Tag Archives: Academy Award nominated

Pre-Code Hollywood #15 – Of Human Bondage (1934)

Of_Human_Bondage_PosterOf Human Bondage (1934)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Written by: Lester Cohen, Ann Coleman (based on Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham)
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Owen

From the outset of the film, we follow club-footed wanna-be artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), who is harshly told by his teacher to give up on his artistic endeavors. Philip drops out of art school to move to London and pursue a career as a medical doctor. While in London, Philip meets and almost instantly falls in love with a foul-mouthed waitress named Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Mildred mocks Philip for his club foot and clearly does not hold the same interest in him, but Philip does not relent. Daydreaming about Mildred causes Philip to fail his med school exams, which does not seem to phase the young man at all. After she runs away and marries a salesman, Philip moves on with his life and falls in love with a woman named Norah (Kay Johnson). When Mildred returns single and pregnant, the nearly masochistic Philip gladly gives up his new life in order to cater to the woman who treats him so poorly.

While it may not feature the same risque elements that have made so many of the films during our Pre-Code marathon an absolute joy to watch, Of Human Bondage features some of its own racy and provocative elements. It plays heavy on the melodramatic elements of its story, which makes it stand out somewhat from the crowd. Of Human Bondage feels far more grounded and realistic than other films of the period, and much of this is largely due to the lead performances, and the screenplay adapted by Lester Cohen and Ann Coleman.

The character of Philip Carey is a tragic one, and even though his decisions are deeply frustrating, I couldn’t help but feel for the man. He gives up on his hopes and dreams within the first minutes of the film, admitting defeat and settling on a career that will ultimately be much less satisfying for him. Anytime Philip comes in contact with Mildred, he gladly gives up everything that is good in his life to bow down to her. Philip is ultimately a slave to the sexual and emotional power than Mildred holds over him. Leslie Howard’s performance is at all times desperate, pathetic, and disgraced – his moments of happiness seem to come only when Mildred is out of the picture and he has had time to forget about her. Howard’s physical acting is equally as impressive, with the actor perfectly selling Philip’s club foot even though director John Cromwell opts to never directly show it.
3While her costar shines as the pathetic and sympathetic character he is given, there’s nothing sympathetic about the actions of Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers. Mildred is constantly looking out for herself, gladly walking all over Philip and taking advantage of his hospitality and his need to be wanted. Davis employs a somewhat believable cockney accent as Mildred Rogers, never overstating it or going too over-the-top – although there are moments where the accent is just brutal. The role of Mildred was a very brave one for Davis to take on, especially as an actress on the brink of stardom. There isn’t a whole lot to like about Mildred Rogers, and Bette Davis brings out a genuine sense of cruelty and conniving in nearly every scene in which she is the centerpiece of. Both of our lead characters are highly flawed and less than moral at any given time. For her efforts, Bette Davis was given a write-in nomination for Best Actress at the 1935 Academy Awards, making it the only nomination for Of Human Bondage.

The screenplay is another highlight of the highlights found in Of Human Bondage, even though it’s far from perfect as a character study. The relationship between Philip and Mildred is portrayed as an emotionally abusive and obsessive one, and is generally believable throughout. When Philip finally gets the nerve to dissolve the relationship once and for all, it’s done in a typically pathetic and cowardly way. Both characters are left disgraced, and it’s even made pretty clearly that Philip still feels a sense of longing for Mildred. The relationship is perfectly structured and balanced for melodrama, though halfway through the film I was asking myself why the two were even bothering with each other – there’s never any sense of shared romantic feelings between the two.
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Of Human Bondage is a very fitting end to our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon. It’s a tale of love and obsession at its most pathetic, and features two highly flawed characters who never seem to know exactly what they want out of life, or their relationship with each other. It’s Pre-Code elements are merely hinted at instead of said outright, which was done in order to appease the inevitable enforcement of the Hays Code. For this reason it feels slightly neutered, and perhaps a little less affecting than it would have been a few years prior. Still, the performances of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard are more than worth the price of admission here, as is the compelling character study of Philip and Mildred. Of Human Bondage is recommended.

 

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Pre-Code Hollywood #7 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Poster - I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang_01I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes (based on I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by Robert E. Burns)
Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of Robert E. Burns’ similarly titled autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! is as progressive as any film we’ve taken a look at in our Pre-Code marathon. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang takes a critical look at the injustice taking place in America’s justice system during the early 20th century, and tells the tale of one man who wouldn’t let the system break him down. While it may not be wholly notable for its pre-code elements, LeRoy’s film is memorable for completely different reasons – its impact on the United States legal system and popular culture as a whole is far too important to overlook.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang follows Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) upon his return to America in a new post-World War I world. James decides against returning to his dull pre-war life, and opts to become an engineer and put his skills to use. Unfortunately for James Allen, his lack of experience and a general lack of opportunities forces him to fall into a period of poverty. After befriending a seemingly helpful man, James is unwittingly pulled into a restaurant robbery and is forced into serving ten long years on a chain gang. James toils away on the chain gang until he sees his opportunity to escape, but not without every police officer in the South looking for him. After being blackmailed into marrying a spiteful and petty woman named Marie (Glenda Farrell), James is eventually caught and sent back to the chain gang. It is here that he pleads with the authorities for him freedom – a pardon in exchange for his turning himself in. Unfortunately for James Allen, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange new world.
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I was surprised by just how modern I Am a Fugitive’s message and general world outlook was – it’s one of the absolute best things about the film. The script in general was terrific – adapted by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang never slows down for a minute during its 90 minute runtime. Just when you think James Allen is out in the clear, something awful inevitably happens and leaves us in a panic. The development of James Allen as a character is a joy to watch, despite everything he’s up against. He starts off as an idealistic young man just returning back from the war, and ends as a cynical, betrayed, and beaten down shell of a man – once a hero of his generation, now forced into a life of crime. No matter how beaten down our hero was, I always had some hope tucked away – but this isn’t a film with a typical Hollywood ending. I Am a Fugitive’s ending is in the same vein as the one found in The Public Enemy, both of which tell us that sometimes life just isn’t fair, and sometimes something as simple as rehabilitation or institutional change just isn’t possible in the specific time and place. That isn’t to say that it’s a completely hopeless and dour ending, just a hauntingly dark and ambiguous one. Throughout the entire film, James Allen is punished for his positive and idealistic outlook towards the world. He left for the war as a fresh-faced and hopeful kid, proud to serve his country, and returned to find his country full of hopelessness. It’s a crime that Green and Holmes were not recognized by the Academy for their screenplay, because I Am A Fugitive would be nothing without it.

