– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
Parting is such a sweet sorrow.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
Wes Anderson has been an enigmatic filmmaker for decades now, expertly mixing camp and fun with dark humor and sometimes horrific atrocities, all wrapped up in bubblegum colors.
Yeah, he’s … weird. That’s the best word to describe him.
However, he’s managed to pull off this combo with an astounding success rate (I mean, really, his least appreciated film is Life Aquatic, and even that one is pretty good). But after his string of hits came his best one to date. 2014 saw the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is the apex of all Anderson’s styles coming together into one stunning package.
The plot follows a legendary writer telling stories of his younger life as a bellboy at the prestigious, titular hotel. It mostly involves a concierge who is the lover of an older woman; when she dies, she leaves him an incredibly valuable painting. This raises the ire of the woman’s son, who then resorts to outright violence to get the painting back for himself.
If I were to describe everything that made this film Anderson’s best we’d be here all day, but here are some highlights. For one, this is arguably Anderson’s funniest film. This is partly because of the script, but also because of the deft handling of the extraordinary ensemble (including Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, and – sigh – my beloved, Saoirse Ronan). The set design is memorable too, not only because it features Anderson’s signature color schemes, but also because of his blatant use of miniatures. This openness about faking numerous shots achieves an interesting purpose. It forces you to acknowledge that you’re watching a film, so there’s no illusion of reality, allowing you to instead enjoy the miniatures. Strange effect, but powerful.
Even the aspect ratio is clever. In case you’re not familiar with the term, this essentially means how much of the screen is used. In theaters, you’ll usually see a widescreen aspect ratio, where the picture is stretched widthwise. Television is typically a square box shape. Films are usually made with the widescreen aspect ratio, but as The Grand Budapest Hotel changes time frames and eras, the aspect ratio adjusts as well, which serves to mentally reinforce the setting, albeit subtly, and in a way you probably never even noticed. That’s some serious skill.
- The Act of Killing (2012)
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer
Starring: Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry
Now we move to our final documentary of the list, the greatest documentary made since 1990 (and a strong contender for the best of all time, along with Shoah, Night and Fog, and Man With a Movie Camera).
Through the years of 1965 and 1966, Indonesia suffered a vicious genocide of sorts that claimed the lives of about one million people. (People label it different ways. We’ll stick with genocide.) The death squad that committed these atrocities still exists, albeit in a different form, and is still led by the same group of men.
Realizing this, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (and an Indonesian who wished to remain anonymous, unsurprisingly) set out to interview these men. But rather than simply approach them with a camera in their faces and ask, “How could you??” he opted for a … um, pretty unique style.
Oppenheimer requested that they tell him about their memories of the murders, which soon leads to them reenacting the atrocities on film. Soon his subjects have begun glorifying themselves and their murders, but in the styles of their favorite films. Which is why in a highly realistic and disturbing documentary about genocide, we get … musical numbers. (And you thought The Hole sounded bad…)
It’s weird, I know. But good. But how can a tale of genocide include such things and still be taken seriously? Simple. If the men were portrayed as absolute evil, then they would seem more like a Hollywood caricature of a mass murderer. But by seeing these men relish their past and glorify it in ridiculous ways, we see not only the evil of their former ways, but we begin to see glimpses of their humanity. Whatever little humanity there is. When you include all this together, the actions they took as young men has a greater impact, and instead of being angry at seeing simple evil, we’re left wondering how these happy, charming people could ever have done the things they did.
All in all, The Act of Killing is the most brilliant approach to documentary filmmaking you’ll ever see. If you can stomach it, that is.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Directed by: George Miller
Starring: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy
I was initially hesitant about including such a recent film at such a high position, as usually it takes time to determine if a film ages as well as we expect, though I’m pretty confident about this one. But why? Why such a high ranking for a popcorn action flick, especially after numerous entries dedicated to art and experimental films being ranked lower?
