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|70. Vanya on 42nd Street (Malle, 1994)
Looking at the films directed by Louis Malle before 1994, nothing would indicate a special love for the stage, or at least a love that went beyond what is presumed in any person who likes art in general and film in particular, so it is surprising to see that his oeuvre was closed with this love letter to the theatre, almost obsessively focused on not displaying anything that doesn’t happen within the walls of its highly evocative setting, the almost decrepit, then-abandoned Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway.
There is, however, a constant in Malle’s filmography that links this movie to the other ones, and it is Malle’s need to experiment and explore the limits of the cinematic language, and here he does so by contrasting it with the stage language, in an investigation that becomes incredibly stimulating for anybody with an interest in both arts. One could say Vanya on 42nd Street is nothing more than a filmed play, and be factually accurate. But the key word here is “filmed,” and when the one doing the filming is Louis Malle you can expect surprises and more layers of meaning than just the simple representation of a play, even when the play (Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya," or David Mamet’s adaptation of it to the English language) is rigorously respected and all of its themes and its emotional content are displayed with perfect effectiveness (and served by a dream cast that includes Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn and a revelatory Brooke Smith).
Through small details, such as the prologue in New York streets (the only moment when the camera leaves the theatre), the surprising way in which the actors start playing their parts in what seems a prolongation of their real-life conversation, the inclusion of a break time for the actors with its coffee and its sandwiches, or a monologue said in voiceover, or even through subtler means (a close-up, a slow camera movement…), Malle uses the film language to distil the essence of a 19th century stage play and to speak about its modernity, while having a field day talking also about the differences and parallels between the idioms of stage and screen and how they can feed one another instead of hiding away from each other.
69. Titus (Taymor, 1999)
Titus is a film of firsts: it’s Julie Taymor’s first feature film, the first time "Titus Andronicus" has been a feature film, the first lead for Anthony Hopkins in a Shakespeare play to film, and marks the first foray into Shakespeare of any kind for Jessica Lange.
Taymor originated "Titus" on the stage in 1995 and Shakespeare’s much-maligned early work, which was previously thought to be unfilmable, finds Taymor bringing it to film with lavish opulence, anachronistic absurdity and extreme theatricality. It’s a brave, adventurous and expensive (it cost $40M and made less than $2M) spectacle.
"Titus Andronicus" was your basic Shakespeare story except for the cannibalism, dismemberment and rape. Its deeply dark and nihilistic nature was disregarded as an immature exercise in sensationalism. Roman general Titus returns from a decade of fighting the Goths with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her sons in tow. To avenge his sons’ deaths he is committed to taking the lives of hers. When he does so, Tamora in turn commits to avenge their deaths. What ensues is a gory, bloody back-and-forth of murder and savagery akin to a horror movie, but also the sadness and sorrow of families and loved ones being ripped apart in a Greek tragedy.
Having begun the decade with his Oscar-winning turn in Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins ends it with a character far more diabolical, complex and fascinating in the title role. Lange’s Tamora is drenched in equal parts sexuality and revenge, with one often feeding the other. She has an insatiable lust for vengeance that’s oddly sympathetic but never less than brutal. I think it’s the best performance of her career and one of the best supporting performances of the decade. Harry Lennix reprises his stage role as Aaron, Tamora’s confidant, with a confidence and assertion as alluring and seductive as a snake in the Garden of Eden. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys play Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius as spoiled, punk-rock glam lotharios to a dizzying degree of fun and evil.
Combining multiple time periods and styles, Taymor has given us one of the most original films of the decade and one of the best first films ever.
68. The Big Lebowski (Coen & Coen, 1998)
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." - Raymond Chandler
Chandler's quote sums up the essence of the noir detective protagonist — he is one with the streets, but somehow he rises above them. He is not cruel. He does not give in. He is a man without fear.
But what if he's stoned off his gourd?
In their beautifully hilarious deconstruction of the Chandler noir, the Coen Brothers postulate that very question. For Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges in an iconic performance) is that man, or would be, if he had any clue what was going on. The film, as noir often does, begins with a quest, an obsession: Sam Spade wants Thursby's killer, Philip Marlowe searches for Terence Regan. The Dude just wants a new fuckin' rug, man. But we sympathize with him: the old one really tied the room together. And this thrusts him into a web of intrigue which makes no sense even to those involved in it, but that is the Chandler way too: after all, what happened to Owen Taylor? Eventually, the Dude gives up even trying to figure it out. Instead, he abides. And that's what we should do.
