Tag Archives: Academy Awards

Top 100 Films #77 – No Country for Old Men (2007)

 

nocountry_004#77. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (based on No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald

Widely regarded as the best movie of the 2000’s, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is an undeniably powerful project.  It’s a story about circumstance, destiny, greed, and taking unnecessary risks – and is full of morally ambiguous characters and situations.  The film introduced the world to Javier Bardem’s terrifying Anton Chigurh, perhaps one of the most frightening villains of the modern era.   No Country for Old Men took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Adapted Screenplay, beating out one hell of a stiff competitor in the same year’s There Will Be Blood.  The plot of the movie is simple – Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds two million in cash at the site of a drug deal gone bad.  Moss is pursued by a dangerous and emotionless hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), hired to get the money back, and by Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a nearly-retired sheriff in pursuit of both men. What follows is a bloody, suspenseful, challenging thrill ride matched by few films before it, and one whose influence can be seen in many films that have followed it.  The screenplay by the Coen Brothers is perfectly paced, gripping the audience from start to finish.  It never panders to its viewing audience by imitating popular thrillers, but is instead more than happy to take its time in telling an intelligent, and at times frightening story.  Javier Bardem is unpredictable as Anton Chigurh, bringing an unrivaled sense of dread to the film. While Bardem is far and away the highlight of No Country, we also get impressive turns from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Woody Harrelson, all of whom do their best to match Bardem’s iconic performance.  The awards and praise earned by No Country for Old Men are all deserved, as is its status as one of the great films of the 2000’s.  It’s just that damn good.

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Top 100 Films #78 – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

 

aurora#78. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Written by: Carl Mayer (based on The Excursion to Tilsit by Hermann Sudermann)
Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

1927 marked the release of the first full-length film featuring synchronized sound in the form of The Jazz Singer, effectively rendering the silent long-standing film industry irrelevant.  Famed German director F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans stood as one of the last major films of the silent era.  Silent films would continue to be released for a number of years while major Hollywood studios worked to iron out the many kinks in synchronized sound, but many historians agree that Sunrise may be the definitive film of the medium’s last years.  Murnau’s film won the first and only Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, which would be recognized as something of a runner-up prize to first ever Best Picture winning Wings.  Sunrise follows a Man (George O’Brien) as he carries out an affair with a city woman (Margaret Livingston).  The woman tells the Man that he should sell his farm and come live his life with her in the city.  They decide that in order to do this, the Man must first murder his Wife (Janet Gaynor).  After a failed attempt to drown his Wife, the Man has a sudden change of heart and the two spend an eventful evening together in the city. Sunrise tells a beautiful and moving story of love, regret, and temptation, but with unparalleled style and grace.  Murnau’s experience with German expressionism is apparent throughout the majority of Sunrise, combining rich cinematography with elaborate, exaggerated set design.  Sunrise is a true testament to the raw power of silent cinema, unfortunately arriving near the end of the medium’s lifespan.  Murnau did for movies of the late 1920’s what Citizen Kane did for the medium in the 40’s, employing the use of superimposition’s, tracking shots, and forced perspective.  It’s certainly a slow-burn when compared to the romantic films of today, but Sunrise packs a tremendous emotional punch in its many touching, genuine moments.  Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is everything that a silent film could possibly be, and served as a fitting farewell for the relevance of the style.

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Top 100 Films #83 – Boyz n the Hood (1991)

 

071116-celebs-ways-boyz-n-the-hood-changed-hollywood-still-2#83. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Directed by: John Singleton
Written by: John Singleton
Starring: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Morris Chestnut, Larry Fishburne, Angela Bassett

The first time I saw John Singleton’s 1991 masterpiece Boyz n the Hood was last February for our Black Directors marathon.  I went in with relatively low expectations, as I had heard a number of mixed things about the project.  After multiple watches, I was blown away by the performances, the atmosphere, the message, and the relevance of the film – and completely unprepared for how much it would affect me emotionally.  It instantly became one of my all-time favorite films, which should say a great deal about how powerful its message is. Boyz n the Hood stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Tre, a young black man living in the notorious Crenshaw district of Los Angeles.  Tre and his girlfriend have plans to attend college together in the Fall, finally able to escape from their unpredictable and occasionally dangerous lives.  Before they can go, Tre and his best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) try to make the best of their situation, hanging out for one last summer. The true star of Boyz n the Hood is Ice Cube’s Doughboy – who brings much of the emotional weight to the film.  John Singleton’s film served as the first on-screen appearance for successful rapper Ice Cube, who delivers a career-best performance as the good kid gone bad Doughboy.  Aside from some excellent performances, John Singleton’s script is incredibly genuine and original, clearly coming from a place of respect and understanding.  Boyz n the Hood packs an emotional punch without ever feeling preachy or sentimental, which is important in a film with such an important social message.  The film lead to John Singleton picking up Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay – making him the first African American nominated for the award, and the youngest person nominated for both.  Boyz n the Hood is a truly important and entertaining experience that still feels sadly relevant after 25 years.  To read my full thoughts, you can check out my review of Boyz n the Hood here.

