Saturday, March 22, 2008

Top Ten Must See Fantasy Films

I don’t know what you think of when you think of Fantasy films. I honestly can’t even tell you what I think. I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is fairies and other mystical creatures. But, so many of those movies exist that are just awful. Just awful. So, we have to expand our definition of fantasy. A film where the impossible is possible. A film where the non-existent exists. A film where people fly and animals talk. All of that and then some, I suppose. But, it seems only right that we move from Science Fiction, a genre which feels it must always justify itself, to fantasy, which couldn’t need to justify itself less.

The quintessential film about filmmaking, Federico Fellini’s post-La Dolce Vita surreal masterpiece is often discounted as pretentious and self-serving, but this assessment completely misses the point. The imagery in this film is remarkable. It is composed mostly of one fantasy sequence after another, beginning with the traffic jam from hell and ending with an equally disturbing circus. Fellini is adept a representing reality in fantasy, and nowhere is that talent put to better use than here.

Back to the Future

Not the first time travel movie and certainly not the last, but Back to the Future may be the most fun out of all of them. In the 80s, the film was nostalgic and deconstructionist in its depiction of America’s cherished decade of innocence, the 1950s. Now, it has ironically become a time capsule of the 1980s. Most of the movie is pure buttery popcorn escapism, but with Robert Zemeckis at the helm and Michael J. Fox as our tour guide, our reminiscences were never more entertaining.

Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête)

Hands down, this is the best rendering of this story ever put to film. And, yes, of course, I realize that there exists a much celebrated animated version of this classic fairy tale. However, Jean Cocteau’s film is beautifully constructed in the way that it makes the audience fall in love with the beast, not because he will turn into a prince but because he is worthy of love. So many renderings of this story fail because the message is lost. Cocteau’s film preserves that message and demonstrates it beautifully.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Beautiful and heartbreaking, Michel Gondry’s film about love and memory is an intensely moving experience from first to last frame. Jim Carey gives the best performance of his career, and Kate Winslet is as impressive as ever. But, the real star of this film is the wonderfully delicate story of a life, long-forgotten, and the fragmented memories of the past. Equal parts haunting and gorgeous, this is a picture that stays with the viewer long after it is over.


Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of the story of Peter Pan and the lost boys couldn’t have strayed farther from the source material in text, but couldn’t have gotten closer in heart and spirit. Robin Williams finds the nexus between his comic instinct and his dramatic presence, and the audience believes him both as an out of touch father and as a lost little boy. Spielberg takes the imagined world of Neverland and makes it physical and palpable. The film is a perfect blend of childish escapism and adult fantasy.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Much parodied, much referenced, and much revered, sixty-two years after its original release, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has lost none of its power to move and to inspire. Jimmy Stewart is awe-inspiring as George Bailey, a flawed man but decent to the core. A much darker film than many remember, the themes are very adult but very universal. Most of us can relate to that feeling of hopelessness and desperation, and we ride the ups and downs of the story as if they were our own.

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

As much historical drama as it is dreamscape, this grueling, beautiful film is fantasy in its most necessary form. Pan’s Labyrinth centers on the story of a girl who, to escape the horrors of fascist Spain, becomes enveloped in a world of fairies, fauns, and monsters. None of these are more frightening than the reality of her step father’s cruelty, and when the two worlds collide, be it a real or imagined collision, the world of hope and the world of tragedy somehow learn to coexist.

Star Wars: A New Hope

George Lucas’ film is not so much a pure fantasy as a pastiche of other genres (western, science fiction, Saturday morning serial, etc.) that work together to create a fantastical world of the worst villains and most virtuous heroes. Certainly one of the most beloved films of all time, its devoted following speaks for itself. Taking Kubrick’s 2001 effects and expanding them beyond art and into entertainment, Lucas delivered one of the great all time date movies. Here’s to hoping, however, that you can find a copy of this before Lucas got CGI-happy and forever altered his perfectly schlocky masterwork.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

For about 95 of the film’s 100 minute running time, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays as like a dream turned into a nightmare. Often, it is, in fact, quite frightening and bordering on sadistic. For all of these reasons, it is undeniably fantastic, the Oompa Loompas, the mind trip of a boat ride, the shrinking boy, all of it. But, most remarkable of all is the performance of Gene Wilder as the eponymous candy man. He is, by turns, vicious, whimsical, and more than a little crazed, but he is always entertaining, as is the film.

