turned on its head. Alas, just when the world of cinema then, now, and forever should be served the final act and conclusion to without doubt one of the most stunning films ever made, it ends in a trip like whimper. RKO had put themselves up against the wall with the financing of the production by going way over their typical maximum budget. Faced with lousy previews and Welles on location in Brazil for his next film, they instructed its editor (and future director) Robert Wise to cut most of the last 50 minutes away and added a happy ending. Even worse, they made no real effort to save the footage and it was lost forever. One can only understate how unfortunate this move was because the film is undeniably heading for something special 70 minutes in but instead, it ends in a confused and rushed manner. It’s still a marvelous film and story but the “what if” will always leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Every medium needs a great “if only” scenario. Cinema has The Magnificent Ambersons.
Welles, Drama, 1942

85

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Once Upon A Time In America
A former prohibition gangster called Noodles (played by Robert De Niro) is given a mysterious message to return to Brooklyn years after he was forced to flee town. His return triggers some heart felt memories of him and his old friends as they rose from street urchins to mob bosses, a story which seems inevitably connected to the answer he’s now searching for. Although, it’s not as iconic as his Dollars trilogy or as profound a cinematic statement as Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone’s last feature film is arguably his most accomplished directorial effort. He crafts a tale so epic on one hand yet so intricately woven on the other that there’s few if any other directors in the medium’s history who could’ve pulled it off. And threaded throughout are innovations and devices so mesmerizingly effective that one is left breathless and near uncomprehending at how one man can be so imaginative. Add to that some truly seminal acting performances from De Niro and James Woods (as Noodle’s former partner), an outright spellbinding Morricone score, awesome production design, and striking cinematography and we’re talking about one of cinema’s most impressive achievements. As with OUaTitW, the dialogue is sparse for long stretches but in its place is a dreamy nostalgia that is as repelling as it is enchanting. It’s not always an easy watch as it gets seriously dark in places but as tales of ambition, greed, power, lust, and guilt go there are few finer.
Leone, Gangster, 1984

84.9

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Fight Club
A chronic insomniac (Edward Norton) in a pit of mental despair at the predictable safety and comfort of his life finds release by attending disease support groups posing as a fellow sufferer. That is until he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the living embodiment of anarchy. Immediately seduced into Durden’s strange world, the two men establish an underground network of fight clubs where the disenfranchised male youth of America come together to knock ten bells out of each other in a form of social mega-catharsis. However, as Durden becomes increasingly mythologised, he uses this enchanted network to form an underground army intent of bringing the consumer world to its knees. To say that Fight Club tapped into the masculine subconscious would be an understatement. Every word Durden utters is the adult articulation of adolescent and post-adolescent angst and rebellion. Of course, the whole thing is pure satire as writer Chuck Palahnuik and director David Fincher are saying as much about the masculine mindset as they are about the consumer society that is ostensibly suppressing it. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the fans take it too literally; in fact it just goes to show you how sophisticated the satire is because their seduction mirrors that of the disenfranchised generation of the film. On a more technical note, Fight Club is Fincher’s most innovative and stylistic film. The contrast between the clean, santised world of Norton’s office and apartment and the dank dilapidated world of Tyler Durden is almost visceral thanks to Fincher’s bold direction, some outstanding lighting and equally outstanding production design. A rich visual humour dominates the entire film and when threaded together with Palahnuik’s words it takes on a life of its own. Norton is excellent as the unnamed “narrator” while Brad Pitt has seldom been better as the enigmatic Durden. Helena Bonham Carter gives a deliciously dark turn as Edward Norton’s fellow traveller and even Meatloaf pops up in one of the more memorable roles. All said, Fight Club is a startlingly good movie built on inspired writing, direction, and acting. There isn’t one aspect to the production that lets the side down and the substantial footprint it has left on recent pop culture is testament to such quality.
Fincher, Satire, 1999