But what a pleasure it is to abide. Whether it's Bridges' supremely tightly-wound/relaxed presence, Julianne Moore's sexually aggressive conceptual artist, John Turturro's skin-tight cameo that has to be seen to be believed, Steve Buscemi's beautifully clueless Donny, or (most of all) John Goodman's Ahabically obsessed 'Nam veteran, the cast is full of wonderful oddballs who would not have felt out of place with Greenstreet and Lorre. The script crackles with some of the greatest quips in film history (even if they're not for a family audience, though the Supreme Court has roundly rejected the doctrine of prior restraint). T-Bone Burnett outdoes himself putting together a pop soundtrack, and Roger Deakins makes both the bowling alley and the dream sequences sing. The Big Lebowski is a triumph of comic noir — it may not make much sense, but, boy, wasn't it fun getting there?
|67. Fallen Angels (Wong, 1995)
Many people would argue that Wong Kar-Wai is one of the true masters of the past two decades. But before he found his unique cinematic voice and visual style with the one-two pièce de résistance punch of In the Mood for Love and 2046, he first had to take lessons from past gods of cinema. While the playful and aimless Chungking Express was pure Godard, its more moody follow-up Fallen Angels gets inspiration from the school of Antonioni.
In Fallen Angels, the actors do not give performances. They are a mere screen presence that allows the unfolding of the film's mysteries. In a way, the film’s Bressonian treatment of its characters allows Wong to capture the real essence of his mise-en-scène and of society in general. By stripping the film of the currently heralded Stravinskiene method of acting, Wong in Fallen Angels is able to distill simple truths and reveal hidden realities.
This film follows two men's search for romance. One is a hired killer embarking on his last assignment. The other is a heartbroken mute (the result of eating cans of expired pineapples for a month). Their individual alienation and emotional disconnect are felt throughout the film since Wong constantly emphasizes the audience's distance from the film's characters — especially in Tati-esque spatial shots involving windows, mirrors, TV monitors, etc. The film's two-pronged approach is reminiscent of Chungking Express, but while that film bordered on nostalgic romanticism, Fallen Angels is its antithesis — a film of aggressive eroticism. Arguably, Fallen Angels is the yin to Chungking Express's yang.
Highly stylized but always substantial, Wong marches on to his subsequent apotheosis in the following decade with this film. Standing above the rest of those neo-New-Wavist poseurs of empty gimmicks, Fallen Angels' zesty vignettes of ennui are a perfect microcosm of modern Hong Kong — a pastiche of the vintage and the nouveau.
|66. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Minghella, 1999)
"I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody."
While that quote isn't spoken until the last third of the film, its implications are felt from the very first frame until the last one. Beginning with the opening credits we are given a glimpse into the many fragments of Tom's life, visually represented by the spliced images coming together. Tom Ripley, played brilliantly by Matt Damon, quite literally lives vicariously through others. It begins innocently enough as he fills in as a pianist for a man with a broken arm, but over the course of the film it spreads into much darker realms.
The sensual locations of Italy provide the perfect backdrop for this visually romantic, thematically chilling film. The Talented Mr. Ripley is as much about identity as it is anything else. The saying goes that if you can't beat them, join them, but Tom takes that one step further. He doesn't settle for joining Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), he wants to become Dickie Greenleaf.
Sent by Dickie's father to fetch him from Europe, Tom is instantly drawn to both Dickie's looks and his personality. At the mid-point of the film, Tom and the film itself hover at a dangerous crossroads; Dickie doesn't know it, but his life also hangs in the balance. After getting into a verbal fight (Dickie rightly accuses Tom of being a boring leech… those are two of the many attributes which he'd like to get rid of), Tom kills him, and so unfolds his devious plan to live as both Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf.
The second half of the film is dedicated to this precarious balancing act. As Tom's lies begin to pile on, it becomes more and more difficult to keep Dickie's friends from finding out what really happened. Tom does his best to mold the two lives into one, essentially becoming Dickie and setting Tom by the wayside (he only uses Tom when confronting Dickie's friends and his ex-fiancee, Marge). There is an image near the end of the film when Tom sees himself in the reflection of the piano: we see the two versions of Tom/Dickie torn apart.