Paul Muni’s central performance as James Allen is another highlight of the film – he perfectly portrays the aforementioned trajectory of James Allen from young, idealistic hero to betrayed, beaten down criminal. Muni was rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his performance as James Allen, ultimately losing to the legendary Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII. Muni would have his moment in the sun in 1936, when he won the Academy Award for The Story of Louis Pasteur. After the release of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, audiences throughout the United States started to change their opinions about the United States justice system, enraging many officials within the system and prompting a series of lawsuits against the studio. This is just one of the many early examples of mainstream Hollywood films having a positive impact on the modern world at large – it certainly wouldn’t be the last one. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars, losing to the inferior Cavalcade in a regrettable decision by the Academy. As mentioned previously, I Am a Fugitive does not feature many of the pre-code elements that made other films famous – instead its groundbreaking nature came in its revealing look at a corrupt system, its attitude and critical outlook, and its haunting ending.
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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is without a doubt the strongest film I’ve seen during our Pre-Code marathon thus far, and one that I’m glad I finally had an excuse to catch up with. Its screenplay takes a highly critical look at a corrupt and archaic branch of government, and caused an entire nation to change its opinion of said system. It perfectly follows a compelling character during a short, but highly important time of his life, and sees him realistically broken down and built back up again over a period of just 90 minutes. Paul Muni’s lead performance is incredible, and more than makes up for the lack of memorable supporting performances around him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a thrilling, haunting, and ultimately rather tragic tale of corruption in early 20th century America – its importance cannot be understated. It gets my highest recommendation.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #5 – The Public Enemy (1931)

51fcd0976b353e7078f582fafe787b39The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Harvey F. Thew (based on Beer and Blood by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright)
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke

The anti-hero and the gangster movie go hand in hand, dating all the way back to the dawn of film as an artistic medium. William A. Wellman’s 1931 film The Public Enemy lays the early groundwork for iconic movie characters like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Tony Montana, and Robert DeNiro’s James Conway, and to an extent, Travis Bickle. For that, we have the immortal James Cagney to thank – his lack of empathy towards anybody but himself, violent outbursts, and sinister smile create a three-dimensional, vivid, and highly memorable character. Cagney would continue playing anti-heroes and crooks in films about the criminal underworld, leading him to the very top of the Hollywood food chain in the 1930’s and 40’s. The enforcement of the Hays Code would see the re-release of The Public Enemy with several missing scenes, most of which weren’t restored until the film’s release on home video years later.

The Public Enemy follows young Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) as they slow rise through the ranks of Chicago’s underground bootlegging business. Tom’s family begs him on multiple occasions to go straight and give up what is looking to be a dangerous life of crime, but their Tom is too far gone – the young man has long since romanticized the exciting lifestyle. We watch Tom and Matt go from petty, clumsy thieves to legitimately dangerous made men. Together, Tom and Matt burn bridges, let down their families, break hearts, and even kill. By the time the film’s shocking ending arrives, bootlegging and larceny are the least of their worries.
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When talking about the pre-code era of Hollywood, it’s important to note just how shocking and groundbreaking a film like The Public Enemy probably was. It’s chock full of unlikable characters, prohibition-era shenanigans, and violence (domestic and organized) among other things that the Hays Code would soon outlaw. There’s just no way something like it would have been made even five years later, which is truly a shame. The Public Enemy doesn’t just set out to shock its viewers with exciting subject matter, but instead gets deep inside the head of a sociopathic anti-hero. James Cagney’s portrayal of Tom Powers is sly and sadistic from the get-go, it’s clear that his attitudes towards the world he’s living in are less than optimistic. Tom sees a life of luxury at his fingertips, and doesn’t seem to mind having to kill and break the law in order to get there, making him very different than most big screen characters of the time. Almost every pre-code element of The Public Enemy is perpetrated by Tom Powers or involves him – he murders thugs and police officers alike, explores pre-marital relations with a number of women, smashes a grapefruit into a woman’s face during breakfast, straight up murders a horse, and is raped by a woman while being nearly blackout drunk. Cagney’s Tom Powers is the most unlikable character I’ve seen from this era of Hollywood, and yet every minute spent with him is fun and exhilarating. The highlight of Cagney’s performance is the aforementioned grapefruit scene, which comes off as a genuinely spur of the moment action, perfectly capturing Tom’s compulsive nature. While Cagney’s performance is far and away the best part of The Public Enemy, its screenplay is also worth noting. Adapted from an unpublished novel called Beer and Blood, Harvey Thew teamed with authors Kubec Glasmon and John Bright to create a criminal underworld that feels genuine in its intricacies, and a cast of characters that live and breathe thanks to some healthy character development. Their crowning achievement comes in the film’s final moments, where our main character finally learns the dangers of the lifestyle the hard way, and his family is forced to suffer for his actions. For their efforts, the screenwriters were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing. This would be the only nomination for The Public Enemy, although the film would later be recognized by the Library of Congress and submitted to the National Film Registry.

William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is a landmark of crime films, specifically the gangster subgenre that has spawned countless classics. James Cagney’s Tom Powers will go down in movie history as one of Hollywood’s great anti-heroes, thanks to Cagney’s prowess as an actor, the strong screenplay, and the film’s shocking pre-code material. It may not seem like it today, but The Public Enemy is an absolute trailblazer, and a thrilling one to boot. By the time you reach the film’s conclusion, you’ll be begging for more. William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #3 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

JekyllHyde1931Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Edgar Norton

The first film of our latest marathon to feature elements of horror and suspense, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story holds its own against its contemporary Universal monster movies that were scaring audiences globally. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a tremendous critical and financial success at the time of its release, earning an Academy Award for star Fredric March, along with several other nominations. Its pre-code roots are clear from the very outset of the film, where we see more early examples of open human sexuality, malicious stalking, and later on the eventual killing of human beings for pleasure.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and brilliant young doctor who is in the very upper echelon of his field. He intends to marry Muriel (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carrew (Halliwell Hobbes), who does not care much for Jekyll. While Muriel and her father are away, Jekyll develops a drug that supposedly releases the more “sinister” side of human beings. The groundbreaking new drug brings out the worst in Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. The violent Mr. Hyde begins stalking Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), a young patient of Hyde’s. After the eventual murder of Ivy, Dr. Jekyll knows that he can no longer control the transformations, and tries desperately to push Muriel out of his life before she too is hurt by Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and intelligent horror film that rivals most of its contemporaries. Actor Fredric March took home a much deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual-personality performance, with the film also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Writing.
6 - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Horror films of the 1930’s are most famous for their thick Gothic atmosphere, with many of the most successful examples being based on novels written in the 1800’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no different than many of its contemporaries in this respect, but seems to pull less punches than those other films. We see the sinister Mr. Hyde essentially sexually assaulting a young woman, as well as stalking and eventually murdering her to satisfy his own blood lust. These elements of brutality don’t seem to be found in other horror films of the era. Classics like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are more famous for the sheer power of their suggestive content, whereas Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more upfront when it comes to showing its horrific content. The transformation from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Mr. Edward Hyde is effective and frightening, thanks in part to Fredric March’s incredible performance and the terrific make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The camera focuses on March’s face for nearly thirty seconds during the initial transformation scene, which employs some truly impressive special effects and gives the audience a frightening sneak peek of the primitive-looking Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian expertly uses first person camera techniques to further the film’s suspense, which may be one of the first instances of the technique I’ve seen in a horror film. Mamoulian’s camera follows Hyde through all of his hideous acts, which increases the film’s sense of immersion and implicates the audience as helpless accessories to his crimes. Besides the horrific content found within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favorite example of its pre-code nature is an early scene where Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pierson – she has been hurt in what appears to be a mugging, and Dr. Jekyll carries her up to her room in order to treat her wounds. In a shocking turn of events, Pierson admits she was exaggerating in order to get Dr. Jekyll alone with her, and seduces the young doctor. Miriam Hopkins’ mostly naked figure and dangling leg have become iconic images, and for good reason. The scene perfectly captures a palpable sexual tension and the sexual desires of a young woman, both of which would be prohibited by the proposed Hays Code. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets away with a great deal in terms of violent and sexual content, largely thanks to the skills of its director and cast, and its famous source material. It’s a landmark moment for the horror genre, and a highlight of the pre-code era as a whole. Unfortunately for the film, it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that affect many of its contemporaries. The buildup to Mr. Hyde’s violent outbursts is longer than I expected, and the film’s ending comes all too suddenly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts several terrific performances in Fredric March’s award-winning take on Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, who is simultaneously brilliant and charming, and depraved and hideous, Miriam Hopkins’ independent and provocative Ivy Pierson, and Rose Hobart’s sweet Muriel Carrew. Director Rouben Mamoulian employs groundbreaking first-person camera techniques to terrify and titillate his audience, and make-up artist Wally Westmore creates a believably hideous Mr. Hyde. While it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that plague early horror films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tremendous example of the power that early horror films hold even today. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #2 – The Divorcee (1930)

