Sunday, August 31, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Steven Spielberg, 1981 (9.0*)

AFI Top 100
Anyone remembering those old movie serials will realize the roots of this adventure, one of Spielberg's most fun. The pace starts fast, then allows you to catch your breath, then it starts up again, just like the old cliffhangers used to. This tall tale involves an archeaology professor, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, who searches the world for lost and valuable artifacts but seems to keep running into Nazis instead. Raiders has him on the quest of the "Ark of the Covenant", which housed the ten commandments and supposedly was a war weapon in ancient times. Throw in old flame Karen Allen, after a terrific drinking contest in Tibet, and Egyptian comrade John Rhys-Davies, and you have a motley crue of world-saving Nazi fighters. Classic adventure, 30’s style told in 80’s technical terms, with great special effects and mind-blowing revelations.

In keeping with the serial theme, this was followed by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (6*), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (*8).


Back to the Future Trilogy

Dir: Robert Zemeckis, 1985 (8.8*)
Can you have any more fun in a sf film? The first film stood alone, but then the sequel was so long they split it into two parts, the 2nd now nothing more than an unfinished bridge to the third. Michael J. Fox is a high school kid in the 80’s who has a science professor friend, Christopher Lloyd in his best movie role, always experimenting with mind-blowing machinery. He luck out on one invention however and turns an old Delorian into a time traveling coupe, runnin on garbage or beer using his "flux capacitor". Very funny adventures ensue when Fox is hurtled back to 1955, crashes and meets his mom, Lea Thompson, who takes care of him and develops an immediate crush, jeopardizing her chances with his nerdy dad, Crispin Glover! What are the odds? In this trilogy, pretty good as Fox goes back and forth in the Delorian until he’s in the wild west in part 3… Thomas F. Wilson is perfect as arch-enemy Biff and all his relatives.
Quote: Why don't you make like a tree and get outta here. (Biff)


Annie Hall

Dir: Woody Allen, 1977 (9.2*)

Best Picture (AA, GG)
AFI Top 100
The Woodman scored big with Annie Hall: Oscars for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and a Best Actress for then girlfriend Diane Keaton (sister of Michael, great-niece of Buster). Keaton created a character for the ages, a daffy but lovable nerd, just the right woman for Woody. There are some memorably funny Allen scenes of visual humor (spider killers), and intellectual humor, when someone they're arguing about in a film line (Marshall McLuhan) steps out to back up their argument with strangers in front of them. Others in the film include Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, Colleen Dewhurst, Carol Kane, former gf Janet Margolin (she was in Woody's first films). One of the more likeable romantic comedies ever filmed. 4 Oscars


The Grifters

Dir: Stephen Frears, 1990 (9.0*)
Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, and scripted by crime author Donald Westlake, this is a crime thriller about a trio of con artists (aka "grifters"), Angelica Huston, who fixes odds at racetracks for the mob, her son John Cusack, and a expert grifter he meets (and desires), Annette Bening. This is the best of its type, blending a 40’s style noir novel into an 80’s style film, with superb acting all around.


House of Games

Dir: David Mamet, 1987 (9.1*)
Just about the perfect con-artist film. Mamet’s wife Lindsay Crouse plays a psychiatrist who writes books, and lets a client know she’s doing one on con-games and their perpetrators. She is then swept into their world by Joseph Mantegna, and gets far more than she bargained for. That's Ricky Jay doing the card tells, technical advisor for Mamet on his con-artist films, and usually given a part. This complex thriller gets you deeper and deeper into the plot until there’s barely room to get out. My favorite script of Mamet's.



Franklin Schaffner, 1970 (8.7*)

Best Picture (AA, GG)
AFI Top 100
This epic biopic has been called 'one of the great war films', and 'a glorification of killing'. Some say that you see it as either pro or anti-war based on your own inclinations. However one stands on war, it can't take away from the fact this this is one of the finer depictions of war history on film, as George Scott delivers a performance for all-time. Future director Frances Coppola co-wrote the Oscar®-winning screenplay, based on two biographies of Patton, including the memoirs of Gen. Omar Bradley, played in the film by Karl Malden.

It’s said one reason George C. Scott refused his Oscar® for this biopic is because he hated "Blood and Guts" George Patton so much. It’s apparent from this war epic that Gen. Patton was sort of a misguided hero, yet an army moving, battle winning leader of men nonetheless. Scott was never better, and this movie spared no expense in recreating his famous drive through Europe, often moving his army 100 miles in 2 days. Maybe a little heartless, and down a star for excessive patriotic propagandizing, this film is still excellently crafted, one of the best on World War II. 7 Oscars

Patton was a firm believer in reincarnation; in this film they have him make a side trip ton an ancient battle site in north Africa, where Patton connects to past life memories. He wrote this poem about reincarnation, "Through a Glass Darkly", and these stanza are quoted in the film:

Through the travail of the ages,
Midst the pomp and toil of war,
Have I fought and strove and perished
Countless times upon this star
So as through a glass, and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names, but always me