Well for one, none of my customary complaints about action films apply to Mad Max. See, most action films follow a specific set formula that we’ve seen time and time again. I don’t even need to explain to you what it is, since you’re already running it through your mind right now.
For this film though, director George Miller dispensed with the customs. He envisioned the whole movie as a car chase and little more, even storyboarding the whole thing before writing the script. This was done to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed he wanted his films to be understood in Japan without needing subtitles. Now admittedly, in the hands of a lesser director this could’ve been awful. I’m sure we’ve all seen action films where the overblown action sequences replaced actual plot (see the entire filmography of Michael Bay).
However, despite putting scriptwriting on hold for a time, when he finally got to it he pulled out all the stops. Rather than filling the screenplay with dumb action movie clichés, Miller consulted … a feminist? The writer of The Vagina Monologues? Okay, now there’s an original idea. An original idea that led to the most impressively feminist film of 2015. Especially notable is the sequence wherein the titular Max is attempting to hit a faraway target, missing twice. Finally he grimaces and passes the gun to his female companion and allows her to (successfully) make the shot. Probably not going to see that in a Fast and Furious movie unless it’s being played for comedy, or if the woman has already been seen in a bikini.
Also amazing are the technical aspects of the film. Not only is it almost entirely practical effects (as in, yes, they did all those insane stunts), the camera work is unimaginably smooth. Before filming Miller recognized the film would be chaotic, so rather than opt for that insufferable “shaky cam” style that’s all the rage these days, he instructed the director of photography to keep the action firmly in the center of the shot. Even if the shot switches, whatever your eye is meant to focus on will remain in the same spot, allowing you to easily and enjoyably soak in all the details instead of being tossed around.
There’s a lot more we could talk about, but hopefully this little rundown will help. Mad Max: Fury Road, ridiculous summer popcorn action flick? Yes, absolutely. But is it possible for a ridiculous summer popcorn action flick to pull double-duty as a quality art film? I never would have believed it before, but now I say again, yes.
- Before trilogy (1995 – 2013)
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Once more, we return to Richard Linklater. While Boyhood – discussed in Part 9 – may be a better individual film, when stacked up against the entire Before trilogy, the latter clearly wins out.
In 1995, Linklater introduced us to two characters named Jesse and Celine. In the first film, Before Sunrise, these two meet one another during a visit to Vienna, and spend an entire night walking around the city having a conversation. That’s it. There’s really nothing more to say about the plot. The magic is in the details, the rich conversation they have as they explore one another’s minds and souls during their 12-hour layover. It’s a powerful, touching, and romantic film that involves nothing more than Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy speaking with one another.
Astonishingly, and thankfully, it was successful enough that nine years later we got a sequel, and then another one nine years after that. I honestly can’t describe the plots without divulging some serious spoilers, so let’s instead dwell on the brilliance of the trilogy.
Golly, it’s the dialogue. I know that sounds like an awful cop-out answer, but that’s all that happens. Linklater himself realized going into it all that he would need help writing a film that was carried solely by conversation (particularly writing the female lead, assuming he would naturally have a slant towards the male character), thus he enlisted the help of fellow writer Kim Krizan. Additionally, after the casting of Hawke and Delpy in the leading roles, the two performers had a hand in rewriting it further so as to make the conversation flow as naturally and realistically as possible. And my heavens does it work. No other film has managed to capture raw emotions with such grace and subtlety. While the first film didn’t receive much attention at awards ceremonies, the second and third films more than made up for that glaring oversight.
- Amelie (2001)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tatou, Mathieu Kassovitz
You may recall we had earlier covered two different films (Life is Beautiful and The Lives of Others), that were two of the three highest-rated films of all time on the so-called Europe List. Now we’ve finally reached the third, filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s lovely and adorable Amelie.