By the end of the film Tom is left even more fragmented than when he began. He's tried so hard to lose himself and become someone else that he has virtually succeeded at shedding himself. Every time he gets close to someone, he has to either lie to them or kill them to keep his secret. He wants to give someone the key to his basement (home of his nightmares and darkest secrets), but when it comes down to it, he is unable to do so. Instead he adds another secret to the dark basement of his soul. "I'm lost."
|65. Beau travail (Denis, 1999)
Claire Denis is one of the best working directors today and this shows with her towering opus, Beau travail. I believe that this is one of the sexiest films of all time but there are no literal love scenes in the film itself! Denis is able to capture human sensuality while juxtaposing it with the sensuousness of the desert surroundings. This is the film that Antonioni tried to make in Zabriskie Point but horribly failed.
The fact that Beau travail is a war film is such a huge undertaking for Denis. But as in her debut Chocolat, she is able to explore moral issues without cliche and she achieves this with raw emotional power and poetic beauty. Denis strips cinema of its excesses in Bressonian fashion and distills its fundamental components to recount the glory days of Galoup (Denis Lavant) in the French Foreign Legion. The film starts with a structured narrative when Galoup still lived a routine life. The arrival of an interesting but mysterious neophyte, Sentain (Grégoire Colin), arouses feelings in Galoup that he has never felt before or never knew existed. From here on, Denis takes control of the filmic language with her own cinematic philosophy, seducing viewers in one of the most visceral experiences put to film. With its memorable and anarchic final scene, Beau travail is a defining work about memory, consciousness and experience.
|64. La cérémonie (Chabrol, 1995)
A well-to-do family is plunged headfirst into domestic horror when the household help finally snaps: this synopsis could describe a hundred made-for-television movies and even calls to mind the guilty pleasures of The Hand the Rocks the Cradle. Claude Chabrol's La cérémonie certainly draws upon the succession of families-in-peril thrillers that emerged after Fatal Attraction, but it eschews a conventional romantic angle (though a torrid relationship is certainly suggested) in favor of calculated social commentary.
Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is hired as housekeeper by the wealthy Lelievre family (headed by Jean-Pierre Cassel and Jacqueline Bisset) at their estate in Brittany. The woman is a diligent servant but guarded, as empty as she is thorough in her duties. She befriends a local postal worker, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who is as aggressive and batty as Sophie is passive and rational. Or so it seems. A series of inconsequential revelations about Sophie's limitations becomes anything but insignificant. The suppressed past of each woman fuels the friendship into the vaguely sexual, and the repression of position further stokes this combustible camaraderie until it detonates.
The tragedy that Chabrol finds is less in the violence that simmers into La cérémonie but more in the circumstances that created Sophie (these same elements also formed the needy and dismissive Lelievres and the antagonistic Jeanne). They are the social order and its devilish offspring, unrest. It is no accident that the title, La cérémonie, references a death march to the guillotine circa the French Revolution. Sophie is a victim, though this does not excuse her crushing mistakes. Both in the abstract and in Bonnaire's seething, restrained portrayal, Sophie is vacant; the actress excavates a hole so hollow and deep that it threatens to plummet a viewer downward. This conception of character also provides a canvas upon which projection is instinctive and the acknowledgement of social collaboration duly implied.
The director, who co-adapted the material, never sermonizes but characteristically wraps the slow burn of finality into a wicked thriller. Black humor is abundant, notably in Huppert's demented, daffy performance, but also in a climax that unfolds like a deranged slapstick routine. Chabrol smartly remains neutral on social politics throughout, aside from the presentation of Sophie as victim. In doing so, there is an almost farcical, dark ambivalence that reverberates years later in this modern classic.
63. The Player (Altman, 1992)
As much as Robert Altman was such a maverick that he had to write his own obituary with A Prairie Home Companion, he was the only person who could have made The Player the dry, mocking comedy it is. Amazingly, on the commentary Altman admits that he was essentially doing director-for-hire work on The Player as he sought funding for the film he really wanted to make, 1993’s Short Cuts. Altman had already introduced the filmgoing public to his mastery as tour guide of unique groups of people, but this film allowed a new set access to his genius.
For me, for example, I was a mere 10 years old when I watched it with my family on VHS. I didn’t get it. In my return visit, I was able to see what is there and appreciate Altman’s fine hand. This may be “director-for-hire,” in his words, but it is also excellent filmmaking. The opening tracking shot, which Altman has said is 9 minutes long and includes two characters talking about the famous opening of Welles’ Touch of Evil just for meta-fans, is enough for him to deserve the Best Director nomination he received. Further, by focusing on the Tim Robbins character hearing pitches for much of that shot, Altman shows how Hollywood in the early '90s simply mouthed words about cinematic giants like Welles but left true authority to turn down scripts to studio executives.