Million Dollar Baby

Dir: Clint Eastwood, 2004 (9.1*)
Best Picture (AA)
This hard-hitting boxing film is based on a true story and is Eastwood’s best as director, and was his 2nd best picture Oscar® winner after 92's Unforgiven. I'm puzzled it isn't on more all-time best lists. Hilary Swank, in an amazing Oscar-winning supporting performance, convinces jaded manager Eastwood and his trainer, Morgan Freeman (also an Oscar winner), to give her a shot and train her for a pro boxing career. What follows can’t be described without spoilers, but suffice to say that this deserved the Best Picture Oscar it won, as well as all the acting accolades. Either this or Raging Bull is the best boxing film yet made; Bull had the style, Baby has the heart. 4 Oscars®



Gianni Amelio, Italy, 1994 (9.7*)
Apparently, after communism fell in Albania, there was a mass exodus from the country. In this brilliant Italian film, Italian capitalists are going into Albania to set up a shoe factory there in order to get government grants. However, only Albanians can own companies, so they get an unknown man from prison. The situation degenerates however, and the film becomes a statement about identity, personal freedom, refugees, and hope. Its hard to describe without spoilers. In fact, the title refers to the fact that "America" represents hope to many people. This film made over 100 top ten lists the year it came out and won numerous international awards.


The Conversation

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 (10*)
Palm d’Or (Cannes)

If not for a film called Godfather II, this film would likely have won best picture itself in 74 (it was nominated), and may arguably be Coppola’s best; it’s certainly his tightest, and did win the grand prize at Cannes. Gene Hackman plays a electronic bugging expert, usually hired to scope out corporate secrets, often requiring ingenious methods to record conversations, like multiple eavesdroppers, some on the move. He unwittingly discovers that perhaps someone who hired him has committed a murder, which he discovers examining conversations he bugged. Saying very much would spoil this excellent, tense crime film with many implications. This is my favorite Gene Hackman performance, and most subtle, that just goes deeper and deeper as it progresses.


Field of Dreams

Dir: Philip Alden Robinson, 1989 (9.7*)
A spiritual fantasy and one of the most uplifting films in history. Kevin Costner (as Roy Kinsella) owns a small corn farm in Iowa and is having trouble making ends meet. One day he hears voices in the field ("if you build it, they will come"), and after acting on them and builds a baseball field, the locals think he’s nuts, but he himself embarks on a quest that tranforms himself and everyone he contacts. This includes James Earl Jones, a former political activist and author of children's books, and Burt Lancaster, a doctor who once played one day in the major leagues, and Amy Madigan as his wife, and her nagging brother, Timothy Busfield.

This is not really a baseball film (which I've heard some give as a reason to avoid it), the field itself becomes a metaphor, a gateway to the spiritual realm. This recalls the best of Frank Capra. From the novel Shoeless Joe by R.R. Kinsella, cinema magic and modern myth-making at its finest.



James Cameron, 1986 (9.2*)
Cameron’s best-paced film, eons above the first Alien film, which even star Sigourney Weaver calls "basically And Then There Were None, in space". [This was an Agatha Christie book, later a good b&w film, in which each character dies until there's one left, who must be the murderer, right?]

In the sequel, Weaver reluctantly returns to the planet that started it all in order to help The Corporaton save its endangered colonists when all communication has been cut off; she realizes she's the only one experienced with whatever's out there. Paul Reiser is a corrupt corporate stooge, looking for a possible profitable weapon, Bill Paxton is hilarious as a marine who knows "we’re getting our asses kicked!". The creatures, created by artist H.R. Giger, are truly terrifying. The action is almost non-stop, yet entirely believable, and is sped along by a 'countdown' plot device. Never have horror and science fiction been merged so well, becoming a classic of each genre.
Paxton: We're doomed, game over, man!
Weaver: This little girl survived.
Paxton: Then why don’t you put her in charge?


Sunset Boulevard

Dir: Billy Wilder, 1950, bw (9.2*)

AFI Top 100
Billy Wilder was such a great director, can you think of another film that begins with the main character floating dead in a pool, narrating his own demise? Film noir elements blend with a silver screen story of aged star Norma Desmond, well past her prime as an actress, brilliantly portrayed by Gloria Swanson. William Holden is a screenwriting gigolo who ends up with Desmond, to write her autobiography.

Her devoted butler, played by legendary director Eric von Stroheim, adds the perfect cinema connection to Desmond's life, as he obviously respects her legendary stardom. Here he makes what could be a mundane character part into that of unforgettable imagery. Holden's character is just the opportunist that one suspects populates tinseltown, especially among its not quite so successful. Of course, the story funs full circle until we find out how he came to be floating in the pool. Hollywood’s self-criticism was never handled better, a bona-fide black & white classic.

Note: Wilder revealed in an interview that the shot shown above was done with a mirror in the bottom of the pool and the camera focused on the mirrored image - this is actually the beginning of the film, as it starts with the death of the main character.

Wilder is one of the great directors, here's a small list of his best films:
The Front Page, Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend, The Spirit of St. Louis, One Two Three, Ace in the Hole, The Seven Year Itch, Sabrina, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Witness For the Prosecution, The Fortune Cookie.