The_Divorcee_posterThe Divorcee (1930)
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard
Written by: Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, John Meehan (based on Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott)
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Florence Eldridge, Robert Montgomery

Robert Z. Leonard’s film The Divorcee begins on a far more exciting note than 1929’s In Old Arizona (the first film in our marathon), setting a brisk pace and a progressive attitude that never lets up over its 80 minute run-time. The Best Picture nominee was developed primarily as a vehicle for Hollywood superstar Norma Shearer, who picked up an Oscar for Best Actress for playing Jerry, the film’s titular divorcee. The Divorcee opens with a party where love and passion is in the air and jealousies are running high, when suddenly that all comes to a halt with the jarring sounds of a car accident. From there, The Divorcee establishes its consistent tone and rather progressive attitude, imagining women as social and sexual equals to their male counterparts.

The Divorcee follows Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris), a couple who have been married for three years. When Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her, she decides to get even with her husband and sleeps with Ted’s good friend Don (Robert Montgomery). When Ted returns from a business trip, Jerry informs him that she’s “settled their accounts”, and an enraged Ted demands a divorce. From there, The Divorcee turns into a picture chock full of adultery and open sexuality, apparent alcoholism, and melodrama of the highest sort.
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Melodrama has always been a major point of interest for me – there’s just something so inherently fascinating about watching the heightened romantic lives of exaggerated on-screen characters. The Divorcee is no different than many of the melodramas I’ve enjoyed in the past – its passions are exaggerated, the situations unlikely, and the consequences non-existent, which is probably what ultimately contributed to my overall enjoyment of it. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is terrific, showing off strength, wit, and independence in every scene of the film – even if some of her actions were questionable. The character of Jerry seems incredibly forward-thinking for 1930, long before the era of screwball comedies where women were believably verbally sparring with men. Her character feels like a living, breathing human being who has believable faults and lovable charms about her, something that the previous film in our marathon was sorely missing. The Divorcee intelligently tackles themes of adultery and human sexuality with a deft – if sometimes clumsy – hand, showing off a great deal of pre-code Hollywood goodness. On top of themes of sexuality and the sanctity of marriage is the rampant use of alcohol – which seems to appear in every major scene in the film. The film’s early accident scene is probably one of the first instances of drunk-driving on the big screen, another instance of progression in this exciting pre-code era. The script by Nick Ginde, Zelda Sears and John Meehan (based loosely on Ursula Parrott’s story Ex-Wife) asks the audience bold questions about infidelity, and paints a brief picture of a strong, modern woman getting even with the man who betrayed her. One of my major problems with The Divorcee is a side story involving Paul (Conrad Nagel) and Dorothy (Florence Eldridge), which only served to add to the film’s melodramatic nature and add some minutes to its runtime. While the side story in general is interesting, it just doesn’t feel natural to include it in what is already a fairly compelling and dramatic story of love gone bad. The film’s ending is another weak point, as it goes against the overall tone and message that I felt the writers and director were trying to portray. The whole experience just feels rather counterproductive in its last ten minutes, which is a damn shame.

The Divorcee is a strong, dramatic film from director Robert Z. Leonard. Its themes of sexuality, infidelity, and divorce were groundbreaking at the time, and hold up rather well all things considered. It’s a film that simply could not have been made in a post-Hays Code era, at least not on this scale. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is very strong, realistically portraying a strong, independent, free-thinking female protagonist. Overall, Leonard’s film is a mostly strong take on an all-too taboo subject – divorce. It falls apart slightly in its final minutes, and features some unnecessary plot elements, but the positives outweigh the negatives here. The Divorcee is worth seeing for its forward-thinking screenplay, its charming melodramatic nature, and for Shearer’s performance alone. It’s recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #1 – In Old Arizona (1929)

InoldarizonaIn Old Arizona (1929)
Directed by: Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh
Written by: Tom Barry
Starring: Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess

In Old Arizona was the very first western film to feature full sound, helped establish a long-lasting trope in the “singing cowboy”, and was one of the earliest movies to be nominated for the now prestigious Best Picture prize at the annual Academy Awards. With all those credits under its belt, it’s important to note that In Old Arizona is not in any way a good film. In all honesty, it might be the worst we’ve taken a look at since the blog’s inception – but that’s always part of the fun when venturing into completely unknown territory. While it certainly isn’t a perfect film, there’s no denying the film’s groundbreaking nature and its influence on one of my favorite genre – for those things alone, it’s worthy of discussion.

In Old Arizona tells the story of a charming and eccentric, but feared, cowboy named the Cisco Kid (Warner Baxter) as he tangles with a local cavalry sergeant named Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe) who wants his blood. The Cisco Kid is so revered by the locals that he can rob a wagon without so much as a single gunshot – these feats do nothing but further the legend of the Cisco Kid, and enrage Sgt. Mickey Dunn. Luckily for the sergeant, he finds alliances in unexpected places and is able to convince The Cisco Kid’s love interest Tonia (Dorothy Burgess) to help him capture the cowboy. Even with an unexpected betrayal working against him, the Cisco Kid is able to match the sergeant’s efforts with sheer wit and quick thinking. Warner Baxter won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Cisco Kid, and In Old Arizona was nominated for a further four awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography.
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Being nearly ninety years old, it’s no wonder that In Old Arizona feels dated in its filmmaking techniques, plot structure, and performances. If it weren’t for the countless incredible films that came before it, I’d simply chock up the movie’s faults as failure to withstand the test of time and nothing else. Truthfully, there’s not much about In Old Arizona that works all these years later – the acting is awful, especially the overacted and phony performance of Dorothy Burgess, the writing feels overly simplified and far too convenient, and the film’s structure simply doesn’t warrant a full ninety minute runtime. If any project could benefit from being a short film, it’s In Old Arizona – doing away with the drawn out middle act that leads to the unsurprising betrayal of the Cisco Kid by his girl would make this a far more memorable film. Warner Baxter’s “singing cowboy” is easily the most notable thing about the film, and even Baxter’s performance feels exaggerated and far too comedic for a character who is supposedly so revered by the people around him. Edmund Lowe’s Sgt. Mickey Dunn has screen presence and is probably the best actor in the film, but that’s not saying much considering the two actors he shares the screen with. I appreciated some of the more boundary pushing elements of the film, in particular making Dorothy Burgess’ Tonia something of a seductress, using her sexuality to her advantage on multiple occasions. There are a few notable scenes alluding to sex, some gun violence, and a rather humorous use of the word “jackass”, but overall In Old Arizona’s pre-code influence feels rather mild. The most impressive part of In Old Arizona is in its use of sound, which feels much more natural than some of its contemporaries. The sparing use of score is effective in setting a tone and atmosphere, and the use of outdoor sets makes In Old Arizona feel like a full-blown western. The directors behind the camera deserved far greater than the script and cast of actors they were given, because it’s immediately clear that there is passion and inventiveness behind the film’s flaws.