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Top 100 Films #90 – Election (1999)

 

election-pic-1#90. Election (1999)
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (based on Election by Tom Perrotta)
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell

It was difficult for me to narrow down which of Alexander Payne’s films to include on my top 100 list, as any of them could have made the cut with a wider field.  I ended up choosing Payne’s 1999 adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel Election, as I feel it perfectly represents the best aspects of all of his films. Election stars Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon as a teacher and student with an odd relationship.  When Witherspoon’s insufferable know-it-all Tracy Flick decides to run for student council president, Broderick’s Jim McCallister decides to shut her down by any means possible.  McCallister encourages a brother-sister pair to run against Flick, throwing the election into controlled chaos.  At the same time, the well-respected McCallister’s life begins to fall apart around him.  Alexander Payne’s Election is intelligent, laugh out loud funny, and deals with pretty despicable characters in a very real and down to earth way.  Matthew Broderick’s Jim McCallister goes through a full cycle through the film, going from a lovable and respected nice guy to a much maligned scumbag, all at the hands of Reese Witherspoon’s delightfully snotty Tracy Flick. The two actors absolutely steal the show with their chemistry, bringing excellent comedic performances out of two less than stellar performers.  Payne wrote the film’s darkly witty script with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor – the two would earn their first of three nominations together for the film’s writing.  Election may not be quite as funny as Nebraska or About Schmidt, as insightful as Sideways or Citizen Ruth, or as touching as The Descendants, but it’s the one Alexander Payne film I find myself coming back to over and over again.

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Top 100 Films #91 – Brokeback Mountain (2005)

 

mgid-ao-image-mtv#91. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana (based on Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx)
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams

2005 was a landmark year in Hollywood for the LGBT community – featuring at least three critically acclaimed and financially successful films exploring themes of homosexuality and transgenderism in Capote, Transamerica, and Brokeback Mountain.  Ang Lee’s massively successful film starring the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two young cowboys who become engaged in a complicated and controversial love affair.  Brokeback Mountain broke both hearts and barriers in 2005, drumming up nearly universal critical acclaim, earning over $170 million at the box office, and racking up eight Academy Award nominations in the process.  While it was certainly controversial for a notable Hollywood film to explore homosexuality so bluntly, Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana did so with the utmost sincerity and respect for the subject matter. The film features incredible performances from relatively fresh actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal – both of whom manage to convey the story’s emotional weight and importance without skipping a beat.  Supporting the performances of the leading men are terrific turns from Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, who never once let their male counterparts outperform them without a heck of a fight.  Brokeback Mountain is a truly important, beautiful, and heartbreaking film, and one that I think deserves a hell of a lot more respect than it has received since its initial release.

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Top 100 Films #93 – The Virgin Spring (1960)

 

029-the-virgin-spring-theredlist#93. The Virgin Spring (1960)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Written by: Ulla Isaksson (based on 13th-century Swedish folktale Töres döttrar i Wänge)
Starring: Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson

Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman is no stranger to tackling heavy subject matter, and his 1960 film The Virgin Spring is a perfect example of this.  Bergman’s movie based on a medieval folktale deals with themes of revenge, faith (or lack thereof), and the brutality of man.  The Virgin Spring follows young Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) and her servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) as they travel by horseback to deliver candles to their church.  Along the way they encounter three sinister young herdsmen who eventually rape and murder Karin as a frightened Ingeri watches from a distance.  The men later accidentally seek shelter at the house of Karin and Ingeri, where her mother and father learn of the murder and seek revenge against them.  The Virgin Spring earned Bergman his first of three Academy Awards, and helped the Swedish filmmaker break out on an international stage.  Bergman is at his very best when he’s dealing with themes of faith and innocence, as he was never afraid to ask unanswerable questions.  The Virgin Spring is a visceral, all too realistic trip through Medieval Sweden, and certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.  For anybody looking for a challenging and intellectual – but rewarding – experience, I highly recommend it.