The film presents a certain Amelie Poulain, who was raised in an overbearing and overprotective household. This caused her to develop a wild imagination as a way to amuse herself. Even as she ages into an adult she maintains this whimsical attitude toward the world, which manages to infect most of those around her. It’ll infect you too, unless you’re some kind of a heartless monster. Not only is the character written to be charming, but lead actress Audrey Tatou pulls off the role perfectly, nearly guaranteeing Amelie Poulain will live on as one of the best character inventions of the century.
Adding to the film’s charm and memorability is the astounding use of color. Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shot with a very limited color palette, which adds to the fanciful surroundings Amelie is imagining. You wouldn’t want this charming woman to live in a bland world that looks exactly like ours, would you? Instead, we’re given shocking contrasts between green and red, with a very sparse smattering of gold throughout to punctuate important visuals.
The response was immediate upon release, with many praising the charm of the film and of the lead character. It went on to score over $33 million at the US box office alone, quickly becoming the highest grossing film ever made in the French language. Maybe not what we would’ve expected from the same man who had recently made a dystopian science fiction film about a cannibal landlord (Delicatessen, if you feel like giving it a shot. Or just stick with Amelie. Your choice)
- Wall-E (2008)
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Ben Burtt, Fred Willard
At last, our final Pixar entry. What other animated film could deserve to be ranked above the likes of Toy Story and Spirited Away?
Also, how on Earth did this film work?
The first half has no dialogue and no action. We’re given no human characters to lead, nor any anthropomorphic animals with wacky sidekicks. Nearly the first hour is just … a garbage collecting unit. Collecting garbage. Alone. With an old DVD of Hello, Dolly!
And yet, the film works! Not only is the first hour immensely entertaining and shockingly funny, but when the full story kicks in, it has a stunningly relevant (and painful) message about our wasteful way of living and the definite threat we face in the future. Pretty deep for a children’s film. Another highlight is (again, surprisingly) the romance. After a decade full of Bella/Edward/Jacob and endless varieties of Adam Sandler falling in love with Drew Barrymore, we were finally given the love story we deserve with, um, a trash compacting robot and a flying metal egg. Hey, no one ever said art had to make sense!
Also, one final plug. If you ever get a chance to watch the Special Features on the film’s DVD, absolutely do that! There’s an amazing piece on the film’s sound design that is almost as good as the film itself. I know it sounds dull as dishwater, but allow me to assure you that you won’t be disappointed.
- There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano
It’s a rare feat for an amazing book to be turned into an equally amazing movie. It’s even rarer for the film to exceed the quality of the book. And it’s an unparalleled achievement for the film to be so good that people forget the book ever even existed (for the only other example in history, see The Godfather). And yet, this film succeeded in that.
Paul Thomas Anderson had long had an immaculate record, with films such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia to his credit, but he found his match made in heaven with lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Together they tackled Upton Sinclair’s tale of a simple businessman slowly being driven mad with greed as he pursues wealth in oil at any cost.
Allow me to share my three favorite points only, although I could go on for hours. First, the music. Jonny Greenwood provided the musical score for the film, and it is perfect. Putting his years of experience with Radiohead to good use, he assembled a killer soundtrack, incorporating all the themes and styles you’re comfortable hearing, but adding in his own twists with a clever variety of instruments and occasional dips into atonal music, leaving us with a haunting atmosphere.
Second, the cinematography is among the greatest ever put on film. Whether we’re seeing close-up shots in the dark, long panning shots along the frontier or pillars of fire erupting from the Earth, director of photography Robert Elswit made sure every single image was caught in the best way imaginable.
Finally, the performances are amazing. Much has already been said about Day-Lewis and his legendary role as Daniel Plainview, but holding his own against that powerhouse performance is Paul Dano as a young minister trying to raise funds to build a church, who unfortunately (for him) winds up going head-to-head with Plainview. It’s not easy to share the screen with Day-Lewis, but somehow Dano does it. He deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Supp…. hang on. Double-checking my research here … wait, he didn’t even get a nomination? How?
- Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000)
Directed by: Edward Yang
Starring: Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin
Once again, I’m left staring at my computer screen unable to think of anything adequate to say. There is nothing I could possibly hope to put here that could express the beauty of this film or how much I love it. Instead, let me pound on my keyboard and hope something sensible comes out. (“Ford, there’s an infinite number of monkeys out here that want to talk to us about this review for Yi Yi they’ve worked out.”)
The premise is simple. It follows the lives of many members of a family over the course of about one year. Throughout this year, each of them finds a past problem resurfaces that must be dealt with, all of which involve former relationships that now threaten current relationships. None of these stories are self-contained though. Rather, they spill out into one another’s lives, in a script so well balanced it’s truly extraordinary, managing to give enough attention to all the individuals while never overcomplicating the whole thing.
The film is also highly symbolic, using its locations and themes to the full. For an obvious example, it begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. Also notable is the film’s famous poster featuring nothing more than the back of a child’s head. While that seems like the laziest possible poster, you see that it reflects a very important theme in the film, one that doesn’t become fully realized until the very end.
This gorgeous (gorgeous!) film is just shy of three hours long, and doesn’t waste a single moment of it. If you’ve never delved into foreign language filmmaking, then this is the ideal film to see just what the international cinema scene is capable of.
- Schindler’s List (1993)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neesons, Ben Kingsley
As I’m sure I’ve stated many times before, World War II and the Holocaust have been rich soil for storytelling now for decades. We’ve seen countless iterations of this, focusing on the combat, the suffering of Nazi victims, the after-effects on families, etc. But beginning as far back as 1983, Steven Spielberg set about bringing us one of the most personal and emotional tales involving World War II ever told. It all began with Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, who wanted to give full respect to the man who saved his life: Oskar Schindler. Pfefferberg made it his life’s goal to tell Schindler’s story.
Oskar Schindler was an interesting man. In the midst of the Nazis trying to corral all the Jews in Poland into easily manageable areas, Schindler saw this as an opportunity. He began recruiting hundreds of Jews to staff a factory he recently acquired, thus providing them with some form of income and a level of protection from the Nazis. Did he do this out of compassion for the victims, or was he simply interested in the cheap labor and seeking an opportunity to earn his fortune? Who can tell? Over time however, as the atrocities got worse, Schindler stepped up, going to ever greater lengths to save as many as possible. People whose names wound up on the titular “list.”
This story is ably told by Spielberg, who avoids the easy route of portraying Schindler as a clear-cut “good guy” and the Nazis as clear-cut “bad guys” (despite what some ignorant reviews may tell you, written by people who clearly didn’t actually watch the movie). Rather, we see Schindler as a man interested first of all in profit, and sees helping Jewish people as a simple side effect (as evidenced by his objecting to the factory manager hiring a one-armed man). Over time though, the horrors of what the Nazis are doing begins to take effect on him, causing him to abandon his goal of wealth and instead focus solely on helping others.
Throughout its impressive three-hour run time, you’ll be presented with horror and beauty. Soldiers doing unspeakable things to Jews – everything from murder to stripping old women naked and making them run in circles in the snow – but mixed in with such amazing acts of self-sacrifice that it’ll leave you with emotional whiplash.
Director of photography Janusz Kaminski opted to shoot the majority of the film in black and white in an attempt to do three things. First, to give the film a sense of time. Second, to emulate documentary footage from the era. Third, to reflect the lack of life during the Holocaust (comparing color with liveliness). The effect certainly works, aided through occasional splashes of color for select moments. (Take particular note of the candles and when the flame has color or not.)
Additionally, the musical score is unbelievably good, scored by longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams, with additional violin provided by legendary virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (whose other recordings you should absolutely listen to). Reportedly, when Spielberg presented the film for scoring, Williams said, “You’ll have to find a better composer for this.” Spielberg replied, “I know, but they’re all dead.” After one listen to the eventual score, I think you’ll agree with Spielberg, no better choice could have been found.