As Griffin Mill, one such exec, Robbins leads an excellent cast filled with actors, like Cynthia Stevenson, who should have had stronger careers. Mill is what you’d expect a '90s studio guy to be: always introducing himself, full of false care for his subjects and catch phrases (“25 words or less”). We’re on his time and we aren’t to forget it. When the film opens, he’s hearing a pitch for a sequel to The Graduate (then one where Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman) and is about to receive one of many threatening postcards. What follows may not be as piercing as many later films, but it is an excellent portrait of the many things wrong with studio life in Hollywood, not to mention a twisted send-up of the kind of thriller Griffin Mill would greenlight.
When all is said and done, Altman has made a mocking film full of dark, sardonic humour. He cynically populates the film with a bevy of star cameos, from Cher in a red dress at a black-and-white party to Harry Belafonte to an angry Malcolm McDowell. They were given no dialogue, and the film used them as much as any fictional character. It added up, ironically, to a return to form for Robert Altman, as he returned as cinema’s great maverick for a film wonderfully satirizing a community that had rejected him.
62. Days of Being Wild (Wong, 1990)
Days of Being Wild is an important film for several reasons. It marks the first collaboration between writer-director Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a partnership responsible for some of the most memorable images in the last 20 years of cinema. Also, it is often said that Wong's filmography can be viewed as one big tapestry; if this is the case, Days is surely the one where his trademark style has first made itself apparent: the multi-character voiceovers, a fixation on memory and the passage of time, the use of slow motion, the nostalgic soundtrack, the post-modern version of Ozu's "pillow shots," etc. Lastly, it begins a loose narrative thread with a tone, story and characters that continue with later masterpieces In The Mood For Love and 2046; the film is made retroactively richer by its counterparts.
While ostensibly a period piece set in the 1960s, Days does as good a job as Wong's contemporary productions of illustrating the aimlessness and delirium that seemed to define the final decade of the 20th century. Characters drift towards and away from each other, connections are tenuous, everything is transient, the noir-like environment not necessarily foreboding but rather smothering its inhabitants in a world-weary malaise. To counter this atmosphere is our ability to hear, mostly through voiceover, the private musings and hopes of these people, for even if Wong's brand of romanticism is the doomed kind, the dream is enough to hook us and engender our empathy. This insight, combined with the sensuality of the film (which can be credited to Wong, Doyle, and even long-time production designer William Chang), is what allows Days to cast such a heady spell that penetrates the subconscious and lingers long after the film ends, even more so than any film with a message or moral lesson.
|61. Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990)
Wild at Heart has been viewed as one of the most accessible works by David Lynch. Indeed, this film incorporates all of his directorial flourishes and eccentricities. It is a great film to start with when delving into Lynch's ouevre. In this phantasmagorical road-trip-movie-cum-film-noir full of The Wizard of Oz allusions, David Lynch launches a full-scale attack on the audience — a pleasurable assault that will leave one in blissful tremors after witnessing such a film. In Wild at Heart, we are transported into a world both familiar and bizarre thanks to the endearing genius of the surrealist master.
The film stars Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as Sailor and Lula, two carefree lovers having the time of their life as they set off for the Golden State. All the while they are unaware of the danger lurking behind, set into motion by Lula's psychopathic mother. As they proceed with their odyssey in sunny California, the two encounter the usual "Lynchian" stuff — peculiar characters and grostesque events. In a way, Wild at Heart successfully merges Nicholas Ray's youthful verve with Federico Fellini's surrealist excesses. But Lynch completely makes this film his own synthesis.
With this film, David Lynch proves that he is definitely a great director of actresses. There is Naomi Watts for Mulholland Drive. There is Laura Dern for INLAND EMPIRE. There is Isabella Rossellini for Blue Velvet. There is Sissy Spacek for The Straight Story. Finally, in Wild at Heart, there is that pure dynamite of a thespian, Diane Ladd, in her turn as the conniving mother. Nuance is thrown out the door in favour of grandiose theatricality, and this suits perfectly in Lynch's universe.
Critics have derided the film's lack of characterization and its cornucopia of themes/allegories/metaphors. Although these are arguable, they may also be beside the point. From its references to The Wizard of Oz to its twisting of Hollywood genres, Wild at Heart is not a film about piercing sociopsychological character study. It is fundamentally a film about American iconography. And with it gets cemented Lynch's status as one of America's iconic directors.
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