My Favorite Movies 2020 Edition, pt. 8 (5-9)

Obviously, I’m not a professional critic, so this is largely just an outsiders view, but let’s talk about them anyway.

It’s probably tough being a movie critic. At least for the good ones. The bad ones… they can just go on and spew garbage about movies. The good ones are educated people. They often have degrees on this stuff. This stuff meaning something along the lines of film theory. But how does that help as a critic?

It doesn’t. At least not as much as one might want it to help. Actual criticism requires the hindsight of historical context. Imagine you had to go out and watch Citizen Kane on premier night. Whatever you would have written about it would seem ridiculous now, almost 80 years later.

Still, these people go out and watch movies. One critic (who I don’t really like due to his contrarian attitude) said he sees five to ten movies a week. I don’t think that’s actually that many, but if you have to see even that many movies, you are going to get bored with the generic commercial fare. Obviously, this leaves a gap between what the critics will like and what the masses want to see. Still, the critics need to make money. There just isn’t a big enough market for the literature, so they need to critique movies for various outlets.

Another problem is that the audience doesn’t get that critics can’t really be objective. Sure, they should try to include objective points as well, but trying to be fully objective will just leave any actual writing just very dull. Also, if all critics would just try to be objective, that would lead to lack of variety of opinions, because everyone would try to come to the same conclusions. And we need that variety of opinions, because that’s what leads to discussions, which in turn is needed for the art to flourish.

9. Sunset Blvd. (United States 1950)
Director: Billy Wilder

A screenwriter, who hasn’t been working in a while, meets an aging film star, who is looking to revive her career. He decides to take advantage of her and moves in to work on her script.

According to Vulture and a bunch of working screenwriters they polled, Billy Wilder is the best screenwriter of all time. He might have had his share of misses, but that might be more about the pressures of maintaining a career in those days. The experts were rightly forgiving and emphasized his glorious wins over forgettable mistakes. Besides Sunset Blvd., the man did write or co-write The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, The Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole, Sabrina, Witness for the Prosecution and others I can’t remember right now.

It should also be noted that other top writers were mostly directors as well. The only person known mostly as a writer in the top 5 is Robert Towne (the others being Tarantino, Coppola and the Coen brothers). I guess being able to direct your vision also helps.

Why was Wilder so good? I guess it’s his weird relationship with humanity. He lost close family members in the holocaust, which might lead someone to lose their faith in humanity, which he apparently did, but even as his characters are sleazy, opportunistic and all-in-all very fallible, they always seem to make the right choice at the end. It just usually happens to be too late. I can’t really say whether this is hope or pure hopelessness. Are we just too weak to do the right then when it needs to get done and thus we are doomed?

In the case at hand, we know from the beginning that our “hero” is going to die. He narrates the movie lying face down dead in a pool. We know he is there just to take advantage of someone who has lost their grip on reality. Still, we sympathize with him and we sympathize with his victim, and in the end we even sympathize with the butler (as we learn the truth about him). Wilder has a very unique touch and this permeates his work.

Hollywood, as a subject, is also fascinating. Many great filmmakers have tackled the subject well. In this case, the movie even centers around a screenwriter specifically, so Wilder must have either symphatized with this character specifically, perhaps fearing such a fate for himself, or as a director venting about various screenwriters he has worked with (although, I don’t remember any movie he has directed, which he didn’t at least co-write as well).

Although at this point film noir was a largely well-defined genre (in which Wilder himself had a major role in especially with Double Indemnity six years earlier), this movie took the genre into a new direction. It’s sort of blackly funny, but still feels very much like a film noir.

8. Schindler’s List (United States 1993)
Director: Steven Spielberg

A German industrialist takes it upon himself to try to save as many Jews as possible form the concentration camps by having them work in his munitions factory.

Previous to this, both Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were unknown to me and probably for most of the rest of the world as well. They were working actors with some pretty good credits to their name, but with this movie they became stars. At least I thought of them as such. This seems to be something Spielberg has done quite well in his career. He has been willing to trust actors, who might not have the name recognition, but bring something to the role. Some of them have since become household names, at least for a while. How known is Sam Neill today? I don’t actually know.

Of course, the most memorable thing is the black and white photography, especially when it’s subverted. Who could ever forget the red jacket of that one little girl, which comes back to haunt us later on? Even if the movie has otherwise very modern sensibilities, the style is reminiscent of older movies of the era. The bleakness does underline the horrors of the camp and the whole holocaust.

