– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
Welcome to the penultimate Part 9, in which you’ll begin to realize many of your favorite films may in fact not be appearing on this list after all. Apologies.
- Boyhood (2014)
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
It’s very rare for a truly revolutionary film to come along. A film that makes everyone stop and say: “Wait, we can do that?”
However, in 2014 we got one. Perhaps for years you’d heard of that School of Rock director making a 12-year film project. I did. “Big deal,” I thought. “He makes another Before film every nine years. Probably something like that.”
Happily, I was dead wrong. In this stunning artistic vision, we’re presented with the life of Mason Evans from ages 6-18. While most films would have someone playing Mason (age 6) and someone totally different looking playing Mason (age 18), Linklater was much more ambitious than that. Filmed two weeks at a time per year, we’re given a 12-year glimpse at actor Ellar Coltrane aging and growing.
Kinda like As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, but scripted.
Written a year at a time as well, it tells us Mason’s life growing up between the homes of divorced parents, and dealing with all the struggles and joys involved in growing up. Simple and understated, this film is an emotional powerhouse and will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.
- Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen
Let’s say you’re a big-shot producer. Let’s say you want to make a high-budget big-screen trilogy adaptation of one of the most beloved works of literature in the history of history. Who do you get to direct? If your answer was “The guy who directed Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Braindead!” then you’re clearly ready for Hollywood!
Amazingly, though, this combination worked. Peter Jackson, a native of New Zealand, was able to match the scenery he knew and loved with Middle Earth, and it was a great pairing. The screenplay (adapted by Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh) managed to stay true to the spirit of the books while trimming it down to feature film length. Plus Jackson’s impeccable eye for detail made these films look alive in a way that’s rarely been matched.
(Please note all this praise is directed towards the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and not to the Hobbit.)
Pulling out all the stops, this trilogy is an epic of unparalleled scale. The amazing ensemble pulled off their roles to a T (and this is one of the few places you can see a Shakespearean actor alongside a Goonie), standing out even in the midst of massive armies dressed in period-appropriate armor.
All told, the trilogy garnered an amazing 17 Oscars out of 30 nominations and amassed nearly $3 billion at the box office.
Interestingly, the only prior film adaptation of these legendary stories was in 1978 by Ralph Bakshi, best known for helming the first X-rated animated film ever made. What is it with Lord of the Rings and weird directors?
- Spirited Away (2001)
Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino
Makes very good anime
As I’ve said before
By Hayao Miyazaki
Their greatest film yet?
After helming an already impressive array of films, Miyazaki set about making a film starring an admirable heroine, a film character his daughter and her friends could look up to. Combining this with a childlike wonder of mysterious places, Miyazaki finally pieced together an inventive script about a young girl accidentally crossing into the spirit realm with her parents. When her parents are turned into pigs, she attempts to discover how to change them back and free them from the realm.
While aimed at 10-year old girls, the film has much more to offer. Miyazaki has stated there’s much significance to the fact that the parents become pigs, saying “Chihiro’s parents turning into pigs symbolizes how some humans become greedy … these people still haven’t realized they’ve become pigs.”
(Ooh, hey, I think Pink Floyd has an album about that too!)
So in conclusion
We all learned something good here
I suck at haikus
- Goodfellas (1990)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
Full confession: I’m not the biggest Scorsese fan. I find he tends to repeat the same themes and styles over and over again, and I find his screenwriting at times cringeworthy.
“Motherf——… He bought his f—— button! That fake old tough guy! You bought your f—— button! You mother f—… F—! Keep that motherf—– here.”
Eloquent. Quoting Milton, I believe.
However, credit where credit is due. When he tackled Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction account of Henry Hill, a Brooklyn Mafia hitman, he scored. A huge element to the success of this film is Scorsese’s able handling of his impressive cast. He brought in longtime collaborators Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (and some newcomers such as Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco), and so not only were we guaranteed great performances, but Scorsese allowed them plenty of time to rehearse and improvise so as to make the script their own and adapt it to their characters. (And sometimes invent entirely new scenes, such as when they meet DeVito’s mother)
On top of that, we’re given Scorsese’s finest camera work, which grips us right from the get go with a long take leading us through a night club. Beyond that, much of the filming style mirrors that of the French New Wave movement (especially the filmography of Francois Truffaut) with rapid jump cuts and transitions between scenes, adding to the overall rebellious nature of the film.