84.8

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Scarface
Howard Hawk’s original gangster masterpiece is a less romanticised and more accusatory piece of story-telling than De Palma’s worthy remake but just as dark. Paul Muni stars as the ruthless hood who murders his way to the top of Chicago’s mob world. It’s a terrific performance as he exudes menace and low brow sensibilities with every heavily accented word and crooked smile. The scope of Ben Hecht’s adaptation (of Armitage Trail’s story) is impressive but thanks to the outstanding writing, it still manages to give us a more intimate perspective than such scope would suggest possible. Moreover, the characters are well drawn out and there’s even some rich humour to be found sprinkled throughout. Hawks pulls out all the stops in giving us levels of street violence that at the time were unprecedented and even today are quite impressive. Moreover, the shootings and bombings come across as much more realistic and cold-minded than modern day movie villainy. The photography is sumptuous and combined with the seedy characters and first rate story, it’s hugely memorable – as that excellent Valentine’s Day Massacre sequence is testament to. Overall and despite the monumental performance of Pacino in the 1980’s version, the original Scarface probably remains a more substantial and satisfying experience than the remake.
Hawks, Gangster, 1932

84.8

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Laura
Otto Preminger’s exploration of the two sides to obsession is quite simply a champion of its genre. Gene Tierney is the titular focal point of that obsession as the movie spirals dizzyingly towards her feminine ideal. The story begins with the investigation into her murder as Dana Andrews’ Detective MacPherson begins interviewing potential suspects: Clifton Webb’s venomous yet respected columnist and a young Vincent Price as her playboy suitor. As they each recount how they met Laura, her story is told in flashback and Preminger begins seducing the audience with the picture of an innocent, pretty, and vibrant young woman just as surely as MacPherson is being seduced. Vera Caspary and Jay Drattler’s luscious script oozes dark and unfettered passion and the glowing cast feed off it one and all. Tierney is sensational in one of the great noir performances while Andrews was never better. Webb too puts in a truly memorable turn as the sniping elitist. However, this is all about Preminger’s directorial siren’s call. Made in a slightly more classical style than other film noir of its time, it makes for a more incisive character study. His staging, lighting, and slow tracking of the camera gives the film a sumptuous look which seeps into the audience’s subconscious which in turn imbues the story with an internalistic, almost voyeuristic feel. Laura is cinematic story telling at its best.
Preminger, Film Noir, 1944

84.7

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The Prodigal Son (Bai ga jai)
The best traditional martial arts film bar none, Sammo Hung’s ode to Wing Chun Kung Fu features the most awe inspiring fight sequences ever filmed. The film tells the story of Leung Chang (played brilliantly by the multi-talented Yuen Biao), the son of a wealthy merchant who wins fights around Canton because his overprotective parents pay people to lose to him. When an opera troop comes to town he gets involved in a fight with an effeminate actor Leung Yee-tai (the mesmerising Ching-Ling Yam) who in a blistering display of soft power destroys Leung Chang’s illusions about his own abilities. Determined to learn Kung Fu for real, he has his father purchase the opera troop and signs up as Yee-tai’s assistant much to the annoyance of his new master. The Prodigal Son (or Bai ga jai) is a wonderful film on every level, and perhaps some martial arts fans are turned off it because it’s as much a comedy as it is an action film. Proper film fans, however, will appreciate this discipline and understand that it only augments the power of the fight sequences once they do begin. In addition, the humorous scenes are so truly funny that you’ll be entertained in a way that typical martial arts pictures don’t normally entertain. There’s also some real emotion in this film and the actors (who were all classically train opera performers) balance the emotion and humour with the ease. However, it is Sammo Hung’s co-ordination of the fight scenes which turns this film into a mesmerising homage to Wing Chun. Opting to shoot the scenes from wide angels with deep staging and few cuts was a brave move (as a common cheat in action films is to shoot close up with fast edits in order to make the fighters look quicker) but Hung knew that he had some special actors on hand and a seriously impressive martial art that was very different to the Shaolin kung fu that most Hong Kong films portrayed. In particular, the dancing skills his actors had from their classical opera training gave them a keen sense of positioning which elevated his searing co-ordination of the fight scenes to a level not seen before or since on film. Where this comes together most impressively is about half way through the film where Yee-tai and a rich prince (also a Prodigal Son – from the Cantonese point of view) do battle on a small bridge between a barge and the street. In this two minute scene, the audience is treated to the greatest combat spectacle ever committed to celluloid. Utterly sublime.
Hung, Martial Arts, 1981