Dangerous Liaisons

Dir: Stephen Frears, 1988 (9.9*)
A scathing examination of psychological manipulation and emotional torture among jaded French aristocrats. Glenn Close is the master of cruelty, and former lover John Malkovich her witting instigator, Valmont. Close relishes, and seems to trive on orchestrating seductions, using Valmont, and delights in both keeping him at bay and destroying the innocence of others, notably the betrothed young Uma Thurman and moralistic preacher's wife Michelle Pfeiffer, in her best role, garnering an Oscar-nomination for supporting actress.

From a 1670 French play, not dated at all; in fact, so modern that it was remade (without bite) as Valmont, and updated to modern times as the uninteresting Cruel Intentions with Sarah Michelle Gellar, with an equally unmemorable cast, especially vs. Liaisons. Truely unforgettable, this is as good as psychological studies get in films. Close’s best film performance by far, to me (though she is letter perfect in every performance, and now has an Emmy for Damages), and also John Malkovich's.

Seven Oscar® nominations, winner of three: screenplay, art direction, costume design (Lost best picture to the infinitely inferior and forgettable Rain Man, which I don't think is good enough to include here as "1000 to see". Close lost to Jodie Foster in The Accused, not nearly as complex or as subtle a performance; I think the Academy just felt sorry for her being stalked by a maniac)
Awards page at IMDB


Seven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa, 1957, Japan, bw (10*)
This masterful samurai epic (well over 3 hrs) is really a treatise on medieval war tactics. The story is about a small farming village that annually gets invaded and robbed by a small cavalry gang, usually just after harvest, when they steal most of the food but leave the villagers just enough for survival. Eventually they’ve had enough, and send a few men into a nearby town to recruit unemployed and disgraced samurai, led by master actor Tishiro Mifune, to help them defend themselves; they find seven in all.

The first half is slow but told with lots of humor, the second half is an exciting war exercise and a primer on how action films should look. The innovative camerawork had never been seen, and influenced every action film since. Blurred action, filmed during a rainstorm with mud and water flying (see photo below), rapid edits, handheld cameras, and extreme closeups - the viewer feels thrown headlong into the middle of the action itself. Retold as western The Magnificent Seven, and the sci-fi film, Battle Beyond the Stars. Kurosawa’s masterpiece is one of the best in cinema history.

Now #2 (rising from 7th) all-time on our compendium of Top Ranked 1000 Films on the Net, 2011 Edition



Dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2000 (9.1*)
Best Director Oscar

Based on a European tv miniseries, this rewrite tells several intertwined stories of people affected by drugs and smuggling. Michael Douglas is a Senator and anti-drug czar, whose daughter is dabbling in drugs, Benecio del Toro (Oscar for Supp Actor) is an anti-drug detective in Mexico, Catherine Zeta-Jones is the wife of a drug kingpin. The star is director Soderbergh, who uses color tinting to connect the different stories together visually, and wrote the script that is basically a flawless integration of all these stories. The film won every Oscar nomination it got except Best Picture, losing to Gladiator. 4 Oscars


Once Upon a Time in America

Dir: Sergio Leone, 1984, long version (9.3*)
This nearly 4-hr epic (avoid the short version like the plague!) was Leone’s tribute to the Godfather saga, and was the last film he made. Robert De Niro ("Noodles") and James Woods are boyhood friends who later become major Jewish Mafia figures. This film traces decades in their lives as a flashback from a middle-aged, portly De Niro who has received a mysterious message from his past. Look for a very young Jennifer Connally, who was 12 at the time, as a boyhood crush of Noodles who spies on her dance rehearsals and dress changes, and for Tuesday Weld as a robbery accomplice and later gangster mol, who liked 'the rough stuff'. Full of a cast of unforgettable characters, well worth the time - in fact, this is one film where its length works to artistic advantage, as the flashback structure allows the story to wander chronologically as it would from an elderly Robert de Niro's viewpoint of his entire life of crime.



Amy Heckerling, 1995 (8.7*)
Heckerling’s retelling of Austen’s Emma is updated to a Beverly Hills high school, and works due to a terrific debut performance from 16-yr old Alicia Silverstone ("As if!"). The story involves a makeover of a new nerdy transfer student ("Project!"), played by the late Brittany Murphy in her film debut, and Alicia’s own interest in a suave new boy who thinks he’s a Tony Curtis clone (hint hint..) Stacy Dash (as Dionne) is her best gf, who "gets snaps for fashion bravery".

Dan Hedaya steals his scenes as her overprotective father, telling her date: "Look kid, I’ve got a .44 and a shovel and I doubt anyone would report you missing." Terrific stuff, great dialogue, a star is born; what were you doing at 16? There's some hilarious stuff here, most from a girl's perspective, and you don't see that every day in movies. Perhaps the best of all the high school comedies.

Quote: Hey kid, just because Sammy Davis, Jr. died doesn’t mean there’s an opening in the rat pack.