While I can’t claim to have hated the entirety of my time with Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh’s film In Old Arizona, it certainly won’t go down as one of the best movie experiences I’ll ever have. The exaggerated performances don’t lend themselves to the subject matter found in the film, instead making this something of an annoying experience. The screenplay is clearly stretching the limits of the story at hand, making what should a forty-five minute short in a full-blown feature length disaster. Both Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh would go on to have prolific careers in Hollywood, making films that are probably far more memorable than any one scene in their 1929 Best Picture nominee. In Old Arizona is sadly not recommended, no matter how curious you are about the history of film and its pre-code era.

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Top 100 Films #3 – Annie Hall (1977)

 

annie-hall#3. Annie Hall (1977)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane

Woody Allen is a writer-director who I’ve always revered – his incredibly amount of output and passion for the arts is a great source of inspiration for me as a writer and film enthusiast. Even when his films are bad or mediocre, there’s passion and heart to them. His 1977 film Annie Hall is arguably the greatest film he’s ever made, featuring a great love story, hilarious Woody Allen dialogue, and terrific performances. Annie Hall stars Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, a neurotic comedian reflecting on his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), which we find out has ended a year ago. Alvy chronicles his childhood in New York, where he obsessed over the meaning of his existence, and was punished for his early sexual curiosity. Through a series of flashbacks, Alvy and Annie meet after a doubles tennis game with friends, and the two awkwardly hit it off. Things progress wonderfully until Annie moves in with Alvy, which creates tension in the relationship. The two eventually break up, date other people, and reconcile shortly after when Annie needs Alvy’s help with killing a spider in the middle of the night. Soon after their reconciliation, the relationship once again falls apart, this time permanently – both characters are glad to have loved one another, even if it wasn’t always filled with good times. Annie Hall is one of the most beloved romantic comedies in Hollywood history – it even beat Star Wars for Best Picture at the 1978 Academy Awards. The screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman is highly intelligent and often morbidly hilarious, playing on Woody Allen’s fascinations with death, existence, and the creative process. Even through the script’s intellectual and neurotic nature, Allen and Brickman manage to create one of the most genuine and heartfelt romantic stories ever told on film – one that doesn’t just focus on the best moments in a relationship. The use of flashbacks and non-linear storytelling allows for Allen and Brickman to explore the past of Alvy Singer, including the failed marriages and relationships that have shaped his views on romance. Both Woody Allen and Diane Keaton shine throughout Annie Hall, carrying dramatic and comedic weight like no other on-screen pairing could. Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer is his usual highly neurotic and obsessive, but still confident and arrogant, self, while Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is adorably goofy, strong-willed, and highly intelligent. The two had such obvious on-screen chemistry in their many collaborations, undoubtedly aided by their brief real life romantic relationship. Annie Hall is Woody Allen at his absolute funniest as a writer and a performer, somehow managing to make both Ingmar Bergman and holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity humorous. The writing and storytelling feels personal and genuine, and the film’s ending feels groundbreaking for the time – not giving the audience the “fairy tale”-esque ending they might be asking for. Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s greatest achievement as a writer and director, and may even be the film where he finally found his voice. It’s hilarious, romantic, heartbreaking, genuine, and smart – everything a Woody Allen movie should be.

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Top 100 Films #4 – The Exorcist (1973)

 

scariest-movie-exorcims#4. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: William Peter Blatty (based on The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty)
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb

The Exorcist has long been considered to be the scariest movie ever made, and for good reason. William Friedkin’s intelligent take on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name is one of the most successful horror films ever made, both on a critical and financial level. The Exorcist follows actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) as they live their quiet, but busy, life together in Georgetown. After Regan plays with a ouija board and becomes acquainted with “Captain Howdy”, strange things begin to happen all around the MacNeil house. Soon, it is apparent that something is wrong with Regan – she is experiencing seizures, using obscene language, and displays abnormal levels of strength for a 12-year old girl. After countless rounds of medical testing, Chris is tired and desperate for answers – she contacts Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who reluctantly agrees to perform an exorcism on the young Regan. Karras along with the veteran Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) prepare for the long, exhausting, and dangerous exorcism on Regan MacNeil, who grows worse by the hour. The Exorcist is an incredible example of the power that pacing can have on a film – the mounting level of intensity and mystery builds to a boiling point in the movie’s final act, and what follows is one of the most memorable scenes in horror movie history. Director William Friedkin used manipulative hands-on techniques behind the camera to get reactions out of the cast, and it works to great effect in The Exorcist’s more horrific moments. Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair (with help from Mercedes McCambridge) deliver incredibly physical performances, with the two women hitting each other and interacting with various parts of the set. Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil tries to remain brave and fierce for her young daughter, but by the end is exhausted and at her wit’s end – the journey is an incredibly taxing one for Chris. Friedkin went as far as firing blanks on the set in order to get reactions out of Jason Miller and Max von Sydow during the film’s climactic exorcism scene, and clearly the obnoxious technique paid off. Both Miller and Sydow perform brilliantly as Fathers Karras and Merrin, with Sydow bringing a great deal of wisdom to the role. Miller’s Karras is a deeply conflicted and complex character, which is greatly appreciated for any supporting character. Aside from the terrific pacing and acting found in The Exorcist, the film’s special effects still hold up today. The transformation of Regan MacNeil from innocent 12-year-old girl to the horrifying being known as “Pazuzu” is incredibly effective and creepy, with uncredited actress Mercedes McCambridge lending the unique and horrific voice to the character. Other impressive practical effects include large household items violently sliding and flying across the screen seemingly on their own volition towards Ellen Burstyn’s character. The score performed by Mike Oldfield and Jack Nitzsche adds a great deal of mood to the film’s already thick atmosphere, most notably with the creepy “Tubular Bells” theme. The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1974, include Best Picture, Best Director (Friedkin), Best Actress (Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Miller), and Best Supporting Actress (Blair) among others, bringing home only two for Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay (Blatty). The success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains unparalleled for a horror film, and the movie continues to age like a fine wine. It’s horrifying, thought-provoking, full of great performances, subtle writing, and rich with creepy atmosphere – it’s the greatest horror film ever made.