The Wizard of Oz

Gorgeously conceived and beautifully executed, Victor Flemming’s The Wizard of Oz is still as magnificent to behold today as it was upon first release in 1939. Through magic of Technicolor, Dorothy, Judy Garland’s finest creation (L. Frank Baum who?), is transported to a land far greater than anything she could have ever imagined from her drab Kansas home. The songs are memorable, the performances are B-movie perfect, and the setting is that agonizingly glorious place that exists between childhood and adulthood, a place we have all been and know in our hearts.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Top Ten Must See Science Fiction Films

In memory of Arthur C. Clarke, today, we will look at Science Fiction. For those unaware, Clarke, who died in his home in Sri Lanka early Wednesday local time, was a noted writer of science fiction novels and short stories. Most well known of these was “The Sentinel,” which served as the guiding text to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Today’s list is dedicated to Clarke’s memory, as well as to the memory of Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient, who died earlier this week.

2001: A Space Odyssey

One of the great cinematic achievements of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s vision of the evolution of man is full of some of the most iconic images in screen history: the bone thrown into the air to the docking of the space station, all memorably choreographed to Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” As thrilling as it is innovative, in medium based on the moving image, 2001 stands head and shoulders above any film before or since as a visual masterpiece.

28 Days Later…

Danny Boyle’s film, penned by Alex Garland, is a zombie film at its core and has many of the conventions- the social critique, the survival fortress, etc.-, but it contains what most like films lack, all respect to George Romero and his Dead series. It has a plausible scientific explanation for the phenomenon at hand. It is not a rehash of the zombie genre but a reinvention of it. Daring and thrilling, it is also scarily believable and succeeds all the more for this fact.

Alphaville (Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution)

A futuristic noir thriller with Orwellian overtones, this early film from Jean-Luc Godard displays how deftly he can move from genre to genre and excel. The greatest trick of Alphaville is that the audience remains in the dark for most of the picture and is only given the semblance of a plot when necessary. The film is mostly an experience, and a rich one at that. Godard uses 60s Paris as the stand in for a world in the possibly not so distant future where mechanization and dehumanization are the rule, not the exception.

A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune)

A short film but well worth seeking out, A Trip to the Moon could be considered, for all intents and purposes, the first modern film. Directed by Georges Méliès, a magician by trade, it employs the first use of special effects (achieved through creative editing) and is the first film to have a true story structure. It is about a group of scientists who take a trip to the moon and find it a harrowing and scary place. For its time, it is intriguing, enthralling, and awe inspiring.

Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s rendering of Los Angeles in this film is simply a marvel to behold. Dark, immense, impersonal, and frightening to the core, Scott’s world of the future sets the perfect stage for this adaptation of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The story of clones and outer space colonies is the stuff science fiction is made of, but the bleakness of the vision and the uniqueness of the execution are the real attraction. The fear of what may lie ahead has never been more paranoid, more terrifying, or seemed more possible.

Children of Men

Known primarily for its gorgeous cinematography, Children of Men is the story of man looking his own extinction dead in the eye. The audience is thrown into a world where women are infertile and anarchy rules; we are given no explanation, one is not necessary. All we need to know is that things are grim. And, we know. From the dilapidated buildings and abandoned streets, we know. Also on display is a career defining performance from Clive Owen as the man who may have the key to mankind’s future. This film is epic and beautiful on every level.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

If any movie dealing with paranoia, the federal government, and contact with an extraterrestrial species could be described as sweet, this would be it. Hinging on the performance of likable everyman Richard Dreyfuss, Steven Spielberg’s blending of family drama and science fiction is perfectly rendered. At the heart of the story is the idea that in an uncertain world perhaps only something not of our world can save us.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Made in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still was both timely and prophetic. It is the story of intergalactic peace keepers who threaten to destroy the Earth as a danger to the universe. It is as much a critique on the violent nature of man as it is an indictment of those who proclaim to instill peace and order through war and destruction. Then, it was a perfect commentary on the state of the world in the midst of the Cold War. Now, it seems like a cautionary tale about our destiny as a species.