84.7

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The Set-Up
Told in real time, The Set-Up follows a journeyman boxer’s last grasp at glory as he prepares for, fights, and evades the consequences of the biggest fight of his life. Robert Ryan is in fine form as the man who won’t lie down even when he discovers late on in the fight that the fix is in. He exudes determined vulnerability all the way through and the fight scenes in particular (Ryan was a former Golden Gloves champion) are some of the best captured anywhere. Robert Wise shows early on that he was an exceptional director in the making by giving the real-time action an effortless gliding quality and some of the shots, particularly those exteriors of the arena and the adjacent motel are just gorgeous. Art Cohn’s script is expertly tailored to the tight constraints of the picture and it brings the best out of the various actors. The Set-Up is full memorable moments and scenarios from the middle-aged woman who claims to have no love for the sport only to be baying for blood once inside, to the interactions between the mobster, his floozie, and the surrounding men. At just over 68 minutes long, this one will zip along but it’ll live long in the memory nonetheless.
Wise, Film-Noir, 1949

84.6

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Apocalypto
Make no mistake, this is a film unlike anything you’ve seen before. On the face of it, the two sides to the story seem standard enough. On one side, you have a dramatic account of the decadent last days of a once great civilisation and a forgotten way of life. On the other, you have a break-neck violent chase film that makes the central pursuit in Butch Cassidy look tame. However, together you have one of the most blindingly original and substantial action movies ever made. Thus, writer-director Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia’s first stroke of genius was in spotting how the former story would make the perfect context for the latter. Their second stroke of genius involved the brave decision to shoot the entire film in ancient Mayan and entirely on location in central and south American rain forests. This paid divid ends as it added a unique air of authenticity and relevance to the different aspects of the story whether they be the quiet and communal life of the tribes people, the brutality of their capture by the savage mercenary warriors, the horror of them being sacrificed in the big city, or the frenzied invigoration of their fleetest warrior’s escape.
Gibson, Adventure, 2006

84.5

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All the King’s Men
John Ireland takes a rare centre billing as the passionate young reporter who is determined to make it without the help of his step-father’s wealth. When he learns of a local hick come political candidate standing up to the power brokers of a small town, the journalist and that politician’s paths become one, not to mention, a cautionary tale of the temptations of power. A more gritty and serious take on the subject matter of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King’s Men is a pull no punches look at the yearning for power and the Shakespearian demise inherent in its pursuit. Broderick Crawford is the headstrong politician Willie Stark with the baseball bat ambition and total absence of scruples and he dominates the film. Ireland is unsurprisingly weak in the lead and is probably the primary reason why this movie’s popularity failed to display the longevity of other classics. But outside of the acting and Robert Rossen’s (adapted from Penn Miller’s novel) cynical screenplay which simply exudes unapologetic exploitation, it’s Rossen’s cultured touch behind the camera that marks this movie above most.
Rossen, Drama, 1949

84.5

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The Sting
The greatest caper movie of them all. George Roy Hill’s classic about two grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) attempting to con a wealthy gangster (Robert Shaw) is a triumph of cinematography and production design thanks largely to that wonderful use of sepia tones. Newman and Redford are terrific together proving that their on-screen chemistry in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was no fluke while Shaw is fantastic as the nefarious Doyle Lonnegan. With all the twists and turns this one takes and with the great characters and dialogue on show there’s more than enough to keep the audience engrossed throughout. This is what cinema is all about.
Hill, G.R., Crime, 1973