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Top 100 Films #6 – Rocky (1976)

 

adrian-and-rocky#6. Rocky (1976)
Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers

Everybody reading through this list knows the basic story of Rocky – the ultimate underdog gets a chance to fight one of the most accomplished boxers in the world and takes him to the limit after weeks of hard work and training. The formula used by writer and star Sylvester Stallone in Rocky is an age old one, and yet feels so fresh in the Best Picture winning drama. Rocky tells the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a hard working Italian-American boxer living in Philadelphia. Rocky is in love with a painfully shy and timid pet store clerk named Adrian (Talia Shire), whose brother Paulie (Burt Young) is Rocky’s best friend. After finding out that his opponent for the big Bicentennial fight is out with an injury, world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) handpicks “The Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa to be his opponent in five weeks. Rocky reluctantly accepts the fight, aided by Adrian, Paulie, and his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who pushes Rocky to the limit so that he might stand a chance against the much more experienced Creed. At this point in my life, I’ve seen Rocky dozens of times, and even after all these years, John G. Avildsen’s film makes me feel so energetic, inspired, and emotional. When the film’s iconic ending comes, I’m in tears no matter who I’m watching with – it’s just the kind of wholly satisfying endings you rarely gets in the movies. Rocky’s underdog story never feels cliche or false, but instead has the audience rooting for him the entire way, whether it’s wanting him to defeat Apollo Creed, or wanting to see Rocky finally win over Adrian. Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Rocky Balboa is pitch perfect – the writer-star clearly knows his strengths as an actor, and plays them up. Stallone’s Rocky is kind-hearted and maybe not the sharpest tool in the shed, but his goofy charm wins over nearly everybody he encounters in his day to day life. Everybody in the film is seemingly a fan of Rocky’s – he’s just one of those inherently likable kind of guys. Talia Shire’s turn as the timid and quiet Adrian is wonderful as well, with the actress only coming out of her proverbial shell when she begins to see Rocky romantically – and even then, she constantly seems like a nervous wreck. Shire and Stallone have great chemistry together – their first dates together feel like genuine first dates, and most of their initial interactions are believably awkward. Supporting performances from both Burt Young as the angry and bitter Paulie, and Burgess Meredith’s grizzled veteran trainer Mickey are both incredible, and saw both actors nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The loud and rowdy pair of Paulie and Mickey serve as great contrasting figures to Rocky’s quiet, often stoic personality. On top of some terrific performances from the entire cast, Bill Conti’s uplifting score sets the tone for the inspirational and personal story to come. Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” and “Going the Distance” are two of the best movie compositions ever performed, and help give some dramatic weight to the film’s final act. When “Going the Distance” reaches its final moments and Adrian makes her way through the crowd to greet Rocky, you know you’ve just experienced something truly magical. Rocky is, in my opinion, one of the most satisfying movie going experiences you could ever possibly imagine – it has drama, humor, an amazing and relatable love story, a great score, incredible performances, and one of the most iconic underdogs in movie history. Rocky is a Hollywood masterpiece, and is the kind of movie that seems all too rare today.

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Top 100 Films #11 – The Graduate (1967)

 

the-graduate#11. The Graduate (1967)
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Written by: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry (based on The Graduate by Charles Webb)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross

The Graduate is Mike Nichols’ brilliant and progressive project that has inspired generations of movie lovers. The film is based on Charles Webb’s novel of the same name, and picked up Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and won for Best Director (Nichols). The Graduate follows young Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) after he has finished college. Unsure of how to proceed with life, Benjamin becomes somewhat depressive. The young Braddock is eventually seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an older woman whose daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) is in love with Benjamin. Benjamin and the older Mrs. Robinson pursue an affair, which severely complicates his relationships with Elaine. After Elaine finds out about the affair, things become messy for all those involved – especially for Benjamin, who has fallen in love with Mrs. Robinson’s young daughter. The Graduate is one of the most brilliant works in American film history, featuring iconic performances, moments, music, and almost universally relatable themes. It’s the ultimate coming-of-age story, exploring the often confusing and unexciting life after college – experienced through the eyes of an awkward, but highly intelligent and perceptive young man. No movie has ever captured the feelings of post-college life quite like The Graduate does, which is an impressive feat since the film is now fifty years old. Director Mike Nichols had already made a name for himself in Hollywood with the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but The Graduate feels like a revelatory step for Nichols. The director’s penchant for hilarious visual and verbal humor is clear throughout, creating some of the most awkwardly funny moments in Hollywood history (the “plastics” party scene and the seduction of Benjamin by Mrs. Robinson in particular). Nichols’ use of music is another incredible touch, setting many scenes to the songs of Simon & Garfunkel – The Graduate has made “The Sound of Silence”, “Mrs. Robinson”, and “Scarborough Fair” some of the groups most beloved and enduring tracks. The entire film has an air of malaise and apathy about it, which works perfectly in capturing the tone and uncertainty of life after school. The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is incredible, combining different styles of humor and satire with a genuinely touching romantic story and challenging themes of the uncertainty that comes with being young. The structure of the narrative and the exchanges of dialogue between characters feels natural, modern, and still relevant all these years later. The two were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, but were bested by that year’s Best Picture winning drama In the Heat of the Night. The highlights of the film are its lead performers Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, whose chemistry together on screen is tremendous. The veteran Bancroft brings experience and screen presence to the role of Mrs. Robinson, and the younger and unsure Dustin Hoffman makes him a perfect match for the role of Benjamin Braddock. Every scene they share together is better than the last, with their relationship quickly developing and becoming far more complicated than either could have expected. The story of their affair never feels false or reaching, which is important when it comes to suspending your disbelief. The romantic subplot between Hoffman’s Benjamin and Katharine Ross’ Elaine is genuinely compelling and sweet, thanks largely in part to the performances from the young actors. Without their budding romance, The Graduate would merely be the story of a quick and awkward affair between two deeply mismatched people. The Graduate is a funny, insightful, stylish, and personal film that deserves every bit of praise it has received over fifty years – it’s a film I love to revisit, and one I find myself coming back to again and again.  

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Top 100 Films #14 – The Apartment (1960)

 

apartment_026pyxurz#14. The Apartment (1960)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen

Billy Wilder’s Best Picture winning The Apartment is the cynical old master of cinema at his most heartwarming and endearing.  The film starring the charming Jack Lemmon in quite possibly his most enduring role and a young, hilarious Shirley MacLaine was one of the very first “classic” movies I ever saw, and one that immediately won my heart.  The Apartment tells the story of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) a down-on-his-luck pushover who rents his apartment to his many bosses so that they can carry out affairs with younger women.  Baxter does so in order to climb the often difficult to navigate corporate ladder, and his strategy pays off in spades.  After falling in love with the workplace elevator girl Fran (Shirley MacLaine), Baxter begins to have a change of heart.  When he finds out that Fran had previously been seduced by his boss Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and the two had carried out an affair, things become complicated for the love triangle.  The Apartment is Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s strongest writing work together, in my opinion.  The story features much of Wilder’s inherent cynicism, mostly in C.C. Baxter’s view of the world, and in Fran’s dealings with Sheldrake – there’s a lot of hopelessness and bitterness to be found.  Luckily, both Wilder and Diamond also show a deeply human side to their writing, something they would continue to improve on in future scripts. It seems that Diamond brought out the very best in Wilder, making him look past the negatives and create something with spirit and heart.  The love story the two men have crafted in The Apartment is truly touching and multi-layered, making it easily one of the most effective romantic-comedies ever made in Hollywood. C.C. Baxter is one of my all-time favorite screen characters – there’s something I find so compelling about his depressive and cynical, but deeply romantic and well-natured attitude.  Jack Lemmon’s performance as Baxter is incredible, picking up a well-deserved Best Actor nomination at that year’s Academy Awards. Shirley MacLaine’s turn as Fran is equally as complex, with the sweet young woman towing the line between naive and entirely self-aware.  The blossoming romance between both Baxter and Fran is entirely believable, and incredibly sweet – there’s something in the air when the two characters interact, especially in the latter half of the film when they share more screen time.  Fred MacMurray’s supporting role as Sheldrake is probably the most I’ve ever enjoyed seeing the actor on screen – he is perfectly charming and unlikable when contrasted with Jack Lemmon’s endearing C.C. Baxter.  MacMurray was always best used as a supporting player, and Wilder once again uses him to great effect in The Apartment.   The film would go on to win Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), and Best Writing (I.A.L. Diamond and Wilder) at the 1961 Academy Awards, creating the structure and style of modern romantic comedy films, and paving the way for generations of rom-coms to come.  The Apartment is sweet, intelligent, funny, and deeply moving in a way that Billy Wilder was never quite able to recapture – though his 1961 film One, Two, Three is a personal favorite of mine.