Groundhog Day

Dir: Harold Ramis, 1993 (9.2*)
From the routine often comes the magical. Self-centered and jaded weatherman Bill Murray, aka Phil, is bored to be reporting yet another Groundhog Day from Poughkeepsie, PA, with Phil the groundhog ("weather reports from rodents"). After the day is over, one major problem for Phil: he awakens to Groundhog Day again, and becomes trapped in the same day, over and over. Not even suicide can keep the day from recurring from the beginning radio alarm, which is always the same dj's line about Groundhog Day and the same Sonny and Cher song.

What could have been boring becomes a terrific "what if" fantasy exercise, as he falls for his tv producer Andie McDowell, and keeps changing his courtship pitch on each successive day, as only he can remember the previous day, with hilarious and heartwarming results. In one funny sequence he always races to a tree at the same time daily to catch a falling kid. They took the theme of "what if I just had one more chance" to the extreme.

In a funny anecdote about making the film, McDowell said that scenes would be over, and Ramis and Murray would be staring at her and she'd have to say "Cut" or "isn't that a cut?" herself.

Quote: Well, then you must be God. (McDowell) - A god, yes – but not THE God. (Murray)



Dir: Ivan Reitman, 1984 (8.4*)

This comedic farce came out of nowhere using special effects to combine a world of ghosts, biblical demons, spirits, "autonomous free-form vaporous apparitions", all sorts of nasty stuff from "Tobin's Spirit Guide", especially world destroyer Gozar, who may be gaining entrance through hot cellist Sigourney Weavers apartment. When Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd get fired from a university psychic research job, they form a team of scientific ghost exorcists, and take off with a popular tv ad, "Who ya gonna call?", and investigate all the psychic activity in New York. A howlfest if you don't take it too seriously, and who could, with dialogue like this?:
Annie Potts: So what do you do in your spare time?
Harold Ramis: I'm into molds, spores, and fungi...

Rick Moranis is terrific as a nerdy neighbor accountant who becomes "The Keymaster", Annie Potts as the Ghostbuster's receptionist, Harold Ramis (who co-wrote) as a GB founder.
Quote: I've worked in the private sector, they expect results. (Akroyd)


My Fair Lady

Dir: George Cukor, 1964 (9.8*)
Best Picture (AA, BAA, GG)

One of the best Broadway/London musicals, the score by Lerner and Lowe is untopped, with the best lyrics of any musical, all related to the story. The film starts with a bang the whole point: "Why Can’t the English" (teach their children how to speak). The entire story is about linguistics, that the way a person speaks defines him, and that any type of character can be created if given the right instruction.

This was the premise of the original George Bernard Shaw play "Pygmalion", which was transformed into My Fair Lady by Lerner and Lowe. Rex Harrison creates his stage role here, and is impeccable, winning an Oscar. However, Hollywood gave stage actress Julie Andrews the shaft after she created the Eliza Doolittle role, and replaced her with Audrey Hepburn for the movie, thinking Andrews "not a star" (yet she won the Oscar that year for Mary Poppins!) Hepburn’s singing had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon (who did The King and I and West Side Story as well), so this was the only drawback to the film, which is flawless otherwise. Listen to the London Cast recording with Andrews on CD and you’ll see what I mean and what moviegoers missed. The dvd restoration of this classic musical has the most sumptuous color of any film, there’s even a documentary on the disc about it, with the original art director. One of the best 2-3 musicals ever filmed. 8 Oscars


The Graduate

Dir: Mike Nichols, 1968 (9.2*)

Best Picture (BAA)
AFI Top 100
Nichols' breakthrough film (for popularity) is a deft blend of sophisticated suburban comedy and seduction humor. Dustin Hoffman was made a star by this, and is perfectly nerdy as a recent college grad Ben Braddock, disillusioned with his career prospects. Anne Bancroft is polished and sexy as a jaded married friend of his parents who thinks Ben is physically good for her, but won’t be good enough for her own collegiate daughter, Katherine Ross. Murray Hamilton as her dad gets some very funny scenes. The novel by Charles Webb was reportedly autobiographical, causing a lot of finger pointing in his family circle. Look for Buck Henry in a tiny scene-stealing part, and terrific use of Simon and Garfunkel songs, "Mrs. Robinson" written for this movie, "The Sound of Silence" being reused for alienation. One of the great romantic comedies.
Quote: You're not one of them outside agitators are you? Cause I won't stand for that. (Normal Fell)


Wallace and Gromit: Three Amazing Adventures

Dir: Nick Park, 2005 (10*)
Best Animated Short (AA), 3 total

Nick Park’s amazing claymation short films won 4 Oscars before he was able to get financing to make full-length films (Chicken Run, Curse of the Were-Rabbit). The first short, Creature Comforts, is not included here but the next three are: The Wrong Trousers, A Grand Day Out, A Close Shave. They are all amazing; I gave a mother Trousers once for her kid and he watched it 30 times in a week! Park made these by pushing clay around and snapping a frame at a time, he could only film 2-3 seconds per day, and would spend two years on a 10 minute film! The "sets" each fit on a folding card table. Park said that at day's end they'd be ankle deep in clay teeth, which were constantly raked out during dialogue and never reused. Wallace represents Park's 'weekend inventor' dad (nothing worked), and Gromit, the 'smarter' dog, is Nick himself. The results are hilarious and the best of their type.