I also like Fiennes’s characters, Amon Goether, conflicts, which Schindler stokes to his best ability in order to save people. Goethe seems to buy into the Nazi dogma, but can be persuaded into forgetting it at least momentarily, even if he then goes back into the mode of camp commandant. He does have some humanity, but has been brainwashed by the system into his role as a perpetrator of mass murder. He is hung by the end and in light of what these people did, it feels strange to argue against death penalty (but I would anyhow).

Much of the movie doesn’t happen at the camp or in the factory. There’s a long segment in the beginning in the Jewish ghetto and their transportation to the camps. We get to see the elaborate setup of the whole machine, which was just designed to kill people after they had been worked almost to death (or actually to death in some cases). Of course, the question that lingers all of this is why would they put all of those resources into this? Everything else was working on fumes, but these particular trains were running. The processes were well-planned, especially for the time, when processes as a concept was still pretty new, while in other areas of the Reich things were often just results of various whims of the leadership, who reached their status based on loyalty to the cause rather than merit.

I’m not sure how I feel about certain survival stories in the film. Some Jews manage to outsmart the Germans in various ways, which really did happen, but I’m not sure this is the right movie to show these situations, because there’s this underlying question of why didn’t others outsmart the Germans as well? This shouldn’t diminish your experience of the film though. I just like to put more thought into certain aspects of films more than I should.

There is a whole subgenre of war movies specifically about Jews. I guess these aren’t really war movies, as the war is more of a background to a drama. Jojo Rabbit might have very well made it onto the list, if Fox Searchlight would have been quicker on their feet about releasing it on physical media. Or maybe Disney is holding out on it for their streaming service. There’s also The Pianist, Son of Saul and various other good to great movies, but The Schindler’s List has remained the best example of this for me personally. This might be because I saw this around the premiere in a theatre, when I was still young (actually on a school outing), which always skews my opinion. Still, it is quite deserving of it’s place on the list.

7. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (United Kingdom 1964)
Director: Stanley Kubrick

When brigadier general Jack D. Ripper (get it?) can’t get it up and is sure the reason is fluoridation of water by foreign agents, he decides he needs to start a nuclear war. As a man in his position he knows the systems and processes well enough to circumvent the official chain of command. Now, his executive officer, his superior at the White House and the president need to find a way to stop the end of the world before the bomber fleets release their payloads.

And when I say ‘payloads’, I might as well have said cum. While the movie is in no way erotic (at least I don’t feel that way), it utilizes a lot of sexual imagery. Starting with Ripper, these weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of men, who feel inadequate in their sexuality, so they must show their potency through the means they have available to them. Actually, we get to it even before that. Bombers being fueled midair looks a lot like intercourse.

Peter Sellers, on the other hand, got pretty much all the other roles. The president is named after a pubic wig (I assume, I don’t really know if this term was in use in 1964), Mandrake is an officer, but effeminate when compared to his colleagues, and Dr. Strangelove is strapped to a wheelchair unable to perform. He was supposed to play major Kong as well, but I guess that wouldn’t have fit the pattern, as Kong flies through the air with his missile between his legs. Sure, when faced with the end of the world, Dr. Strangelove finally finds his own potency and is once again able to walk, pretty much right after laying out an outline on how they need a certain amount of women for each man to be saved for breeding purposes for a new society.

Kubrick fully embraced this interpretation of the movie. In fact, he felt that the experts he talked with while in preproduction were also using similar imagery when explaining various concepts.

As previously discussed in the entry for The Great Dictator, satire has a way of taking away the power from certain inherently ridiculous points of view. In this case, it’s warmongers, who are depicted here as man-children, who don’t really understand their own sexuality, but are completely controlled by it. Not sure these people, who probably have often seen this, read the movie in quite the same way, but at least the rest of the world get the message that we shouldn’t take these so-called authorities as seriously as they would like us to take them.

I do have a weak spot for black comedies and this is about as black as they come with a cold war backdrop and end of the world looming. There’s also this weird commentary on modern life, like when an officer rebukes Mandrake on his willingness to destroy private property, namely a Coke machine, when he desperately needs change to stop the nuclear war.

6. Shichinin no samurai (Japan 1954)
(Seven Samurai)
Director: Akira Kurosawa

A small village is harassed by bandits, who are planning to come back and steal their food later on in the year. In order to fight back, the village hires seven samurai to train and fight for them. Obviously, just seven samurai, even if they are trained, can’t just take down an army of bandits, so a lot of planning is involved.

Kurosawa is an interesting case as a director. Although Japanese, he was highly inspired by Western films and culture (he even made his version of Macbeth), which made him a bit of problem for the Japanese and for some reason certain critics in the French New Wave. While I personally do like representations of their own cultures by filmmakers, I can’t deny that despite wanting to be cosmopolitan, it’s easier for me to enjoy movies, which are easier for me to digest due to my own cultural background. Not that I haven’t enjoyed many Japanese movies with way less Western fingerprints all over them. In Kurosawa’s case, I’ve seen more than half of his 30 movies and I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve seen.