So despite my misgivings, this film absolutely belongs here. The Wolf of Wall Street is still awful though.
- Sátántangó (1994)
Directed by: Bela Tarr
Starring: Mihaly Vig, Putyi Horvath
Now we move from the frenetic speed and energy of Goodfellas to the absolute opposite. You think the 2 ½ hour run time of the former film seemed much? Try Satantango’s truly awe-inspiring 7 hour, 12 minute length.
This film has perhaps the most inventive structure I’ve ever seen. Its movement of sequences is based on the titular dance Sátántangó, or “Devil’s Tango”. Rather than moving chronologically, it takes six steps forward (six scenes, each lasting about 30 minutes) and then six back (six more scenes of similar length), and tells the story of two villagers returning home, much to the shock of the fellow villagers who assumed the two were dead. When the men reach, they have a suspicious proposal for everyone else, a definite “too good to be true” sort of deal.
Not only does the film sport a genius structure, it also allows your eye to soak in the details and pick out the meaning. For example, the infamous seven minute shot of a herd of cows. Sure, sounds dull as all get out, but put in the context of the film, it emphasizes a very important point. The fact that the film is full of long takes (average shot length is over three minutes) means you miss nothing, you get every single detail the director has lovingly placed there for you.
- Barton Fink (1991)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman
Picking the top Coen’s film ever made was a difficult task. How do you choose? The dark comedy of Fargo, the absurdism of The Big Lebowski, the intricacy of Miller’s Crossing? How do you choose?
Simple. You pick the one that has all those elements. You pick Barton Fink.
John Turturro stars as the titular Barton Fink, a playwright whose success has attracted the attention of Hollywood. Hesitant, he nevertheless accepts the offer and quickly gets assigned to handle the script for a wrestling film. While struggling with writer’s block, he meets an assortment of unique characters, particularly his neighbor, a traveling salesman with plenty of stories to tell.
Expertly balancing film noir, fantasy, horror, comedy and surrealism, the film has heavy focus on the absurdity of the Hollywood system and its effect on common people, and how corporate greed can ruin talented people and destroy creativity. Something Hollywood is still very good at today. (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman)
Also not to be overlooked is the sound design. Borrowing inspiration from the classic Eraserhead, every sound effect was carefully planned and inserted so as to have maximum effect and meaning. When you watch this, ensure you have good sound.
This film had a wretched time at the box office but did very well critically (and deservedly so), even winning three of the four highest prizes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival – Best Picture, Director, and Actor.
- Inception (2010)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Many people criticize the blockbuster film movement as destroying art in mainstream cinema, and it would be hard to argue with them. Although the original blockbusters (think the New Hollywood movement, Spielberg and Cimino and such) had genuinely inventive and clever styles and tricks, in the intervening years originality has been sparse in mainstream blockbuster cinema.
Enter Christopher Nolan, fresh of the success of an amazing string of films – Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – he now had the clout necessary to find funding for his passion project, a thriller set in the world of dreams. With a lesser director, this could’ve easily become a mindless action film, but in his able hands, we got a brilliant and breathtaking movie.
Based around the idea of a technology enabling people to enter dreams to steal ideas, DiCaprio plays Dominick Cobb, a former thief who is hired to instead try and plant an idea. To cover his tracks, he and his crew dig deep, framing a dream within a dream, within a dream. Sure, the layers can get confusing at times, but it’s handled in a manner that with close enough attention, you can follow.
Sporting a hefty $160 million price tag, this is probably the most expensive art film ever made. However, it justifies that expense. Rather than resorting to lazy use of excessive CGI, the film was made using mostly practical effects, meaning pretty much everything you see on screen was actually happening. Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting tossed around a spinning hallway while doing battle with security guards? Yep. A sidewalk cafe exploding around DiCaprio and Ellen Page? You bet!
In the years since its release, the film has been subjected to incessant interpretation and debate, which I won’t get into because half the fun is arriving at your own ideas. But I will say this. Watch the rings.
- Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen
Independent film has been a rapidly expanding field over the years, especially since the Internet has made audiences more accessible to amateur filmmakers. However, even before these tools became available, a few indie directors were able to score attention. Enter Quentin Tarantino and his brilliant debut film.
Few films have been told in a more unique or original manner than Reservoir Dogs. It shares the story of a gang of career criminals who’ve never met, but are assembled by a boss to pull off a heist. To ensure anonymity, each criminal is given a pseudonym. Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Pink, etc.
In their robbery attempt, they’re ambushed by police, causing a string of events that makes them realize one of their own is in reality an undercover policeman. They shack up inside an abandoned warehouse and begin a series of brutal interrogations to uncover the truth about who betrayed them.
Not only is the plot fresh, but the manner it’s presented in is fascinating. Rather than a linear retelling, the time frame continually jumps around, giving us information in the most suspenseful order imaginable. Because of Tarantino’s trademark wit and characterization, the film is immensely rewatchable, especially as you begin to realize the film is packed with clues regarding the identity of the mole. Heck, the film basically smacks you in the face with his identity. But you’ll never catch it on your first watch.
- In the Mood For Love (2000)
Directed by: Kar Wai Wong
Starring: Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Maggie Cheung
At #67 of this roundup I listed Chungking Express as director Kar Wai Wong’s first masterpiece. This film is his second, and greatest. A passionate romantic film without romance.
Set in Hong Kong in the early 60s, it tells the story of a man and a woman who are married to others, but each suspect their respective spouses of cheating on them. Being neighbors, this man and woman see much of each other, and begin sharing their suspicions. As they do this, their friendship grows stronger and stronger, causing them to have to swear to one another that they won’t stoop to the level of their spouses and cheat. Along the way, they begin imagining and even acting out how they think the affairs could have begun, as part of their attempt to understand their betrayals.
The screenplay (written by the director) is gorgeous, and gives us excellent, subtle glimpses into the minds of the two protagonists and their struggles. Interesting as well is the fact that they film never shows us the faces of their cheating spouses. Consider the effect of this. Having never seen the spouses, we have no connection with them. So? Say the protagonists go ahead and cheat with one another. This would have no effect on us since we have no feeling for their spouses. And yet, the director presents the protagonists as faithful, causing them and their actions to be even more remarkable.
This film demands close attention when you watch it, so ensure you have as few distractions as possible. It deserves and requires your full focus.
- Toy Story series (1995 – )
Directed by: John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen
I’m going to plagiarize myself briefly, specifically my opening words for this article. “It’s very rare for a truly revolutionary film to come along. A film that makes everyone stop and say ‘Wait, we can do that?’”
While the statement definitely applies to Boyhood, no other film since 1990 can have as much claim to those words as the original Toy Story film. After decades of the field of film animation being dominated by hand-drawn cartoons, Pixar burst onto the scene with an incredible accomplishment. The first film made entirely with computer-generated imagery.
In 1995 the first of the series was released, and became the first film I clearly remember seeing in theaters. Not only was it an impressive technical achievement, it was a masterful example of storytelling, for children and adults alike, and was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for its screenwriting (Joss Whedon’s final appearance on this list. Promise)
Enter 1999, when Pixar decided (wisely) to return to the characters it had created by making Toy Story 2, which became the second most successful animated film at the time, and is widely regarded as being one of (if not the) best film sequels of all time, thanks in part to bringing back the beloved characters and staying true to them, and also by introducing us to a host of new and interesting characters.
Eleven years, seven films, 30 Oscar nominations and $4.37 billion at the box office later, they finally brought the gang back for Toy Story 3. I’m not even going to try to give an objective criticism of this film, it’s freaking perfect. Remember, I’m the same age as Andy. My earliest memories of anything involve Toy Story. So when summer of 2010 came and Andy was packing up to move, so was I. Toy Story 3 was the last film I watched in my hometown, and the first film I watched in my new home. So if you have objective reasons for disliking this film or calling it the weakest of the lot, keep them to yourself. It gave my childhood friends a perfect goodbye.
Wait, what do you mean they’re bringing them back in 2019?
Once more, that’s all for today. Coming up soon in our final installment, in which we’ll unveil our picks for the 10 greatest films made since 1990. Please no death threats. You’ve got a friend in me.
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.