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Top 100 Films #15 – The Social Network (2010)

 

social-network-1920x1080#15. The Social Network (2010)
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Aaron Sorkin (based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara

On paper, David Fincher’s The Social Network should never been nearly as effective or compelling – it’s a movie about the founding of Facebook and the events that followed.  Even though it was a great modern director tackling the material with a talented young cast, I can’t say I ever expected to be floored in the way that I was back in 2010.  The Social Network chronicles the young life of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), as he creates what will eventually go on to be the most popular social network of all time – Facebook.  He partners with trusted friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), eccentric millionaire Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), and the driven Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer). Eventually the success of the platform goes to the head of young Zuckerberg, whose business and personal relationships begin to crumble all around him.  The Social Network pushed director David Fincher from being a very good director, to being one of the modern greats.  The director shot many takes for some of the film’s more dialogue-heavy scenes, pushing his young cast to the limits, but also getting some truly great performances out of them all. Fincher also begins to dabble in post-production additions, like digital snow and breath, and even duplicating a character (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss).  Not only does David Fincher show his prowess as a technical camera, but here he also proved that he is a true visionary with the use of these methods.  Just as, if not more, important to The Social Network’s success is the screenplay by the great writer Aaron Sorkin – perhaps best known for his writing on TV’s The West Wing.  Sorkin’s writing has always been criticized for being too smarmy or “scripted”, but it really works with a character like Mark Zuckerberg.  Sorkin’s dialogue is lightning fast at times, pushing the film’s dramatic weight with only words and actions – he creates this believable universe where each and every character is fully-developed and has their own unique motivations and goals in the project.  Every character speaks and acts differently, but when they all interact with one another it feels fluid and effortless in the best way possible.  Maybe I’m blinded by my love for Sorkin’s screwball comedy-like dialogue and situational writing, but he did win an Academy Award for the screenplay – obviously somebody out there agrees with my sentiments.  On top of Fincher and Sorkin’s all important behind the scenes efforts, in front of the camera are some of the best performances of 2010.  Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg comes off as a likable neurotic and awkward loner in the first half of the film, and quickly becomes one of the more unlikable characters in film history for his actions (or lack thereof). Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin is all-too naive and trusting in his friend, which leads to his eventual downfall and his being so easily dumped – when he finally grows a backbone, it’s a truly thrilling moment.  Also noteworthy are Justin Timberlake’s eccentric million Sean Parker, who is instantly cool, but deeply vain, Armie Hammer’s Winklevoss twins, who are so overloaded with testosterone it’s a wonder they never just beat Zuckerberg up, and Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright, who is intelligent, strong, and far too good for Mark Zuckerberg’s mind games. The Social Network is a modern masterpiece in my mind, and rivals a film like Citizen Kane as a poignant and intelligent look at the meteoric rise and eventually fall of a young prodigy.  If you never saw it and only think of it as “the Facebook movie”, do yourself a favor and see this – it’ll prove your perceptions wrong time and time again.

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Top 100 Films #18 – A Serious Man (2009)

 

untitled7#18. A Serious Man (2009)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick

Another bizarre and wholly unique film from two of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood, the Coen Brothers.  A Serious Man is a much different film than anything Joel and Ethan had tackled in the past, and many critics have agreed that the film shows just how much the two directors have grown up over the years.  Their 2009 film follows a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as his life slowly, but surely, falls apart around him. His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is getting in trouble at school, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a respected member of the Jewish community, and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is involved in some less than flattering legal problems.  On top of all this, Larry’s application to receive tenure at the university is in jeopardy.  A Serious Man is another in a series of Coen Brothers films that sees a person’s life drastically changing for the worse, employing some of the classic dark humour found in films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Barton Fink.  Though it’s a much more subtle humour than some of their films, the screenplay is a masterwork in terms of character study – Larry Gopnik is an immediately compelling character almost entirely due to how unlucky and unfortunate things are going for him.  Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Larry is pitch perfect – his frustration is always apparent, even though he almost never has the opportunity to give it a voice. Every time things seem to be going better for Larry, something else becomes muddled or another question is raised, creating more frustration and unhappiness in our unfortunate lead.  Fred Melamed’s supporting turn as Sy Ableman is hilariously maddening, with Ableman making Larry out to be the bad guy even though Sy is directly challenging his family dynamic.  While I hesitate to use a word like “underrated” for A Serious Man (it was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2010), I feel as if it does get lost in the Coen Brothers’ impressive filmography.  It feels like a deeply personal project for the two brothers, and delves into complex and subtle themes of faith and destiny that are incredibly compelling and intriguing.  It’s a darkly hilarious and intelligent look at one man’s misfortunes, which is something the Coen’s do better than any other active American filmmaker.  A Serious Man is an unsung masterpiece, and deserves to be put on a pedestal beside films like Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and other Coen Brother masterpieces.

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Top 100 Films #22 – Fargo (1996)

 

fargo_033pyxurz#22. Fargo (1996)
Directed by: Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare

Fargo is perhaps the most iconic film in the impressive and prolific filmography of the Coen Brothers, thanks in part to the film’s many quirky idiosyncrasies. Fargo follows Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) as a pregnant police chief investigating the killing of a local State Trooper.  The murder has occurred after the pre-arranged kidnapping of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy)’s wife Jean. Lundegaard is in desperate need for money, and has arranged for his wife’s kidnapping in order to extort his father-in-law for a ransom.  The two men responsible for the kidnapping and the murder are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who run a sloppy and uncoordinated operation. Their mistakes eventually lead Marge Gunderson straight to the source, complicating the extortion plot and leading to a series of betrayals and backfires.  Fargo is the Coen Brothers are their very best from a writing perspective – the complicated and unfortunate situation of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard is immediately established, and his motivations made clear, the lack of chemistry between antagonists Carl and Gaear is shown, and the investigative prowess and critical thinking skills of police chief Marge Gunderson become clear in time.  Every character is perfectly written and realized, with every one of them having their own idiosyncrasies and ticks – most famously Marge’s thick Minnesotan accent and good-natured attitude, Jerry’s nervous, innocent, and immediately suspicious demeanor, and Carl’s nonstop motormouth.  Fargo has been made famous by the sheer quotability of its dialogue, most notably the amount of “oh yeah”’s featured – even twenty years later anybody who has seen the film can’t hear “oh yeah” without immediately associating it with this film.  Frances McDormand’s endearing Marge Gunderson is one of the great screen characters of the 1990’s, “oh yeah”-ing her way all the way to an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1997.  Frances McDormand’s Marge is unintentionally hilarious, tough as nails, and far more complex than she is initially portrayed as – her awkward and uncomfortable scene with Steve Park’s Mike Yanagita and her subsequent revelations about his lies is one of my all-time favorite movie moments.  The Coen Brothers’ hilarious and suspenseful crime film is the basis for the highly successful television show of the same name, which has almost managed to match Fargo in terms of quality and bizarreness.  If you’re a fan of the television series and have somehow managed to avoid the film, do yourself a favour and see Fargo as soon as possible – it’s one of the funniest, quirkiest, most unique movie experiences you’ll ever have.

