Aki’s Top 100 Movies 2015, pt. 6

Movies 25-17.

There’s a design principle known as ‘fail fast’. It works with any creative endeavor. The basic idea is that everyone has ideas. Ideas aren’t worth anything. We can all produce plenty and most will be useless.

… but you can’t actually know what’s useless before you put some work into it. Not much, just enough to see how far you can go with it. Just look at the films below. What’s the core idea? If you were a producer and someone came to you with the basic idea of Metropolis (the movie I’ve placed 25th). What would you think? ‘Heads’ and ‘hands’ being brought together by the ‘heart’.

Yeah, doesn’t really sound like something most people could make work. Still, someone did, but probably because they were failing fast.

When failing fast, you just need to be able to let go of most your ideas. Remember, they are worthless, no matter how much personal pleasure you get from thinking about them. Therefore, you need scrap them. Kill your darlings and so forth.

It might seem from narratives offered to us by movie makers (and other creative people) that people just come up with good ideas and then just execute them, but those narratives don’t include the dozens of ideas that were discarded before reaching that one good enough to actually use.

This doesn’t apply on the large scale. It applies similarly to all the little problems included in that one bigger problem. Need a design for character? Just make dozens. One will work. Eventually.

25. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927, Germany)

Memorable moment: The activation of the robot (also used on Queen’s Radio Gaga video)

Freder Fredersen is a man living in luxury, like everyone in the futuristic, utopia of Metropolis. One day he stumbles upon a woman playing with children. They disperse immediately, but as he’s intrigued by the woman, he follows her into the underground world of the ‘hands’, the people who keep the machinery going so that the people above them can live their carefree lives. The woman, Maria, wants to reconnect the worlds of the ‘head’ and the ‘hands’ by bringing in a mediator, the ‘heart’, to the equation.

One of the few people who knows about the people below, is Freder’s father, Joh, who is the leader of Metropolis. Joh isn’t happy with Maria’s plans and joins forces with Rotwang, a mad inventor in order to discredit Maria and stop an uprising they are afraid of. However, their plan might actually be more harmful for both worlds.

Its a massive movie. It includes many huge set pieces depicting the life below and it was a very expensive movie at the time, reportedly almost driving the legendary German studio UFA into near bankrupcy (although apparently its $600 million budget in modern currency is apparently a exaggeration). It all works, though, in a way most big movies can’t. Especially since the huge set pieces aren’t about action.

The story is very topical today. There’s a story about someone asking a New York reporter about how much an average family makes annually in the US. Their reply (despite being a reporter and thus one would hope more in touch with the world): $250,000. The truth: around $50,000. The head and the hands are being separated and its not something we really want as a society.

24. Det sjunde inseglet (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden)
The Seventh Seal

Memorable moment: Death cheating in chess after the pieces get knocked over.

Antonius Block, a knight is returning from the crusades to find his home wrecked by the plague. In fact, he has died to it himself (or is about to die, depending on how you want to look at it), but he does his best to postpone his fate by playing a match of chess with Death while trying to reach his wife before his time is up. A rag-tag group of followers emerge, while he traverses the countryside with his more or less loyal squire, Jons.

Kind of the quintessential art movie, which has lead to some backlash from certain quarters. I guess it can be seen as too self-important, or whatever, but mostly I think the negative opinions stem mostly from just an instinctive need to attack something like this. Or maybe it doesn’t resonate the same way it used to. Maybe the plague isn’t something that we understand the same way people did back in the day.

Whatever the reason, its still a great movie. Block is very stoic during his journey. He’s more like a witness to

23. C’era una volta il West (Sergio Leone, 1968, Italy)
Once Upon a Time in the West

Memorable moment: Fonda’s closeup after he has murdered the family, as it was meant to be.

There’s a small farm seemingly ironically known as Sweetwater in the middle of nowhere. Just prior to a new lady of the house arriving, all the inhabitants are murdered as a part of an attempt to take over the land. However, a mysterious man with a harmonica and a bandit with designs of his own for the land join forces to protect the widow.

From the beginning Leone makes it clear that he’s not in a hurry. There’s a story (might be true, but Leone was known to exaggerate or find more interesting versions of the truth) that Leone wanted the stars of his previous Western (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) to appear in the introductory scene as if to tell everyone that this is a new tougher breed we’re dealing with here. He didn’t get them, but he did score Woody Strode and Jack Elam, both known character actors in Westerns.

This is Leone’s direction at its best. Everything is gorgeous, but he isn’t afraid to show the physical ugliness side of people, who live in that environment, which of course has been a constant theme in his Westerns.

The characters are pretty much rehashed from his previous movies, but they work.

22. Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981, Germany)

Memorable moment: The crew staying quiet when facing an allied sub in the middle of Atlantic.

Its 1942 and U-96 is just about to leave for their six month mission on the sea. Their job is to interrupt the flow of materials from the United States to the Great Britain, but as the Allied countermeasures have developed, their mission has become increasingly difficult and dangerous in the face of the new destroyers acting as escorts to the cargo ships. According to the movie, 75% of the seamen who went out died at the sea.

I don’t remember where I got this from, but I heard this about war from a soldier’s point of view: war is boredom interrupted by periods sheer terror. This depicts that remarkably well, but isn’t boring at any point itself. I have both the 203 minute Director’s Cut and the 293 minute TV mini series versions and this statement holds in both very well.

Otherwise the life on the boat is filthy and cramped, as well as lacking both in variety and supplies, not to mention sunlight, which leaves most of the men very pale (and Petersen made sure his actors looked right by not letting them out). Most of the men are veterans, but for some, this is their first trip, including the aforementioned propaganda office, who acts as our viewpoint as much as we get one.