The Matrix

Forever associated with the popularization (and some would say invention of) bullet time, Andy and Larry Wachowski’s film runs much deeper than its innovative special effects. Yes, every image is perfectly and beautifully constructed, but the real selling point of the film is the story, as intricately woven as a well-written detective novel. Intellectually and psychologically stimulating, The Matrix is a testament to the potential for modern cinema as philosophy.


Considered by many to be the first science fiction film, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis stands as a towering of achievement, not just within its genre, but in the history of cinema. As much a social critique as it is a vision of the future, the dark visual schema serves well Lang’s typically pessimistic story. Though filmed over 80 years ago, the film holds up as well today as it did then.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Top Ten Must See Romantic Comedies

With no particular rhyme or reason, we find ourselves now looking at the greatest of the romantic comedy genre. The only applicable parameters are that the film must be both a love story and a comedy, and if that wasn’t obvious, then I don’t know how to help you.

The Apartment

Billy Wilder tackles love, work, and neighbors in this dark comedy about a man, Jack Lemmon, who loans his apartment out to his bosses for their extramarital trysts. His world begins to fall apart when he falls for the big boss’ Friday-night girl, played by Shirley MacLaine. The Apartment succeeds because it is Billy Wilder doing what he does best: dark humor and spot on satire. Credit also to long time Wilder collaborator and co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond for his contribution.

City Lights

Charlie Chaplin’s greatest achievement, and arguably the greatest film of the silent era, despite coming out well after the advent of sound cinema, is a picture perfect love story. It is quite literally picture perfect. Told entirely without dialogue, save for the interstitial title cards, the film relies on the wonderfully expressive faces of the actors to convey all of the pain, longing, and hope in every moment. It all comes across beautifully, and the final curtain for Chaplin’s famous tramp couldn’t have been more apt.

The Graduate

This is perhaps the least romantic romance on the list and the darkest comedy. Truly, if The Apartment is dark, then this film is pitch-black. But, it is also pitch-perfect. Dustin Hoffman in his first big screen role is a generation-defined as Benjamin Braddock. Despite its frat boy fantasy aspects (the hot mom and the coed), Mike Nichols’ bleak depiction of aimlessness and ambivalence is as honest as they come.

His Girl Friday

Razor sharp, briskly paced, and beautifully acted, His Girl Friday perfectly exemplifies screwball comedy, something at which director Howard Hawks excelled. This is a near flawless feature film. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are in top form as newspaper people and ex-lovers who were made for each other, neither of whom can resist the lure of a big scoop. Drawn together by their love of action, they are held together by their love for one another.

It Happened One Night

Before Frank Capra became known for his distinctly Americana way of photographing the world, he was reinventing film genre. While the aforementioned His Girl Friday may have perfected screwball comedy, It Happened One Night started the whole thing rolling. Clark Gable is brilliant, doing what he always does: winning the girl through his own strange brand of suave aloofness. And, Claudette Colbert is a firecracker and half, playing off of Gable beautifully.

The Jerk

Outlandish. Nonsensical. Preposterous. Brilliant. All would be accurate descriptions of this Steve Martin comedy vehicle. The paper thin plot is mostly an excuse to string together one hilarious Martin gag after another, but it all unfolds nicely, and it is never really a concern that story is secondary. However, anchoring the romantic story line is Bernadette Peters, whose performance so perfectly fits the film that it would be unimaginable without her or the romance.


Beautiful and earnest, yet supremely funny, Woody Allen’s 1979 film is as much a love letter to New York as it is a Dear John letter to love. As always with Allen’s films, neuroticism is that key element that drives some of the more unseemly actions of the characters in the film. It is, however, the performance of Mariel Hemingway that keeps the audience from discounting all of these people. She is the sweet naïve voice of sanity and clarity that offers redemption to even the most hardened heart.

…Say Anything

Cameron Crowe’s first film is sweet and melancholy but never too sappy for its own good. The story is heartfelt and honest, and the characters feel like real people. More importantly, they feel like real people whom we might want to know. Lloyd Dobbler, irreplaceably played by John Cusack, is a loveable loser for whom you can’t help but hope. The boom box, “In Your Eyes” scene alone is enough to want to see the whole film.