He did enjoy a lot of critical success in the US. By the 80s, he was even still making films, because certain Western filmmakers were backing him, especially George Lucas, who took more than a little inspiration from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress for the original Star Wars. There has been quite a few remakes of Kurosawa movies. There was Lumet’s version of Rashomon for TV, A Fistful of Dollars, Corbucci’s Django and, of course, two versions of this particular film, both known as The Magnificent Seven. Not that the westerners necessarily credited Kurosawa in any way… (some did, of these five, Rashomon and the latter Magnificent Seven both credited Kurosawa as the original author).

If we go deeper and look at films that are specifically a remake of or are highly inspired by this movie, there are plenty of them. Think Bug’s Life. It might strive to be more comedic, but it uses the same template: Hostiles form a threat to a small society, which leads them into finding a team of helpers, who then face various problems while getting ready, and finally leading into the final confrontation. I have myself, as a gamemaster in various roleplaying games, used this same basic structure.

What Kurosawa does so masterfully here, is that he lets things happen at their own pace, but never lets the movie become boring. We are almost an hour into the movie, when the team is finally gathered and we have almost two hours still to go before the final battle. Kurosawa uses that time to make us care for the samurai as well as the villagers. We learn a lot about them and their motivations: how they approach their trade and how they feel about their role in a changing world.

The final battle is in itself marvelous. It obviously lacks in modern bells and whistles, but it more than makes up for that by making you care. We’ve known these people for a while at that point and while intuitive understanding of how things work in stories will tell you survives and who dies (up to a point), you still know that they won’t all make it, which gives the ending a lot of stakes in a way many other movies just won’t, basically due to cowardess or in some cases just the ego of the star (some actors don’t want to play characters that die, because they feel it might affect their public image).

5. The Princess Bride (United States 1987)
Director: Rob Reiner

A kid is home sick and his grandpa comes over to read him a book. The kid is hesitent at first, but is taken in by the action, even if the romantic elements seem unnecessary to him at first. Of course, the frame story is only important in the sense that it informs us that we can take the whole thing quite lightly. The story itself is a love story of Westley, a farmboy, and Buttercup, the lady of the house.

The details of the story aren’t that important and are actually overly complicated. A lot happens and often seemingly without explanation (how did Fezzik know about the six-fingered man or how did the booing woman know about Westley), but as we have been primed to the style by the frame, we accept this. After all, it’s more of comedy than a fantasy film. Not that the fantasy elements are bad, even if they aren’t very well thought out.

The world building is kind of awkward. We never really understand it that well. We have mentions of Russia, Sicily and Greenland among others, but on the other hand, the big bad is the next in line for the throne of Florin. Is that supposed to be Florence, where Florin, the coin, originated? (Probably not, because the neighboring country is Guilder, which is also a name of a coin, but doesn’t have a similar country association.) Also, what’s the magic like? We have some of it, but it seems more like something that was just needed for that particular situation than an actual part of the world. Or the monster for that matter.

This might have something to do with the fact that fantasy didn’t really take off as a mainstream genre until 2001 when both the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies were released. In the mid-80s, fantasy was a very risky genre (it is still, actually). We had some movies which are fairly well-known, like Labyrinth, Legend and Ladyhawke, which were all by well-known directors and which also bombed at the box office. Willow, which came out in 1988, wasn’t a huge hit either. Not that Princess Bride really belongs to the same genre as these.

I think Princess Bride actually shares more DNA with certain fantasy movies by the virtue of being an adventure movie, even if many adventure elements seem to be just outside the scope of the movie (Dread Pirate Roberts is a pirate, even if we never see him actually sailing that much, and various characters are from various locations, which would be exotic to many viewers), nor is the movie as epic as many adventure movies. Despite this, the movie does have the energy of an adventure movie.

When I was a teenager, this movie was seen as a joke. No-one, except for myself, would admit to liking it (I’m probably misremembering this, as it was a long time ago). It was a different time. There was this weird notion that real art needs to be serious (and I don’t think people have still really gotten over this, even if more and more people recognize that Shakespeare’s works were seen populist trash in it’s time). Not that anything has to be serious to get on this list. After all, it’s my list. Still, it seems weird to me that this movie seems to now have a huge fandom.

And why not? Cary Elwes seems underappreciated in general, but who wouldn’t love the weird dynamic between him and his cohorts played by Mandy Patinkin and Andre the Giant. The story might be convoluted, but why would you ever pay that much attention to it, when all the other elements of the movie are just that much more fun.

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