Winged Migration

Dir: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats, 2001, France (10*)
This awe-inspiring documentary was shot over several years, and at over 200 worldwide locations, and is presented without much narration so that we feel like we’re part of the flying birds ourselves. The effect is to show how incredible migrating bird populations are, and how we need to preserve them for the future of the planet.

Breath-taking, one of the best nature films or documentaries ever shot. Another rarity, it's G-rated.. This should be on everyone's top 100 list.


The Shawshank Redemption

Dir: Frank Darabont, 1994 (9.8*)

AFI Top 100
My favorite prison film and the best made from any Stephen King work yet, from his short story "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." The story starts with innocent Tim Robbins being convicted of killing his wife and her lover, ending up in Shawshank prison for life. There he meets Morgan Freeman, in probably his best acting performance to date, and they become best friends over time.
Robbins survives by becoming creative in a manner I won't reveal here. Look for a great beer drinking scene. Totally uplifting, it's hard to believe that it won no Oscars, with 7 nominations. It's now the top-rated film at Internet Movie DB (, as rated by viewers, just ahead of The Godfather.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Singin' in the Rain

Stanley Donen, & Gene Kelly, 1952 (9.8*)

AFI and Time Mag Top 100
A nearly perfect musical comedy, the musical numbers are excellent and the comedy in between is hilarious as well. The story revolves around two romantically-linked movie stars, one being Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, who are forced to make the transition from silent films to talkies, and the problem is Jean Hagen (Oscar nominee), as Lena Lamont, her voice is like spinal torture.

When they decide to join the parade of musical films, they hire Debbie Reynolds (who got the part by winning "Miss Long Beach"! At first Kelly refused to work with her) to dub over the vocals for Lamont. Kelly's partner Donald O'Conner has some of the best dance moments, a solo called "Make Em Laugh", which he later says he improvised, and a complex duet with Kelly called "Moses Supposes". O'Conner won a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

Gene Kelly provides most of the choreography (and thus shares directing credit), and the Broadway Melody sequence that last over 15 minutes is his best stuff. It also introduced Cyd Charisse in her first part outside the chorus, one that makes eyes pop, as well as Kelly's "Gotta Dance" character arriving in the big city. This now accepted classic wasn't even nominated for Best Picture!

Quote: I ain't people - I am a shining star in the cinema firmament.
Quote2: If we have brought a little ray of sunshine into your ordinary humdrum lives, then it ain't all been for nothing. (both Jean Hagen as Lena Lamont)


Terminator 2: Judgment Day

James Cameron, 1991 (8.6*)
You want mind-blowing computer graphic effects and adrenalin pumping action? Here it is, a much better sequel than original thanks to special effects and mucho money poured into this. Arnold Scwartzenegger returns in the mind blowing film, this time to protect John Conner (Edward Furlong, an unknown in his first film), and his mother Sarah, again played by Linda Hamilton, same role as the first, but she's much tougher and has a weapon's cache this time around.

There's also a new bad terminator (Robert Patrick) to add more special effects to the mayhem, as this one can mimic any matter or even liquify as needed; unique and freaky stuff (I liked it when he was a linoleum floor). The pace is terrific, as well as humor, as this film doesn't take itself as seriously as some sf films. 4 Oscars

Quote: Hasta la vista, ... baby!


Dances With Wolves

Dir: Kevin Costner, 1990 (9.8*)

Best Picture (AA, GG)
AFI Top 100
The director's cut of this magnificent western adds nearly an hour to this epic, making it about 3:30 long, but it's worth it. Direction was begun by Kevin Reynolds, but after a dispute, he dropped out and Kevin Costner took over, since he was already the lead actor. This film depicts more Native American life than any in history, and yes, you will have to read subtitles. The story follows a civil war hero (Costner) turned U.S. calvaryman who is posted to a remote outpost where he is befriended by the local Souix, led by Grahame Greene (Oscar nominated); they name him Dances with Wolves because he feeds a local wolf who hangs out near his outpost. While there he finds a white widow (Mary McDonnell, also Oscar nominated) living with the Souix. You'll have watch this if you never have, one of the great epic westerns. 7 Oscars


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ang Lee, Yuen Woo-Ping, 2000, China (10*)

Best Foreign Film (AA, BAA)
A poetic and mythical masterpiece from China, an epic about a stolen sword. Chow Yung-Fat is perfect as the martial arts master who has the sword stolen, and dimunitive Ziyi Zhang (the world's most popular actress) is the likely suspect, only she remains an elusive quarry.

Many magical cinematic moments and acrobatic martial arts make this a visual treat, as master Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman) got directorial help for the martial arts from action director Yuen Woo-Ping. Classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma provided a beautiful soundtrack score, which won an Oscar®. 5 Oscars® overall, second only to Gladiator's 6 that year.