84.5

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The Day of the Jackal
Fred Zinnemann’s iconic film of a lone assassin hired by French insurgents to kill the heavily protected DeGaulle is masterclass in tension building. Edward Fox brilliantly plays the Jackal, the illusive, suave, and lethal killer and it is him the film follows as he methodically plans out and puts into practice his daring strategy. Michael Lonsdale plays the equally methodical French detective who must liaise with Scotland Yard and orchestrate the French-based manhunt for the Jackal. This film will have you on the edge of your seat throughout its two hours and twenty minutes and it’s to Zinnemann’s credit that instead of rushing the earlier scenes, he patiently builds up to the climactic moment. The result is a fascinating study of one man’s ruthless dedication to his profession.
Zinnemann, Thriller, 1973

84.5

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Das Boot
Wolfgang Peterson’s account of life aboard one of Germany’s infamous WWII U-boats provides the perfect metaphor for the confusion of war. Jürgen Prochnow plays the submarine’s captain charged with attacking the heavily protected Allied convoys in the Atlantic while contending with the often uninformed orders of his fleet command. Director Wolfgang Peterson wonderfully creates the sense of claustrophobia that came with being cooped up in such small quarters for extended periods of time. He is equally adept at using that claustrophobia to augment the boredom of the quieter scenes and the terror of the battle sequences as the boat dives ever deeper to avoid the depth charges of the Allied battle cruisers circling above. The release of that mental and physical pressure is also spectacularly captured on the occasions when the U-boat surfaces as Prochnow leads his boat through the waves from the top of his conning tower to Klaus Doldinger’s magnificent score.
Peterson, War, 1981

84.5

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Syriana
For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum. The cast contribute strongly with George Clooney putting in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.
Gaghan, Thriller, 2005

84.4

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Gilda
Rita Hayworth sizzles in one of the great noir roles as a nightclub singer caught in the middle of a love triangle between her new husband and his right hand man, a man with whom she shares a turbulent and mysterious past. Hayworth dominates the screen in the way few actors ever have and the film is completely imbued with her presence. Even the strong turn from Glenn Ford as the former love interest is somewhat overshadowed by her although it must be said that their splendid chemistry each helped the other enormously. George Macready makes for an unusual villain and has a touch of the James Bond baddie about him. Gilda is a fascinating watch with some well captured and dark themes of suspicion and jealousy running through it. Charles Vidor gives the South American setting an extravagant feel that comes across as just right for the time and place. With the exception of Ford’s somewhat redundant voice-over (not the first Ford to be linked to such a thing!), he gives us a captivating and sultry film-noir that peaks a number of times across its 110 minutes but nowhere more than when Hayworth does her show-stopping “Put the Blame on Mame” routine.
Vidor, Film-Noir, 1946

84.4

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Prince of the City

Treat Williams stars as a narcotics detective who volunteers to help a task force take down a litany of crooked cops by wearing a wire and acting as general go between. The only condition: they overlook any wrongdoing perpetrated by him and his partners. However, after the initial adrenaline rush, he starts to see the toll his work is taking on his family and partners and ultimately his own wellbeing. Things get worse when the federal government take over and draw him into a seemingly endless series of cases culminating in the prosecution of his old partners. Prince of the City is a dark and pensive thriller that almost incidentally seems to serve up some of the best cop to cop drama this side of the French Connection. The gritty one-on-ones, the back-of-diner meets, the greasing of stoolies all reek of so much grimy reality that the audience would be forgiven for feeling like they were the ones putting themselves in the crosshairs. With so much wiretapping going on, it gets to feel like we ourselves are listening in on the dirty deals, the hits, and the extortion (a device Lumet had used before in The Anderson Tapes), where every conversation is a lesson in the actuality of crime. Shooting the movie in much the same style as he did with Serpico, Lumet uses his flat palette of colours to starkly enhance the inward loneliness of his central character’s existence. And armed with such material, Williams is stunning, the perfect embodiment of anxious inertia and frenzied exhaustion. Among others, Lindsey Crouse as his wife and Jerry Orbach as his partner pitch in with some terrific supporting turns but this is Williams’ vehicle from start to finish.