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Top 100 Films #23 – All That Jazz (1979)

 

all-that-jazz-dancing#23. All That Jazz (1979)
Directed by: Bob Fosse
Written by: Robert Alan Aurthur, Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking

All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s semi autobiographical masterpiece about his experiences as stage dancer and director, as well as his time working on his previous film Lenny and the stage production of Chicago simultaneously.  All That Jazz follows stage director and performer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) as he splits his time between editing a feature film and directing an ambitious new Broadway show.  In order to cope with the stress, Joe relies on his a trusty cocktail of cigarettes and pills, which eventually catch up to him.  Joe eventually begins to experience serious chest pains and is rushed to the hospital – where he is forced to stay for a number of weeks.  With his projects on hold indefinitely, Joe is forced to deal with his health issues and reevaluate his life decisions.  What follows is a surreal and dreamlike series of bombastic musical numbers and existential angst, imagined only as a visionary like Bob Fosse could.  Roy Scheider gives a career-best performance as Joe Gideon, who is a compulsive, workaholic visionary who never comes across as anything short of genuine.  Scheider’s Joe is perfectly understated and subtle – something I had never seen from the actor before All That Jazz.  Bob Fosse’s work behind the camera is highly energetic, self-indulgent, and full the director’s stylistic flares – the dream sequences in particular are some of the highlights of All That Jazz.  The director’s attention to detail pays off in spades in the incredibly well-choreographed musical numbers, proving that his time on the stage could translate perfectly to the big screen.  The screenplay by the duo of Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur is entirely self-aware and death-obsessed – it’s clear that these themes and ruminations are coming from a very intimate and personal place.  All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s brilliant take on a subject many all-time great directors have tackled – a self-aware exploration of the tortured mind of an artist, obsessed with their legacy and their untimely death.  It’s easy to argue that Fosse’s film is self-indulgent and more impressed with itself than it should be, but to deny its sense of passion and the artistry involved would be plain foolish.  All That Jazz is not always an easy or joyful watch (especially for a musical), but it’s one hell of an affecting film.  

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Top 100 Films #26 – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

 

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS#26. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Directed by: Stanley Donen
Written by: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Dorothy Kingsley (based on The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Vincent Benet)
Starring: Howard Keel, Jane Powell

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the kind of movie that simply couldn’t and wouldn’t be made today – it’s satirical take on gender roles is far too controversial for the internet age.  Director Stanley Donen was still fresh off his highly successful Singin’ in the Rain, with Donen continuing to tackle the comedy and musical films that made his landmark film so successful.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers takes place in 1850, and follows a backwoodsman named Adam (Howard Keel) as he ventures into town one day in search of a wife.  He meets a young, assertive woman named Milly (Jane Powell), and the two quickly marry and set off to Adam’s cabin.  What he hasn’t told her is that he has six younger brothers, and expects Milly to cook for and clean after the whole lot of them. Milly, with her never say die attitude, quickly teaches the brothers how to be seen as modern men and how to respect women.  The brothers all fall in love with local girls from the town, with Adam encouraging them to be bold and profess their love for them.  What follows is a serious of hilarious and fun situations that could only be found in a musical from the 1950’s.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is without a doubt one of the most charming, fun-loving musical films I’ve ever seen, and I adored it from the moment the opening credits rolled.  Howard Keel’s Adam is loud, brash, and follows an outdated code of living, but is lighthearted almost to a fault.  Keel’s deep singing voice carries many of the film’s musical numbers, and is one I’ve attempted to replicate in the shower more than once. Jane Powell’s much more innocent, but progressive, intelligent, and level-headed Milly serves as the film’s moral counterweight to Keel’s Adam.  Powell’s beautiful singing voice serves as the perfect contrast to Keel’s booming voice – the two compliment each other perfectly.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers really shines in its songwriting, featuring three of my favorite musical numbers in “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”, “Goin’ Courtin’”, and “The Sobbin’ Women”, all of which are funny and charming in their own ways.  Director Stanley Donen makes the best of MGM’s back lot sets, using matte paintings and rear projection to give a sense that the sets are much larger than they are in actuality.  Donen and choreographer Michael Kidd make Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a truly unique experience, making compelling song-and-dance numbers out of things like chopping wood and raising a barn – both sequences are far more grand and memorable than they have any right to be.  The highlight from a direction and choreography standpoint is the song “Lonesome Polecat”, which sees Adam’s six unhappy brothers chopping and sawing wood – Donen captures the entire impressive sequence in a single take.  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a hilarious satire that takes a good, hard look at gender roles and masculinity.  It’s easy to mistake the film for being a misogynist and ignorant work, but I truly don’t believe it to be anything of the sort.  It’s far ahead of its time in terms of themes and subtlety, and is a film I could watch over and over again.  If you’re fresh off this year’s wildly popular La La Land and looking for another (far different) musical to satisfy your appetite, look no further than Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

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Top 100 Films #27 – The Godfather (1972)

 

brando-godfather-e1441810531302#27. The Godfather (1972)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola (based on The Godfather by Mario Puzo)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Richard Castellano, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Gianna Russo

The Godfather has been parodied and paid tribute to time and time again, in various mediums and to varying degrees of success – its immediate influence on popular culture and media in general is undeniable.  Francis Ford Coppola’s Best Picture-winning film follows crime syndicate Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his children Michael (Al Pacino), Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), and Connie (Talia Shire), detailing their relationships with the syndicate, with each other, and the power held by the Corleone family and its individual members.  After Vito is shot in an assassination attempt and subsequently hospitalized, his sons Michael and Sonny do what they must to maintain power in the dark and dirty world of organized crime.  Coppola’s The Godfather helped to once again popularize the gangster drama, as it had fallen on hard times after the 1940’s.  It did this by featuring some of the most iconic characters to ever be featured in a Hollywood film, most notably Marlon Brando’s incredible take on Vito Corleone, the wise, calm and collected Don and patriarch of the Corleone family.  Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone is also introduced in the film, starting out as a kind-hearted and ambitious young man and quickly climbing the ranks of the syndicate after the hospitalization of his father.  Pacino’s Michael would go on to be further developed in Coppola’s later two films in the Godfather trilogy, turning him into the complex anti-hero we would eventually know him to be. Also noteworthy is Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, the right-hand man or consigliere of Vito – his quiet, sensible nature makes him stand out from the pack. The Godfather features incredible cinematography from Gordon Willis, who plays a great deal with light, creating a dark, murky, natural atmosphere that makes The Godfather feel genuine.  Nino Rota’s musical score also helps to set the tone of the film, using many stereotypically Italian compositions and a heck of a main theme to set the scene.  Francis Ford Coppola’s up close and personal look at the Italian mob changed films forever, and would inspire many subsequent crime films with dark, violent, and natural tones – an effect we’re still feeling today.  My favorite moment of the film comes in the form of a violent montage at the end of the film –  it showed a younger me just how powerful and exhilarating classic cinema can be.  Though The Godfather clocks in at nearly three hours in length, its tight pacing, incredible script, and powerhouse performances makes the time absolutely fly by – by the time it’s over, you’re thanking yourself that you still have two more films in the series.  The Godfather is a must-see for anybody interested in film, and is endlessly entertaining and influential.