Dir: Richard Attenborough, 1982 (9.7*)
Best Picture (AA, BAA, GG)

AFI Top 100
This was a 19-yr project overall for director Attenborough, and the result was a near perfect biopic of the late Mahatma Gandhi, a.k.a. Mohandas K. Gandhi, who began as a minority rights lawyer and later inspired the movement for Indian independence through non-violent means. The casting had to be perfect, and Ben Kingsley was, getting a well-deserved Oscar. This is a monumental epic, worthy of its subject. Two million people showed up for the filming of the funeral scene! They had to eliminate all shots showing Levis and Nikes... and had promised 'free lunch' for all participants! 8 Oscars


Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Dir: Steven Spielberg, 1977 (9.8*)

Jaw-dropping special effects make this story of aliens visiting earth an awe-inspiring science fiction classic, perhaps Spielberg's finest directing achievement. The story begins with some typical UFO sightings, but after some abductions and increasing worldwide events it's apparent that someone is contacting us from elsewhere. Richard Dreyfuss is one main character who's drawn to a mysterious Wyoming rock monument, Melinda Dillon's toddler left to play with the pretty lights, and a conclave of scientists, who have picked up some intelligent radio signals, led by French director Francois Truffaut are all pulled to this particular area. There are thousands online, including Air Force personnel, who testify that the incident is true, and the information was released to Spielberg to make this movie of the event to cushion the shock to the public! One of a handful of truly great sf films.


West Side Story

Dir: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961 (8.6*)
Best Picture (AA, GG)
AFI Top 100
West Side Story shows a tremendous improvement in widescreen dvd, you can finally see all the dancers just like in the theaters! The general premise sounds scary: retell Romeo and Juliet in a modern urban setting with dancing New York street gangs, in this case the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, whom I'll have to admit were much sharper dressers. George Chakiris leads the latter, in an Oscar-winning, charm oozing role; he was also the best dancer, as was his girlfriend Rita Moreno, also an Oscar winner. Not faring as well were lead Natalie Woods, and once again we have to hear Marnie Nixon's voice doing the singing, who also sang for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady; nor male lead Richard Beymer but the rest of the film overcomes their overacting, the soapy parts keep this from being a perfect 10. The highlights are the unique jazz classical score by Leonard Bernstein, and the modern dance choreography of Jerome Robbins, let go midway during production for going way over budget (but it shows!), who shared director's credit and also the Oscar for directing with Robert Wise (Sound of Music), who does the more boring, lame exposition stuff. 10 Oscars


Planet Earth

Released 2007, 5 discs (10*)
One of the most major undertakings in the history of video, filmed over 5 yrs at over 300 locations on earth and involving thousands of people, and with a 25m budget. This nature film attempts to show the diversity and awe-inspiring majesty of the planet we and other creatures live on. This is about ten hours of some of the most jaw-dropping stuff you will ever see. Some footage is so rare that it took years to get a minute of film, such as snow leopards in the Himilayas. Each type of geography is covered in its own episode: mountains, jungles, forests, deserts, oceans, fresh water, etc. Not to be missed!


To Kill a Mockingbird

Dir: Robert Mulligan, 1962, bw (10*)
Best Drama (GG)
AFI Top 100

This beautifully small and simple story makes one wish that Harper Lee (from Alabama) had written more novels, this one won a Pulitzer Prize. Gregory Peck had his most enduring and universal role, and won an Oscar, as a southern lawyer fighting racial injustice in a small town. Oscar nominee Mary Badham was his daughter, a terrific child actress in a part she was "born to play". Look for Robert Duvall in one of his first, and very small parts, yet a very integral role in the plot. This has a very authentic ring, and one of the few films that fights for social and criminal justice for everyone.
Quote: They always said it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.


Minority Report

Steven Spielberg, 2002 (9.3*)
This vastly underrated science fiction film from Steven Spielberg concerns an anti-crime unit in the future, led by Tom Cruise, who are told of crimes in advance of their commission by a trio of genetically altered psychics. Colin Farrell puts in a good performance as another detective who becomes involved with Cruise’s character for possible crimes himself.

The specials effects and editing make this another top notch sf film, and by combining all that with crime detectives and basing it on a story by Philip K. Dick (author of the sf novel that was filmed as Blade Runner), you have another classic science fiction film of the highest quality, one of the best five ever.


The Bridge on the River Kwai

Dir: David Lean, 1957 (9.1*)
Best Picture (AA,BAA,GG)
AFI Top 100

One of the giant David Lean epics, and based on a true story, this one features a Japanese POW camp in Burma forcing British prisoners, brilliantly led by Alec Guinness in his Oscar winning role as Colonel Bogey, to build a bridge across a jungle river for Japanese troop trains. Sessue Hayakawa is also terrific as the Japanese camp commander, butting wills with Bogey throughout. William Holden leads a commando team back to the bridge for the film’s plot action. Giant in conception and execution as only Lean could pull off. 7 Oscars
Madness… madness…



Dir: Martin Scorsese, 1990 (9.0*)