Lumet, Crime, 1981

84.4

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Pickup on South Street
Samuel Fuller’s dark and classic noir has pickpocket Richard Windmark playing two sides against the middle when he unwittingly grifts a wallet containing a secret military microfilm which was being sold to the Russians. Fuller sets a nice tone to the movie early on while his tight screenplay gives Dwight Taylor’s story a brisk momentum. The slick but warm dialogue adds much depth to the story and softly resonates against Leigh Harline’s sultry score. Widmark is a fine lead and has all the gritty edge of a Bogart or a Ladd. However, the show stealer is undoubtedly Thelma Ritter’s streetwise Moe who gives the movie its most charming and emotional component. She owns the screen when she’s on it and in her final scene in the movie, she gives the audience a peerless piece of acting that will live long in memory. The movie pulls no punches either and there are some rough scenes of violence that wouldn’t make it into many of today’s Hollywood movies. Ultimately, though it all adds wonderfully to the noir atmosphere.
Fuller, Film-Noir, 1953

84.4

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Groundhog Day
A clever script built around an original idea, populated with an array of intriguing characters, and Bill Murray’s best performance. What more could you ask for in a comedy? Murray plays Phil Connors, a weatherman who is sent begrudgingly to Punksatony to cover the annual groundhog festival only to find that he must live the same excrutiating day over and over again. The dialogue is razor sharp and the comedy veterans (from Murray to Chris Elliot) have a field day with their lines while Andie MacDowell plays off the more seasoned comedians in fine manner. On top of which, Harold Ramis adds to the humour by finding ever funnier ways to counteract the habituation to each of the day’s repeated events and even manages to find the humour in that repetitiveness (the morning wake up song being a particularly good example of such). Moreover, he adds a real depth to the proceedings by slowing the pace of the film towards the end of the second act to accentuate the poignancy of Connor’s existential conundrum. Of course, this film is built on the strength of Murray’s performance and considering that he is perhaps the most intuitively funny actor to have ever graced the silver screen, it is no small thing to say this is his finest performance. Murray brings all his dead-pan wit and world weariness to bear in his portrayal of the disgruntled weatherman and in doing so gives us a hilarious performance that scores on an array of comedic levels. It is nothing short of perfection.
Ramis, Comedy, 1993

84.3

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Blood on the Moon
Robert Mitchum is the drifter who finds himself drafted into one side of a complicated conflict in which his old friend (a loathsome Robert Preston) is manipulating two sides in a open range dispute against the other for his own aims. Lille Hayward’s dialogue is slick with insight and street (prairie) smarts to the extent that the cast and director alike seem inspired by it. Mitchum’s typically soulful presence is the central pillar to the movie’s success and that it’s one of his more endearing performances says a lot. Balancing the self preservation instincts of the great noir anti-heroes with the morality of the Old West champion, he foreshadows the great characters of the spaghetti western nearly two decades earlier. Barbara Bell Geddes makes the most of her plucky character in whom her affection for Mitchum’s gun hand represents an interesting conflict. But Wise deserves the last mention for Blood on the Moon is certainly one of the more striking westerns to behold both flush with moodiness and overflowing with dusty grit.
Wise, Western, 1948