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Noirvember II #5 – Kiss of Death (1947)

kiss_of_death_1947_b_posterKiss of Death (1947)
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Written by: Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, Eleazar Lipsky (story)
Starring: Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Richard Widmark

Our last Noirvember feature, Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777, inspired me to check out another of the director’s more famous noir works.  Made just one year before the release of Call Northside, 1947’s Kiss of Death is arguably Hathaway’s more important contribution to film noir.  Written by the legendary Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, Kiss of Death diverts slightly from the usual tropes of the genre – but still features enough elements to be seen as a significant and important effort.  Shot almost entirely on location (much like Call Northside 777), and with narration by Coleen Gray, Kiss of Death feels less documentary-like than Hathaway’s next film, but the groundwork is certainly there.  While not a significant box office or critical success at the time of its initial release, Kiss of Death would slowly come to be recognized as one of the unsung greats of film noir.  It’s since been made famous and praised for its neo realistic feel – largely in part to Hathaway shooting on location, and for Richard Widmark’s star making performance as the villainous Tommy Udo.  The film was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1948 – Best Supporting Actor for Richard Widmark, and a Best Original Story nomination for Eleazar Lipsky.

Kiss of Death stars Victor Mature (My Darling Clementine) as Nick Bianco, a desperate man who lands himself in prison after a jewelry store robbery gone wrong.  Being the only one caught, Bianco is persuaded by the District Attorney Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) to name names in exchange for a shorter sentence – to which he declines and receives a twenty year sentence.  Prior to this, Bianco meets a sinister man by the name of Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark).  After learning of the rape of his wife committed by his former partner Pete Rizzo, his wife’s eventual suicide, and the transfer of his daughters to an orphanage, Bianco makes an arrangement with the DA. He agrees to help them solve a separate case in which Rizzo was implicated, being allowed to see his daughters in exchange.  Finally out of prison, Nick meets up with Tommy Udo – also out of prison – and the two strike up a brief partnership which sees Nick gather verbal evidence about a murder Udo committed.  Bianco reports his findings to D’Angelo to get Udo locked up again, but he is later acquitted by the court – leaving the psychopathic Tommy Udo out for revenge.  Can Bianco get away from the murderous Tommy Udo, or will he become another in a long list of Udo’s victims? Find out in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death!

There’s no denying that Henry Hathaway had an eye for realism, and a penchant for telling dark stories – at least with the two film noirs of his I’ve seen so far. Minor elements like shooting on location go a long way to stand out amongst the crowd, since most films of the time were still being shot on perfectly lit sound stages.  There’s something genuine about Kiss of Death, despite some of its more over-the-top elements.  It may not be the best the genre has to offer, but there’s a heck of a lot to admire about it.  The best example of this is the performance of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, far and away the best thing about Kiss of Death.  Widmark’s Udo is wonderfully villainous – bringing a palpable menace to the role.  It’s at times a little hammy (in a Joker sort of way), but it works in the context of the movie.  The film, shot by cinematographer Norbert Brodine, makes the city of New York feel fully alive – especially with it being almost completely shot on location.  Complementing the performances and photography is the writing by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, who create one of the most memorable silver screen villains of the 40’s, and manage to weave a suspenseful, captivating thriller in the process.  Unfortunately for them, censors of the time forced Hathaway to cut or change a number of scenes that were too dark in tone. These scenes would have done a lot to add to the film’s weight, and would have given our hero Nick Bianco some much needed development.
1468917041-578de531c82d4-004-kiss-of-death-theredlist
What I Liked:

  • Richard Widmark’s performance here is terrific, turning Tommy Udo into one of the most menacing presences in film noir history.
  • Victor Mature’s performance as Nick Bianco is quite good as well, acting as an effective counterweight to the sometimes over-the-top Widmark.
  • The photography is wonderfully lit in many scenes, giving that dark, smoky feel that film noir is so famous for.
  • Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer’s screenplay is quite good – creating a fully realized world, an interesting concept, and writing some truly memorable characters.
  • Tommy Udo’s character gets away with some truly shocking and brutal acts – a relatively rare thing in highly censored 1940’s Hollywood.

What I Didn’t:

  • The film would have had much more impact with its original ending – which is far darker in tone.
  • Coleen Gray’s narration feels jarring and unnatural.  There isn’t a whole lot of it, but what’s there doesn’t work in the film’s favour.  
  • Nick Bianco’s character isn’t developed well enough to truly feel for. Mature brings his A-game to the performance, but as a character I found him pretty difficult to get behind at times.  His motivations feel inconsistent, as he’s constantly shuffling between sketchy ex-crook and docile family man.

Henry Hathaway proves again with Kiss of Death that he had a terrific eye for film noir, but maybe didn’t have the skills or the budget to bring to life a true masterpiece.  His 1947 film features some very memorable elements and shocking moments, but ultimately falls short of being one of the greats.  When Kiss of Death is good, it’s very good – overcoming the production code by delivering some very brutal moments, creating a sadistic and very memorable villain, and featuring a realistic setting through its use of location photography. Henry Hathaway’s film certainly deserves a place in the film noir canon, but it just doesn’t do enough to sit with the all-time greats.  Kiss of Death is recommended.

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