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Top 100 Films #28 – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

 

mmisl3#28. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe (based on Meet Me in St. Louis by Sally Benson)
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, Robert Sully

Meet Me in St. Louis is Vincente Minnelli’s familial musical romance starring Judy Garland at the absolute peak of her stardom.  The film takes place over four consecutive seasons, covering a year in the lives of Smith family – an upper middle class unit gearing up for the upcoming 1904 World’s Fair in their home town of St. Louis, Missouri.  We meet Esther (Judy Garland), a young woman pining for her next door neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake), Rose (Lucille Bremer), who is to be married to a young man named Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully), and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), the mischievous youngest daughter of the Smith family as she navigates her carefree childhood.  Through the months, the Smith patriarch Alonzo (Leon Ames) receives a job promotion and decides to move the family to New York – which is not well received by his St. Louis loving family.  Along the way to the World’s Fair and the eventual move to New York, we see the Smith family celebrate Halloween and Christmas, fall in love, have their hearts broken, and get involved in generally humorous and dramatic situations. Though Meet Me in St. Louis is very early on in Vincente Minnelli’s career, his talent as a director of musical films is immediately apparent.  He uses bright, beautiful Technicolor to accentuate his unique aesthetic, and excellent blocking and choreography in the film’s many musical scenes that make it stand out from the crowd.  Minelli’s direction feels both classic and modern in many ways, with the film’s pacing being one of the most notable – the film never spends too much time in any of the seasons, using the unique elements of each to push the main storylines forward.  The musical aspects of the film work perfectly in context throughout, as the Smith family are established in the very beginning as a fun-loving, music-playing family, specializing in piano and song-and-dance numbers that they perform to entertain guests.  The songs are excellent and incredibly catchy, most notably “Skip to My Lou”, “Under the Bamboo Tree”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – which was written for the film before ever becoming a Christmas classic.  Judy Garland carries each and every song she is featured in to memorable heights, using her beautiful and unique voice to make each and every song her own.  The performances in Meet Me in St. Louis are charming and often hilarious, with the highlights being Judy Garland’s bold, but shy, Esther and Margaret O’Brien’s wide-eyed and curious Tootie being the highlights.  Supporting characters add a great deal of comedy to the film, with Leon Ames’ Alonzo and Marjorie Main’s Katie being the comedic highlights.  Meet Me in St. Louis is an absolute blast from start to finish, featuring some of my favorite musical numbers, incredibly endearing characters, and a wonderfully funny and sentimental story to make it a truly special experience.  If you’re interested in reading my full thoughts on Meet Me in St. Louis, you can read them here.

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Top 100 Films #31 – Brief Encounter (1945)

 

brief-encounter-review#31. Brief Encounter (1945)
Directed by: David Lean
Written by: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (based on Still Life by Noel Coward)
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond

I had the pleasure of seeing David Lean’s Brief Encounter in a theatre over the summer, and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite theatrical experiences. While the film is not as epic as Lean’s other films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, or Doctor Zhivago, the experience of seeing it on a large screen with great sound and with undivided attention made me appreciate Brief Encounter more than ever before.  Lean’s film tells the story of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), an unhappy middle-class housewife in late 1930’s Britain.  After a day in the city, Laura meets a doctor named Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) in a train station tea house.  The two instantly hit it off, and eventually arrange to meet again.  What begins as an innocent friendship between two adults soon leads to romantic feelings and thoughts from both parties, with Laura contemplating pursuing an affair with Alec.  What follows is a complex look at romance, the excitement of a new relationship, and the pitfalls of adultery. Brief Encounter is an incredibly well-structure film, clocking in at just 86 minutes but featuring the emotional content of a full-blown two-plus hour drama. The script, based on a play by famous playwright Noel Coward, wastes little time in setting the stage and introducing the characters of Laura and Alec. Both main characters are treated fairly, as their situation is one that nearly anybody involved in a long-term romance could wind up in.  Both are extremely likeable and charming characters, which is helped by the chemistry between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.  The romantic tension is obvious from the second time the characters meet, and the emotional minefield they must traverse is taxing and complicated.  Celia Johnson’s Laura is extremely conflicted from the get-go, but is clearly bored of her now monotonous homelife, and Trevor Howard’s Dr. Alec Harvey is intelligent, funny, and extremely charming.  The performances from both actors are terrific, and really help to sell the drama found in Brief Encounter.  David Lean’s direction follows Laura and Alec as they converse in a tea shop, in a movie theatre, and as they walk and talk with each other through the streets – potentially inspiring filmmaker Richard Linklater and his Before Trilogy.  The style found in Brief Encounter is understated and subtle, putting emphasis on building a suspenseful atmosphere, begging viewers to ask themselves what they would do in their situation, and wanting to know what each character will decide to do.  Brief Encounter is a brilliantly paced film featuring tight, focused writing, terrific performances, and impressive understated direction – it’s a triumph, and one of the most complex love stories ever written.

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Top 100 Films #32 – A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

 

a-woman-under-the-influence#32. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Directed by: John Cassavetes
Written by: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

John Cassavetes’ film A Woman Under the Influence features what very well may be one of the all-time greatest performances in Gena Rowlands’ portrayal of Mabel Longhetti.  Mabel is happily married to Nick (Peter Falk), whom she aims to please at all times.  Nick becomes perturbed when he notices Mabel’s behaviour around others is becoming erratic.  Eventually he decides to hospitalize Mabel for her safety, and takes on the task of raising their kids alone for six months until their mother is well. When Mabel returns from the hospital, neither party are mentally or emotionally prepared for the strains that have been put on their relationship.  John Cassavetes’ film is an absolute showcase of the skills of both Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, letting the two great actors play two very unique characters and really be able to sink their teeth into them.  Rowlands’ Mabel is easily one of my favorite screen characters, because her presence is constantly electric, unpredictable, and incredibly sympathetic in a real world way. Mabel is clearly tortured by whatever is affecting her mental health, and it’s both terrifying and heartbreaking to watch it unfold, especially when it begins to affect her family.  Peter Falk’s Nick is kindhearted and frustrated, wanting his wife to be well again so things can go back to normal, but also quickly growing tired of taking care of her and ensuring she doesn’t embarrass or harm herself or others. Together, Rowlands and Falk are unstoppable in their incredible chemistry – it’s too bad the pair did not collaborate more frequently. Cassavetes’ direction is especially inspired throughout A Woman Under the Influence, making the best of the limits of independent filmmaking in the 1970’s – he manages to get incredible performances from most of the cast, and keeps the story rolling.  A Woman Under the Influence clocks in at a little over 2 ½ hours long, which may be seen as a problem for some.  Cassavetes’ writing is never stilted or meandering, instead the director uses the bloated runtime to paint a rich portrait of two very compelling characters, and allows the story to flow naturally.  His screenplay takes a respectful look at mental illness and the effects on all parties surrounding it – a rarity for the era.  Today, A Woman Under the Influence still feels relevant and respectful, never delving into exploitative territory, which often harms older films in the eyes of modern viewers.  It’s clear to me that John Cassavetes was genuinely interested in the subject matter, because his camera and screenplay very clear show this.  Despite this, he’s never afraid to inject dark humor where it’s needed, nor does he wander away from some of the more melodramatic aspects of the story – everything comes together perfectly.  A Woman Under the Influence is the best John Cassavetes film I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and one of film’s best looks at the tough subject that is mental illness.

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