84.3

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Predator
As is often the case, the original Predator stands head and shoulders above the sequels even though in the case of Predator 2 and Predators, the sequels are decent fare in their own right. What makes Predator so good is that it has one of the truly great action directors behind the camera (John McTiernen) and the most iconic of all action stars in front of it (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Having a totally original premise, a white hot script, great special effects, a supporting cast full of well known 80’s tough guys, and Joel Silver as a producer didn’t hurt it either! Arnold is immense (in what is easily his second best role) as the leader of the crack special forces unit who are sent into a South American jungle to rescue some political dignitaries only to come under attack by an alien hunter who hides in the trees and can appear and disappear at will. McTiernen handles the action with aplomb as you’d expect but he outdoes even himself in the set piece scenes which are a veritable masterclass in pacing and co-ordination. This is sci-fi action at its very best so just sit down and strap yourself in for two hours of pure entertainment.
McTiernan, Sci-Fi, 1987

84.3

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The Fly
Few directors demonstrated the innate ability to disturb like David Cronenberg did in his earlier films and in this more mainstream outing he didn’t hold back in the slightest (deleted cat-baboon scene notwithstanding). The result is a sci-fi horror masterpiece unlike anything before it or since. A remake of the 1958 original, this film also tells the story of a scientist who while testing a teleportation device gets spliced together with a fly resulting in a incremental transformation into a diabolical hybrid of the two species. Jeff Goldblum is phenomenal as the scientist Seth Brundle. He makes the character his own and brings a host of perfectly fitting idiosyncratic mannerisms to both Brundle’s human character and ultimately the Brundlefly character. He is well supported by Geena Davis as Veronica, the journalist documenting his project and inevitable love interest. On the technical front, the creature effects are incredible but certainly not for the squeamish while Howard Shore’s score is tremendous and reminiscent of Herrmann at his most dramatic. The Fly is a peculiar film in many ways. It has a very small cast as most of the action takes place in Brundle’s lab. This augments the authenticity of Brundle’s and Veronica’s relationship, making the climax all the more poignant. On an implicit level, the Fly is perhaps better remembered for its more sinister undertones. The idea that technology is the manifestation of the over-boldness of genius lies at the heart of the film. Rarely has this message been expressed in colder more effective fashion than in Cronenberg’s masterful use of the Kuleshov effect where Brundle gets told the cold hard truth from his seemingly insidious computer. Take a bow David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg, Horror, 1986

84.2

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The Insider
Corporate whistle-blower dramas are generally done quite well in Hollowood but this powerful adaptation of the Vanity Fair article is top of the heap. Russell Crowe is sensational as the former tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand who breaks his confidentiality agreement by doing an interview with 60 minutes. Al Pachino is just as good as the news show’s producer Lowell Bergman who initially recruits Wigand but inevitably becomes his devoted protector. Mann’s dialogue has always had the ability to strip away any superfluous emotion from his central characters to reveal their underlying obsession (usually with their profession). Though the characters in this film are just as driven, Mann’s screenplay and particularly his ability as a director to catch the actors’ more idiosyncratic glances or twitches (as if by accident) gives the characters in this film a real depth of emotion that combined with the superb acting (from all parties) imbues the proceedings with a pervasive sense of authenticity. What more could you want from a true story?
Mann, Drama, 1999