Like all good war movies, its clearly an anti-war movie. Our viewpoint character is at first idealistic, but learns through the movie about the futility of their actions. Most of the others are there simply to do their jobs, and ideology doesn’t really even cross their minds. To them, survival and passing time is quite enough.

21. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928, France)
The Passion of Joan of Arc

Memorable moment: The reaction to Jeanne’s death.

Jeanne d’Arc has been captured and is facing a trial. Even the premise is historically inaccurate (it wasn’t the English who sentenced Jeanne to die, but rather the French, but hey, who cares.

Jeanne’s certainty in her cause is commendable, even in the face of death and various authorities. The trial clearly has a premeditated goal and is simply for show. The ranks of the accusers aren’t as iron as Jeanne’s will, though. There’s clearly politicking and maneuvering going on. Some are ready to break the ranks, but are brow-beaten into compliance.

The real beauty of this film is the cinematography. The sets are quite simple, but you don’t really mind, as most of the shots focus on faces and often on Jeane’s expressions.

Like many early films, we don’t really know how close this is to the actual film. This version was found in a closet of a mental hospital in Norway, where it had lain for decades. Funny how such masterpieces just get lost (although in this case, it wasn’t neglected, but rather unfortunately, the original copy was destroyed in a fire).

20. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006, USA)

Memorable moment: How the fighting simply stops after people hear about the baby.

The world hasn’t seen a child born in ages. The world is losing hope, Theo among them. Then, a woman becomes pregnant. A group of activists has her and Theo’s old lover wants him to deliver the woman to a sanctuary at sea. Obviously, that isn’t going to be easy, as the activists themselves have different plans, and Theo can’t trust authorities either.

Although Cuarón falls into the trap of performing with the camera rather than telling the story at times, this is generally quite beautifully executed. The fatalistic world is in its way compelling. Its interesting to see how people cope (or actually don’t) with the situation. The suicide drug issued with food packages tells its own gloomy story.

This is once again one of those really great sci-fi movies, where it forces us into introspection. Its really about us and our world, just putting the spotlight on certain parts of our lives by changing the equation. I guess my sci-fi choices tell a lot about me, but I’m not going to go deeper into that here. Usually, its the relatively small budget ones that make a real impression.

19. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, 1975, UK)

Memorable moment: The autonomous, anarcho-syndicalist commune.

Knights of the Round Table are on a low budget quest for the Holy Grail, where they have to overcome all sorts of obstacles, such as a killer bunny, uppity Frenchmen and, of course, temptations of the flesh.

The point of this movie is to make fun of movies, as a whole. We have our straight-man main character, but whatever silliness he endures, there’s more just a few seconds away. Not even the credit sequences are safe from the absurdity. Nothing is sacred and nothing is left untouched, but unlike Life of Brian, which attacks belief systems and perhaps certain genres, Holy Grail doesn’t really have such focus. It definitely lives up to the Monty Python moniker.

… but most importantly, it actually is funny. A lot of the jokes now pervade our popular culture, although I generally seem to differ with other people on which jokes are actually the ones you should remember. I guess you could count that as a strength of the movie as well, since there seems to be enough for everyone to find something.

18. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920, Germany)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Memorable moment:

Dr. Caligari travels around the world exhibiting his somnambulist patient, Cesare. Cesare has slept through most of his life, but at times he can be awaken to tell the future. Alan is a young man, whose fortune is that he is going to die before the morning. When Alan is found dead, his friend, Francis, suspects Cesare and begins to follow the pair around. Next night, Cesare is going to kill Francis’s fiancée, Jane, but after being mesmerized by her beauty, just kidnaps her instead. Jane is saved, but Francis isn’t happy and begins to investigate the situation even further.

As you can probably see from the list, I’m sort of a fan of the expressionistic German films of the 20s and early 30s. Realism is fine, but different approaches are great. The expressionism works in this movie especially well. The strange geometry and the how the shadows work on the film is there to show us the mental state of Francis, who (spoiler) is actually insane (although the ending leaves it all just unclear enough to make you think).

Its just one of those freaky things that makes you glad you’ve sifted through a bunch of old movies, most of which don’t resonate very well these days. This, however, definitely does. Its also the oldest movie on the list (winning over The Kid by one year).

17. Batoru Rowaiaru (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000, Japan)
Battle Royale

Memorable moment: This is pretty subjective, again, but to me (as a software engineer) the most memorable part is coding in Japanese. If we’re talking Special Edition, the scene where Mitsuko kills a man her mother has pimped her to.

For some weird reason (its explained that its some sort of response to adults losing faith in the youth, but it doesn’t really matter), every year a class of school children is taken to an island and forced to kill each other until only one lives. Alliances are born, backs are stabbed and a few veterans are there to make life even more difficult for everyone involved.

The reasoning behind the whole thing is ridiculous, but the result is incredible. All the petty rivalries and needs to revenge imagined slights surface while the kids do their best to survive at the cost of killing each other. Some thrive in this environment, while others try to adjust and just continue their lives as normally as possible.

If I had to choose, I’d prefer the Special Edition to the theatrical version. Some of the extra content is quite superfluous, but the personal history of some of the students makes some of the characters deeper. Many characters don’t need this kind of help to be compelling, and in many cases such flashbacks would be more of a hindrance on the movie, but since the movie relies so much on the group dynamics of the class, these explanations go a long way to make their behavior more human, even when they are doing things that would be quite inhumane in another context. They are forced into these deeds anyhow, but at least we can sympathize a little bit more.

For example, Mitsuko, my and probably everyone else’s favorite character, is depicted in the original version as a cold killer, but in the Special Edition its made clear that she’s a loner, although she does want to fit in, with a very tragic past.

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