The Science of Sleep (La Science des Rêves)

Criminally underappreciated, Michel Gondry (one of the collaborative masterminds behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) gives the audience a world of fantasy and escapism that is both recognizably real and utterly indescribable. A film about a man trying desperately to communicate with the world and with the woman he loves, it is sweet and whimsical in the best possible ways

When Harry Met Sally…

Picking up where Woody Allen left off with Annie Hall, this Nora Ephron comedy carries the torch for romance films that try to be fair to both sides of the argument, and it succeeds brilliantly. The trick here is that both characters, Billy Crystal’s wonderfully cynical Harry and Meg Ryan’s micromanaging optimist Sally, are both immensely likable. They deserve to be together because they deserve to be happy, and we, as an audience, couldn’t be more enthralled and entertained.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Top Ten Must See Gangster Films

Well, it’s another year, and that means it’s time for the American Film Institute to release yet another best-of-American-film list. However, unlike in years past where the list was (with a couple of exceptions) a top 100 of this or that, this year the American Film Institute gives us ten different top 10 lists based on genre.

They will cover the broad (very broad at that) genres of Animation, Fantasy, Romantic Comedy, Western, Mystery, Courtroom Drama, Science Fiction, Sports, Epic Film (whatever that means), and Gangster pictures. Their lists do not come out until June, but it is safe to assume that they will get a fair number of these wrong, in no small part due to the genre crossing of most great films. Is The Godfather a Gangster movie or an Epic? The second Godfather is even more problematic: Gangster, Epic, Courtroom Drama? Who’s to say?

So, I’ve decided to help out and fix the mistakes they are sure to make in advance of their making them. Also, being the American Film Institute, they are prone to xenophobia. That will also be corrected, and so the best of world cinema will be included here, as well.

In tribute to the recent release of City of Men (Cidade dos Homens), the first set on the discussion block will be Gangster films. The following are what I would call the Top 10 Must See Gangster films, not necessarily the best, but there is a definite overlap. There is no order (except that they are alphabetical), as they all deserve to be seen far and wide.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bringing new wave style and attitude to two of America’s most beloved folk heroes and most reviled criminals, Bonnie and Clyde was a wake up call to American film. Violent, sexy, and utterly fashionable, this film, more than any of its time (save for perhaps The Graduate), gave Hollywood the necessary kick in the teeth and heralded the great auteur films of the 70s.

Breathless (À Bout de Souffle)

Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film focuses on the story of one low level gangster and his ill-fated romance with an American girl. The style of the film almost fully trumps the substance and, for once that is okay. It is by no means a weak plot (this, of course, being a relative distinction), but it is certainly a strong stylistic statement. Breathless may not have been the first, but it was certainly the torch bearer for the whole French New Wave movement.

Broadway Danny Rose

Because the world is not always dark and cloudy, sometimes a little comedy can go a long way, even in the gangster genre. Woody Allen’s story of a poorly chosen love affair is the perfect blend of slapstick and romanticism. Despite the danger being always very close, the film is unabashedly hilarious and is a perfect send up of, among other things, the organized crime world.

City of God (Cidade de Deus)

Precursor to the aforementioned City of Men, this is a harrowing, brutal, unrelentingly realistic look at life in the Brazilian slums. Director Fernando Meirelles takes the audience deep into the lives of the countless gangs and gang members that populate the city streets. At once breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly cynical, City of God is filmmaking at its finest.

The Godfather Part II

Yeah, the first Godfather is well worth watching. Is it better than its sequel? No. Why is this here and not in Epic films or Courtroom Dramas? It is strictly a judgment call. The film is memorable because its heroes are mobsters who exist within a family that cares and loves and dies for each other. It is epic, but that is peripheral. The characters, driven by the performances, are what keep alive the legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus.


With this film, Martin Scorsese ushered in the modern era of mob pictures. Where The Godfather was moody and even occasionally languid, Goodfellas is all kinetic energy. The breakneck pace only heightens the stress in an already tension filled story. Looking at three decades in the mafia in the time some people look at a short story, Scorsese somehow manages to convey every idea with staunch conviction and to infuse every detail with atmospheric precision.


A dark, brooding tale of the underworld and its inhabitants, Fritz Lang’s M is a study in atmosphere with the murderous main character held off screen for more than half of the film. The film truly centers on the lengths to which organized crime will go to stay organized and to monopolize the crime world. Peter Lorre’s performance is one of the best in film history, and he is certainly the most sympathetic murderer of all time.