Best Picture (BAA)
AFI and Time Top 100

Scorsese’s epic tribute to the gangster film tells the true story of Irish criminal Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), based on his memoirs. Robert De Niro is excellent as usual as , and Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his over the top take as the homicidal partner with a trigger finger. Lorraine Bracco had a star-making role as Liotta’s wife, and got an Oscar nomination for supporting actress. Look for the long tracking shot that follows Jimmy and friends down into the night club. This is a long and rich film that maintains a good pace until it starts increasing in speed, and then we’re all pounding along to Harry Nilsson’s "Jump into the Fire" as Hill goes on a coke binge, which is a pretty good description of this lifestyle. Only One Oscar


Raging Bull

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 1980, bw (9.1*)
AFI and Time Top 100

This Martin Scorsese sports classic was shot in black & white and is a masterpiece of the colorless, a decision which places the film during its own era, when many of us saw boxing weekly on tv. Robert De Niro, in his best (Oscar winning actor) performance, and one for all time, put on the boxing moves as well as 40 lbs in order to play the older Jake LaMotta after retirement, and also the younger LaMotta in the ring in some of the best staged boxing in film history.
This terrific docudrama covers about 20 yrs in LaMotta’s life; Joe Pesci did a good job as his brother and manager, but Cathy Moriarty was a stunner as his wife Vicky and was robbed of an Oscar, as was Scorsese as best director. Many now consider this the best sports film ever. 8 nominations, including Picture and Director, 2 Oscars (Actor, Film Editing)
Quote: You never knocked me down, Ray, never…


Sweet Smell of Success

Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, bw (8.8*)
Burt Lancaster plays cutthroat news columnist J.J. Hunsecker who uses his powerful influence to dominate those around him, with Tony Curtis as his press agent (Sidney Falco) in what many considered to be an indictment of Walter Winchell, whose popularity ironically declined after this film and who two years later no longer had a national column. Many credit this film's incisive indictment with ending his muckraking career.

Lancaster is superb in a performance preceding his Oscar® for Elmer Gantry, as a man who dominates and subordinates all those around him, and tries to maintain a tight control over his sister at home as well, with no real regard for either the feelings nor the rights of others, only himself. Beautifully shot in black and white, one of the most searing dramas of its time.



Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2000 (9.1*)
Indy Spirit Award, Best Picture
Director Nolan (Following, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) has created one of the most challenging crime mysteries in cinema as the hero has suffered short-term memory loss from brain injuries and we experience the story in reverse chronological order. Guy Pearce has his strongest performance as a man who takes polaroids of each person in his life and also tattoes important facts on his body as he searches for the perpetrators. This is a tough movie to describe, cuz every time I see it I forget it. Winner of 5 Indy Spirit awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay.

Note: If you've seen the film first, the Limited Edition of the film has an egg on Disk 2 that allows you to view the film forward chronologically.
1) Insert Disc 2, then select the clock.
2) Select "c" 5 times for the questions that come up.
3) Select the pictures of the woman changing a tire in this order: 3,4,1,2


V for Vendetta

James McTeigue, 2005 (9.0*)
My favorite film of the Washowski Brothers (Matrix Trilogy). Natalie Portman runs across a wanted revolutionary (Hugo Weaving behind the mask) and becomes involved in his world in this future dystopean society sf film, a time after some mysterious event has unleashed a virus on the population. We find out more about this event as the plot unfolds, as it's integral to sowing the seeds of revolution.

The uniformly excellent cast includes Stephen Rea and John Hurt as "The Leader", who need no name. This is a tight science fiction story that’s a parable of independence, and super special effects make this one of the top sf films.



Dir: Rob Marshall, 2002 (9.1*)
Best Picture (AA, GG)
Loved this, my favorite Bob Fosse musical. The acting in this one was probably the best musical cast in 20 yrs at least: Renee Zellweger (nominated), Queen Latifah (nominated), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Oscar for Supp. Actress), even Richard Gere sang (nominated), and John C. Reilly nearly stole the movie (also nominated). The film is about women who kill men, often who deserved it (a terrific song for that, "He Had it Coming"), and two who meet in prison (Renee and Catherine) and vie for the same ruthless lawyer, played by Gere in a hilarious comedy role. This is full of great choreography, reality and fantasy mixed, yet all worked into the plot seamlessly, rare for a musical. The dvd includes the deleted song "Class", with Catherine and Latifah, one of the best, so it’s hard to believe it was cut out. 6 Oscars


Friday, August 29, 2008

Finding Nemo

Dir: Andrew Stanton, 2003 (9.8*)
One of the best animated childrens films, all the qualities of classic Disney. Thoroughly enjoyable story with funny dialogue, made funnier by the casting of Albert Brooks and Evelyn Degeneres. The story concerns dad fish Broooks looking for son fish Nemo who gets swept up in a tropical fish collectors net, and ends up in a dental office aquarium! Creepy stuff… but not as creepy as Chicken Run. Along the way he runs into Degeneres, and various sea creatures, including some lovable sea turtles. This is a must see, best five all-time for animation. The others: Snow White, Fantasia, Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story. (I also like The Incredibles, Cars, Hoppity Goes to Town, Curse of the Were-Rabbit) Well, Wallace and Gromit's Amazing Adventures are the best, but all short films - still, four Oscars in all!


