Aki’s Top 100 Movies 2015, pt. 5

Movies 36-26.

Since there’s two actual Best Movie Oscar winning movies on today’s list, I’ll talk about awards a bit.

Do they mean anything? Not really. There’s seemingly an unlimited number of festivals and other groups that like to tell us what they think is good. Even if we disregard things like Golden Globes, where bribery seems to be rampant, the rest are just a huge ocean of awards, which leaves all of them meaningless. Way too many movies can boast about a secondary award they won at some festival you’ve never even heard of.

Even Oscars, which one might think are somewhat important, are just a bunch of old men re-living their own hayday through others work. Because its in their interest to keep qualifying good movies their way, newer and more innovative movies just can’t get a fair shot. Never mind foreign films, which are handled very poorly by the Academy.

Do they have a role? Actually, yes. Somewhat. If some young person is developing an interest in the artform, but is bombarded by advertisments of movies made for mass consumption, at least once a year he or she has the opportunity to learn about something different. Sure, these movies are still pretty much only a gateway into really interesting movies, but at least such a gateway exists.

36. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955, France)
The Devils

Memorable moment: The school dinner scene in the beginning (because I didn’t want to spoil this movie, as I think not that many of you have seen it and the film actually asks as not to spoil it – which some other films of the period did as well – so I’ll oblige).

Monsieur Delassalle is the headmaster of a small private school. When not working, he makes the lives of both his wife and mistress (who both work at the school) a living hell, so the women decide to kill him in a convoluted plot. However, when they dump the body into the pool for someone to find, no-one seems to be able to.

One of the women was played by Clouzot’s wife, Vera. Knowing that she really had a heart condition and her husband (the director, in case you didn’t pick up on that) didn’t really care when putting her through all kinds of things in his movies, might give this movie some extra depth.

Its really well made thriller. Clouzot really knew his stuff with suspense. Things are built up slowly, but the payoff is always worth it. Many things regarding the murder itself, things you wouldn’t necessarily even think about in most movies, are made into obstacles of their own. Things like moving the body of the victim is an undertaking by the two women, one of whom is quite frail, and its depicted in a way to make very engaging.

35. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002, UK)

Memorable moment: Atmosphere playing after Curtis’s death.

The movie begins with a scene of Tony Wilson hang-gliding for a TV-show. Right after, he breaks the fourth wall and informs us that this scene is a metaphor for the movie and then just says Icaros, and if we don’t know what that means, we should read more.

Its 1976 and Tony Wilson is witnessing the birth of punk. He doesn’t start a band, but starts a record label instead. This is a biography of Wilson, but like the movie states quite openly, its a story of troubled musicians, mostly Ian Curtis and Shaun Ryder. Then of course, there’s Factory Records, and its demise.

Of course it helps that both Joy Division and New Order have been among my favorite bands since I was a teen, and as an entrepreneur (at least as of this writing) I also have an appreciation of Wilson’s need to do something of his own. He can’t really create the music he so loves, but at least can facilitate it and do it on his own terms, even if it isn’t the best way to do it and in the end, his philosophy costs him a fortune.

Yes, the opening metaphor is apt.

34. M (Fritz Lang, 1931, Germany)

Memorable moment: Beckert’s passionate speech in his defence.

The whole city is out for a serial child-murderer. When he’s not found, people become desperate and everyone becomes a suspect. Police is powerless and resorts to any method they can think of, including nightly raids to bars popular among the criminals. This leads the criminals to have their own investigation, with some tools and methods they have available to them, which the police doesn’t have access to.

Its actually quite uneven. Some scenes are pretty stupid and overly long, while others are masterfully crafted. Gladly, the quality of the latter outweighs the weaker moments. But its not only about that. Its an interesting study of human behavior. Although the murderer clearly enjoys the attention he’s getting, he is in the end revealed to actually be kind of a pitiful creature, with mental problems. Even the mother shown in the end feels guilty about her child’s death herself, not placing the blame on the murderer.

Who is really guilty? Who is really responsible? Who can actually judge any of this? The movie manages to show how complicated these issues really are.

33. Salaire de la peur, Le (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953, France)
Wages of Fear

Memorable moment: One of the men drowning in oil while his partner just keeps going.

A small town in the middle of nowhere seems to attract opportunistic fools of all sorts, but getting out of there is not as simple as getting there. Therefore, there’s plenty of people just looking for trouble around. One day one of the wells in a nearby oilfield goes up in flames. Stopping the fire requires nitroglyserin, but they don’t have any on hand. Therefore, the company hires four men, riding two trucks, to deliver the nitroglyserin across a poorly maintained road in a difficult terrain. The trip requires every bit of nerve they have.