84.1

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Gattaca
Andrew Niccol’s feature debut is a lesson in how science fiction film’s should be made. Ethan Hawke excels as the natural born genetically imperfect Vincent who must contend with a world tailored for the genetically modified where his ambitions of becoming an astronaut in the elite Gattaca programme are hampered by a culture of discrimination which proclaims him too mentally and physically weak to do so. The film becomes a profound meditation on the timeless mind/body debate as Vincent assumes the identity of the genetically ‘superior’ Jerome (brilliantly played by Jude Law) only to successfully infiltrate Gattaca and become its best and brightest astronaut. Like all great sci-fi, this film succeeds on both the technical and conceptual levels. Niccol’s vision and Slawomir Izdiak’s sumptuous cinematography give the drama a distinctly modern nourish feel using shadow and light as majestically as the great film makers of the 40’s did. They also use a perfect mixture of predominantly blue, yellow, or green lit scenes to set the various tones of the film. All this is accompanied by Michael Nyman’s haunting score which will stay with you forever. The true power of this film, however, is in the writing. There is an array of deeply layered characters, the motivations of whom reflect their different personal perspectives on the moral issue of genetic engineering. From Alan Alda’s older police man who is all too willing to believe that an “invalid” could infiltrate Gattaca’s elite to the motivations of the genetically engineered detective he answers to, who is twenty years his younger and also Vincent’s brother Anton. He is not so keen to believe even though he knows in his heart that there is an infiltrator and that it’s his brother. Though they live in a world foreign to us technologically speaking, each character comes across as completely real. This is down to the writing, the superb ensemble acting, and the cultural parallels that this story draws with our own world. Though Vincent’s relationships with Jerome and Uma Thurman’s character are themselves fascinating, the film is about Vincent’s determination to overcome or simply disprove biological predetermination. This is encapsulated beautifully in the scene where he races his brother across a moonlit bay as he turns to his floundering brother and explains how he has done what he did: “I never saved anything for the swim back”. Near perfection.
Niccol, Sci-Fi, 1997

84.1

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Kung Fu Hustle
Nothing will prepare you for the breadth of imagination, style, emotion, fight choreography, and just plain good story telling that Kung Fu Hustle serves up without interruption for 95 minutes. Writer/director/star/stunt man Stephen Chow is the best kept secret in the world of martial arts movie making. With his mind-boggling talent, he should be held in the same esteem as Quentin Tarantino but few outside the fans of the genre are aware of just how good this guy is. Chow leads the cast as a petty criminal determined to make a name for himself in a world of quirky yet powerful gangsters. However, things take a turn for the surreal when circumstances bring him to a tenement block on the outskirts of the city where the inhabitants are protected by an overbearing landlady and her husband, a couple who have more to them than meets the eye. Chow’s characters inhabit a strange Capra-esque world of Eastern noir where the traditional martial arts concept is injected with steroids. Super-fighters emerge when you’re least expecting it and do battle in some of the most innovative showdowns the medium has offered. This is the essence of a martial arts movie, a celebration of bold concepts, graceful momentum, and some thunderously good fight scenes. Surprisingly however, the story is just as good. Chow’s character is unintentionally hilarious as he bumbles through the early scenes but undergoes real change as the story progresses. The film comes alive when the camera is on him and we’re rooting him for him all the way. There’s even a romantic angle thrown in that works a treat, allowing Chow to tie the whole thing together in a most satisfying fashion. There’s nothing about this masterpiece that isn’t fresh and inspiring and it’ll have you laughing and exhilarated from the first frame to the last.
Chow, Martial Arts, 2004

84.1

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Manhunter
Manhunter is the quite simply the best film of the ‘serial killer’ genre. It covers the phenomenon from all possible angles – from the killings themselves and the motives of the killer, to the manhunt and the effects it has on the agents tracking the killer. Each of these four angles could themselves be the sole premise for such a film and it’s to Mann’s credit that he not only manages to deal with each of these angles in a substantive manner but also skilfully weaves them together into a coherent story. The film moves at a steady pace and, while always conveying the urgency of the characters’ actions, it never feels rushed. Manhunter is not just a technical triumph in direction and writing but also in acting. Peterson has never been better as the introspective lead investigator who innately empathises with these killers and so understands how their profound insecurities can lead to murder. The progression of his character throughout the film is believable and quite expertly conveys to us his desperate attempt to separate himself from ‘his man’. Farina is as always brilliant as Jack Crawford but standing out from this excellent ensemble is of course Brian Cox as Lecktor who gives us something entirely different to Hopkin’s more cartoon-like performance. Cox’s Lecktor is smart, charming, and beneath the surface empty, devoid of sentiment and compassion. Again, it’s to Mann’s, and the actor’s credit that, by the time his three scenes are done with, we have an implicit feeling as to what may be driving this Lecktor as well as an uncomfortable liking for him. File under “masterclass”.
Mann, Crime, 1986

84