Admittedly, this film has received some criticism from some who complain that it doesn’t offer a comprehensive enough look at the horrors of the Holocaust, for example one Claude Lanzmann, who criticized the film for not being as accurate as his own nine-hour masterpiece Shoah. To which I say, “No duh,” This film does not claim to be a documentary; it is a fictionalized life account of Oskar Schindler. Not the Holocaust as a whole, but the one man, his sacrifices and his compassion. The same Lanzmann criticized the film for showing the events through the eyes of a German man instead of the sufferers, claiming this gives an unbalanced view of things. To which again … this is a biopic of Oskar Schindler. A German man. Had the man who championed the story not been a Holocaust survivor whose life had been spared by the German man at the center of it, and had the director not been a Jew, these arguments might have carried a little more weight.
Paraphrasing famed director Stanley Kubrick, this film is not about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is about 6,000,000 people who died in terrible ways. This film is about 600 that lived, and the man that saved their lives.
(No disrespect meant to Claude Lanzmann. His nine-hour documentary Shoah is genuinely a masterpiece and you should absolutely watch it, it gives a better glimpse into the Holocaust than any other film or documentary ever made. It will destroy your soul, but still a worthy viewing)
Now that I’ve gotten through that cathartic release, it’s time for our big reveal. Our pick for the #1 greatest film made since 1990!
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)
Directed by: A Hack
Starring: An Emo Brat, A Goth Brat
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I just couldn’t.
Our actual number one is, naturally…
- Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta
What else? A genuinely brilliant, innovative film, perhaps the most innovative film since Citizen Kane. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty about this movie, whether it’s T-shirts, posters, memes or just people spouting quotes. But what is it that makes the film truly great, the best film since 1990?
One point is Tarantino’s skill at writing dialogue. For example, let’s take a key plot point, that of John Travolta’s character taking his boss’s wife out for a night on the town (at the boss’s request). A lesser film would have Travolta say to Jackson at the beginning of the film, “Man, the boss sure gets jealous easy doesn’t he? Sure hope nothing happens to her while I’m responsible for her!” But that would kind of give away what’s about to develop in the plot, losing its shock value. This is where Tarantino’s brilliance comes in. He has the characters enveloped in a seemingly pointless conversation (the famous “You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?” discussion) that actually gives you all the information you need to know about his boss and his jealousy, but without revealing what’s about to happen. And this happens over and over again throughout the film. Any conversation that seems meaningless is likely very important to a later scene; you just don’t realize it at the time.
Of course, no discussion of Pulp Fiction would be complete without mention of the nonlinear storytelling structure. The film tells at least three distinct stories. They are loosely connected, but Tarantino intercuts between them so each tale builds on one another. On top of that, it doesn’t follow chronological order, but rather in the most narratively interesting order, which means one character might get killed and then reappear in the very next scene.
Plus there’s a super weird flashback that features Christopher Walken delivering the greatest monologue in cinema history. (Second place is Jackson quoting the Biblical book of Ezekiel in this same film.)
As if all of this weren’t enough, the film uses very subtle imagery to express symbolic points that are unnecessary for the understanding of the film as a whole, but certainly add an interesting layer to the film on repeat viewings. (For example, Bruce Willis’ selection of weapons in the pawn shop. Pay close attention to his sequence of choices!)
Can you believe this movie was booed when it won the Cannes Film Festival? Also, can you believe Forrest Gump beat this for the Best Picture Oscar in 1994? And that Samuel L. Jackson didn’t win the Best Supporting Actor award? Oh wait, that’s the year Martin Landau won for his stellar portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Drat. Um, tie?
Okay, I feel myself beginning to ramble. In summary, Pulp Fiction is the best movie made since 1990, though it was certainly a close call.
And that’s that. Let us know in the comments how you feel about the overall list. And if you caught the Key & Peele reference, please post a comment below with the name Aaron in it.
J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.