This is what suspense is all about.

Its all about what the pressure does to people and the movie is masterfully crafted to convey those emotions. It doesn’t hurry anything and when there’s an opportunity to squeeze a few drops of sweat from the characters, it doesn’t waste it. These aren’t the most sympathetic people in the world, in fact, quite the opposite, but you still feel their fears when they are confronted by dangers of the road.

There are some subtler themes here of corporations taking advantage of poor people, although the men are actually compensated well. However, that’s the decision of one man, while those close to him would have chosen to just take the most desperate volunteers and pay them a pittance. Of course, the lives of the men are still being risked, but at least its not completely needless.

32. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014, USA)

Memorable moment:

Riggan is a has-been. He used to be a big star back when he did the Birdman movies, but has since fallen out of favor and is now trying to return to the limelight through theatre. The pressures of the finances, a younger, talented actor crashing his project, a daughter-turned-assistant coming straight from rehab, and a critic who is willig to destroy the play without even seeing it are nothing compared to the voice of Birdman inside Riggan’s head.

The movie is seemingly one continuous take, but its not in real time. Somehow they make it work. The transitions are seemless and organic. You never feel like you missed something. It is pretty hectic and the few breathers you do get are definitely needed. The soundtrack is all drums, making it feel that much more hectic. In a couple of places the drummer even appears in the movie, perhaps telling us how Riggan’s reality is breaking down.

The actors are brilliant and bring plenty of baggage (Keaton’s Batman, Norton’s problems with directors previously) which is in turn used marvelously in the movie. All in all, its actually pretty funny movie, although this isn’t emphasized very much (and the audience I watched this with didn’t seem to get it).

31. Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950, Japan)

Memorable moment: The victim recounting what happened through a medium.

A samurai is murdered and his wife is raped. What really happened? There are five different accounts (that of the wife, one from an eyewitness, one from the culprit, one from a priest, who met the pair on their way, one from a woodcutter who found the body, and one from the victim, told through a medium), which concur in the main story, but all differ and sometimes contradict each other in the details, most importantly the motive.

The basic idea has been reused a number of times (my first experience was actually one of those more comedic Spider-Man stories in the comics), but this one still stands tall. There is no answer to the question. The only answer the movie does present, is another question on viewpoints, motives, trust and so forth. Its clear that at least some of the witnesses just lied, while others might have just made their own leaps in logic.

A few years back my apartment was broken into. I happened to be sleeping inside and the culprits ran when they realized that. They didn’t know they were breaking into an apartment, so they were probably as startled as I was by the encounter. Later on, when talking about what happened with a police officer, I off-handedly talked about ‘them’. However, she interrupted me to ask how I knew there were more than one of them (this doesn’t actually translate well, because Finnish doesn’t have gender specific pronouns, so we don’t need to use ‘they’ or ‘them’ to denote unknown sex). I stopped to think. I actually didn’t. I hadn’t seen anyone. I just knew my door was opened and someone rushed off after I yelled at them. I had just assumed so with no real reason.

This is what Rashomon is about. People see things differently. Being wrong doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is lying. They might just be wrong, because their brain tells them how things are, and the brain is often wrong itself.

30. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982, USA)

Memorable moment: Deckard hanging for his dear life while Batty explains he’s poetic views on life.

Deckard is a retired cop, who is brought back to hunt down a group of replicants, who have entered Earth illegally. While following the first clues, he’s asked to test a woman mostly for the amusement of a rich person. Turns out, the woman is actually a replicant herself, leading us to doubt everyone’s humanity (although, Batty, the leader of the replicants, goes pretty far to prove he has humanlike emotions).

From a time before Ridley Scott was a mediocre commercial director (okay, The Martian was very good), this was actually a huge flop when it was first released. With a budget of around 30 million (gigantic at the time), it grossed around five million. Of course, it became a cult hit and both the home market and subsequent rereleases have been successful. And its understandable. Even though Harrison Ford was at the time a rising star, this is not an easy movie to market. Its dark both stylistically and thematically, operatic, deals with complex issues and if nothing else, makes us feel small as humans. Good luck with selling that to mass audiences.

Those of us who can appreciate the noir world do love this, however. You don’t really need this kind of budget to do it, but in this case the pure ambition of the project is breathtaking.