Hannah and Her Sisters

Dir: Woody Allen, 1986 (10*)

Best Comedy Picture (GG)
This is the best of Woody Allen, a perfect romantic comedy (maybe the best). Hannah is Mia Farrow, married to Michael Caine (Oscar for Supp. Actor), who longs for her sister Barbara Hershey, who lives with jaded artist Max von Sydow, while punk rocking sister Diane Wiest (hilarious, Oscar for Supp. Actress) can't ever find the right loser, even resorting to a date with Woody Allen. Mia's mother Maureen O'Sullivan plays her mother here, and Lloyd Nolan her father, Carrie Fisher is hilarious as Wiest's friend, as is Julie Kavner as Allen's assistant in a tv show. The star is the screenplay (Oscar winner for Woody), this is a complex story that manages to seamlessly tie together about 15 people in four families, and also served as the inspiration and structure for Ron Howard's Parenthood. Allen won the British A.A. and Golden Globe for Director. 3 Oscars for 7 nominations


Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Peter Jackson, 2003 (10*)

Best Picture (3rd) (AA,BAA,GG)
AFI Top 100

Everyone should know this fantasy trilogy by now. If not, New Zealand director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures) spent nearly a decade filming the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy trilogy novels (from the 50's), using the best available computer technology. The result is the most ambitious and well-made fantasy films of all time. Even if you were not a fan of the books (and they were pretty boring), these films should excite and amaze everyone interested. They're a little bloody and violent, kinda "old testament wrath of God" type stuff, but that's probably also what made them so popular. Cast standouts are Viggo Mortensen, as the king who returns, Elijah Wood as Frodo the Hobbitt, the bearer of the ring of power; Ian Holm as the Hobbitt, the ring's finder and former owner, Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Wizard, Cate Blanchett as an elfin queen, and Brad Dourif as Gollum, a hobbitt turned monster nearly destroyed by the ring.
The films in order are (1) The Fellowship of the Ring (2) The Two Towers (3) The Return of the King. I would watch the "extended versions", or director's cut, as they are more complete and accurate to the novels and they must be seen in order. Return of the King won all 11 Oscars it was nominated for, a first.


Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring

Claude Berri, 1986, France (10*)

Best Picture (BAA)
Superb French epic, that country's finest film for me, though admittedly, I'm not a big fan overhyped French cinema (Godard's Weekend seemed to last that long, worst two hrs of my film life). This is one novel split into two films, and oddly seems to now carry a half French, half English title, the 2nd part is really "Manon des Sources". Filmgoers could see it as a double feature when released or come back the next day for the second half! Now, the dvd is flippable, a film on each side, and should be viewed as one.

The first half concerns an urbanite, Gerard Depardieu, who moves his family to a beautiful yet arid French farm, with the dream of becoming a flower grower. Jealous and greedy neighbors (the best acting ever for Yves Montand and Danielle Autiel both) hope he fails so they can get the land cheaply for themselves (as a subprime foreclosure, nothing is new!). The entire story hinges on drinking water, notably a spring that supplies the town's water supply. The second half tells the story of his daughter, Manon, now grown up, and beautifully as Emmanuelle Breart, and since I don't want to include any spoilers, everyone should watch both halves for themselves, as together they are Yin and Yang, the complete circle. Like impressionist art, simply beautiful to watch, and with a story worthy of modern parable and myth-making. An all-time Top 10!



Dir: Ron Howard, 1989 (10*)

For me, this is the most rewarding Ron Howard film, both heartwarming and very funny. Based on the structure of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, which they admired for weaving together several separate stories of one big family, this does the same with four related families and all their children. Steve Martin turns in his most accessible performance as the main character, Mary Steenburgen is his wife, Jason Robards his father, wayward ne'er do well son Tom Hulce turns up (with his kid named "Cool"), and brother-in-law Rick Moranis plays a father obsessed with his gifted daughter's intellectual superiority. Diane Wiest is another sister, divorced, whose rebellious daughter Martha Plimpton, refuses to stop seeing daredevil racer Keanu Reeves. Howard makes all these stories work together (and the large ensemble), and the kids are all perfect, the birthday party is one you'll never forget. The terrific Randy Newman song, "I Love to See You Smile" was inspired by Steenburgen.
Quote: You're not really a real person; you're an amalgam of all the ushers my dad paid to watch me over the years.


In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar-Wai, 2001, China (8.5*)

This is a beautifully filmed and finely crafted romance, set in early 60's Hong Kong. The story is a simple one, as two cordial neighbors discover that their often absent spouses may be seeing each other, so they become friends.

Tony Leung won a Cannes award for Best Actor, Maggie Cheung should have. Ironically, the two would later play lovers and assassins in Zhang Yimou's Hero, in quite different parts. This is a slow moving but visually sumptuous feast, as each shot is saturated with deep, rich colors reminiscent of Vittorio Storaro's work for Bertolucci and Coppola. The Criterion dvd comes with over a half hour of deleted scenes, also well worth watching. Wong later filmed a sequel, 2046, which was the number on a hotel room in this film.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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