The Public Enemy

The best of the 30s American gangster picks to come out of Warner Brothers, The Public Enemy is the great granddaddy of gangster movies. Anchored by James Cagney as one of cinema’s great bad guys, it is a historical landmark for drawing the audience out of passive viewing and for forcing them to make a decision: can we really sympathize, or even empathize, with this wholly unholy character?

Pulp Fiction

With all of the witty dialogue and novel cinematic technique, one tends to forget that Pulp Fiction is even about anything. This is a shame because what the film offers is a completely new look at gang life. There really are no big events, just the day to day happenings of the L.A. gangsters with a few coincidences thrown in for effect. It was a side of gang life (though perhaps an imagined one) that audiences were not used to because they had never seen anything like it before and of which they have only been given cheap imitations since.

Rififi (Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes)

A masterpiece of French cinema, Rififi may well be the best heist movie of all time. Jules Dassin (blacklisted in America as a communist at the time of filming) directs this stunning, understated, and far underappreciated masterpiece. At the center of the film is the beautifully haunting performance of Jean Servais as a lifelong criminal in search of that last big score. For evidence of the film’s lasting influence and staying power, one need only see that Al Pacino is rumored to be taking over the Servais role in a proposed American remake next year.

And, because I can, five others that you should check out if you get the chance:

Atlantic City; Don’t Touch the Loot (Touchez Pas au Grisbi); The King of New York; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels; Miller’s Crossing

Sunday, March 2, 2008

DVD Commentaries

It is one of those DVD special features that folks tend to look past. Admittedly, it takes a certain type of person to watch a movie without actually watching a movie. However overlooked it may be, filmmaker commentary truly is an invaluable resource for those with even just a minor interest in the production and filming aspects of a movie. And, for those with no interest at all in either of those things, cast commentaries offer fun and almost always interesting insights into the process of acting (which seems to be more enjoyable than one could even imagine).

That said, many people just can not stand to watch the images on the screen go by and not hear what the actors are talking about, and that is fine, too. First of all, and I am not sure why anyone would do this anyway, it is entirely inadvisable to watch a movie you have never seen with commentary. That just does not make sense. But, beyond that (should be) obvious fact, it does generally help to be quite familiar with a film before attempting to watch it. I generally try to see a movie at least two or three times before turning on the commentary track.

There seem to be three categories of DVD commentary: insightful filmmaker commentary, entertaining cast commentary, and just plain bad commentary. A good commentary track by a filmmaker should also be entertaining, but first and foremost, it should illuminate the filmmaking process and behind the scenes activities of the cast and crew. Entertaining cast commentary tends to be just a couple of the actors sitting around in a room and chatting with one another. Sometimes this chatter is related to the movie and occasionally it is not. But, with our already celebrity obsessed culture, it is nice to listen to them talk about their craft rather than their groceries or hairstyles.

Finally, bad commentary tracks are those that generally contain very little information about anything in particular. Most of the time, it is the director of a film that is guilty of the worst commentary. Some directors are just not talkative people. The late-great Robert Altman was one of the finest filmmakers of all time, but his commentary tracks tend to hide that genius. He just doesn’t say a whole lot. But, then, why hide all the all of the magnificent dialogue in an Altman movie anyway.

The best cast commentary I have come across has been Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church’s hilarious viewing of Sideways. Their rapport in the film seems to carry over into life as they banter back and forth about everything from their own physical shortcomings to the strange minutiae that encompass the process of shooting a movie. Throughout, they are engaging, intelligent, and downright hilarious. Other fun cast commentaries include: Superbad, Brick, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

For filmmakers talking about filmmaking, you can’t beat Sam Mendes and Alan Ball discussing best picture winner American Beauty. For any aspiring filmmaker, it is the cheapest master class in directing a motion picture that I have come across. Twenty dollars for the special edition DVD and you can learn pretty much all of the secrets behind making one of the finest films of the last decade. Also, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights commentary is well worth checking out, as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary track for the first Godfather film.

This is kind of like one big advertisement for DVDs, but it really isn’t. It is a push to make use of some of the wonderful resources the medium has to offer. Let’s face it, you’re buying DVDs anyway. So, all I am saying is, the next time you go to watch your favourite movie, when the menu comes up, check out the special features. And, if it has it, try out a filmmaker commentary once in a while. The worst that is going to happen is you will learn a little bit more about a movie you like. So, give it a shot.