Note that there is at least five versions of this movie available, but the original theatrical version is easily the worst. It has the bad, afterbirth of a narration and most of the violence cut. I know many people want to see it for pure interest and that’s fine, but its definitely not the definitive version of the movie.

29. The General (Buster Keaton, 1926, USA)

Memorable moment: What was the most expensive scene shot for a movie for a very long time: The General crashing. No special effects here.

Johnnie Grey is classified as too important for the war effort of the South during the American Civil War in his role as an engineer of a train. Therefore, he is not allowed to enlist, but the reason for the denial is not conveyed to him, and he’s left to feel less of a man as a result, especially after his beloved Annabelle thinks he’s a coward. When his beloved train, The General, with Annabelle onboard, is stolen by Union spies, he has his chance to show everyone what he’s really made of.

Certain stars still take chances with stunts even today, but just look at this movie. There are some special effects, sure, but not many. Keaton puts his life on the line all the time. Just knowing this makes the movie more exciting, even if it wasn’t exciting enough otherwise.

I once gave a speech to my student association (engineering students) about the differences between Keaton (the engineer in this case) and Chaplin (the humanist, in this case). Keaton goes in head first, intent on finding solutions actively. Chaplin is more interested in dodging trouble. Keaton’s approach is especially visible in this movie.

Also notable: This movie held the record for the most expensive scene in movie history for a quite long time. Apparently completely destroying a train is not cheap.

28. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998, USA)

Memorable moment: The initial landing on the beach.

Three brother of the titular character have died in action and the command structure gets into their collective head that losing the fourth would be too much of a blow for morale back home, so they decide they must get the final brother back home safely. Problem is, he was recently parachuted into Europe and his whereabouts are unknown. In comes Captain Miller and his small squad, who get to venture out into the enemy territory on a suicide mission to save a man who might very well be dead anyway.

The washed out colors really make this movie appear unique, but of course, the movie is so much more. The initial assault on the beach of Normandy is a great scene on its own, establishing many of the characters. The characters themselves work very well. They represent archetypes, but don’t feel stereotypical. They are good mix of people and you feel for them when one of them dies (actually, whenever rather than when).

It is a bit jingoistic at times, but that’s pretty mandatory, since you can’t get armies support (which you need) for these movies without their approval of the script. However, its not that important and you know there’s a definite anti-war message here, which is what you want from a good war movie.

27. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962, USA)

Memorable moment:

Ransom Stoddard is a senator, who returns to the town who first elected him to attend the funeral of an old friend. A local journalist becomes interested in such a distinguished gentleman going to pay his respect to a dead town drunk. In order to set the record straight, Stoddard decides to recount the story of how Liberty Valance, a man whose death had been credited to him, actually died.

This was heralded as the first film to star both James Stewart and John Wayne. Interestingly enough, it depends on time and place who gets the first billing in the marketing materials. Either agents weren’t as good back then, or foreign countries didn’t care about such contract stipulations. Although, according to Ford, Stewart has more scenes, but Wayne plays the character who is really the center of the story, although I disagree with this.

In the beginning, Stoddard is only a freshly graduated lawyer on his way out west. The carriage he’s riding gets robbed and so he ends up washing dishes in a local restaurant. His sense of justice, however, makes his a target of the goons of the local cattle barons, who want to keep the territory out of the union, because that would bring law into town. Doniphon is a reluctant helper, due to his love for Hallie, who ends up with Stoddard, as we know from the beginning before the flashback begins.

This is a decidedly black and white movie. Ford had shot several gorgeous color westerns (The Searchers being the most famous). Of course, in 1962, it wasn’t as big of a deal as it would be today, but its still a choice and good one. The movie is pretty dark, even if there is a sort of happy ending for the town. The ending is actually pretty sad for all the main characters.

26. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993, USA)

Memorable moment: The girl in red among the corpses.

A rich industrialist decides to use his personal wealth to save all the Jews he can from certain death in the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz. He has to jump many hoops and keep the Germans placated, but tries his best. In the meantime, he’s life is still very comfortable, or even luxurious, compared to the Jews, who are starving, sick, overworked and under a constant threat of being killed by their captors.

These days, there’s the annual winter Liam Neeson action flick, but this was my first introduction to him. This movie gave him the gravitas he needed to put together this latter career.

But again, this might be a movie about Schindler in name, but that’s just the context. Its much more about the lives of the Jews in these conditions. They are pushed into the ghetto, moved into the camps, and have to live there. Its doesn’t work quite as well as, say, Maus (and having read Maus, this movie actually doesn’t even feel as honest as it should be), but human actors do make it more visceral.

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