Nobody asked me to publish a list of my favorite movies, but I thought, “Hey, I like movies a lot, maybe I should publish a list of my favorite movies. I’ll call it ‘My Top 21 Favorite Movies of All Time’ and people can comment on the reviews, add their own favorites to the list, or ask me what kind of idiot would forget to add John Travota and Battlefield Earth to his list of the world’s greatest films.”
Previously on My Top 21 Movies:
21. Kung Fu (1972)
20. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
19. The Terminator (1984)
18. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
17. Valdez is Coming (1971)
16. The 13th Warrior (1999)
15. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
14. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
13. Blood Simple (1984)
12. Blade Runner (1982)
11. Raising Arizona (1987)
10. Bad Santa (2003)
9. The Killing Fields (1984)
8. No Country for Old Men (2007)
7. Manhattan (1979)
6. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
I don’t know Joel and Ethan Coen, but I’d be willing to bet the farm it’s no accident they opened O Brother, Where Art Thou? with an empty black screen and a rhythmic chain-gang chant. Yes, I believe this is their subtle way of saying, “Pay attention to the music here, ya’ll, because this movie’s as much about the music as it is the story and images.”
Need further evidence? Consider just how deliberately ordered of the first minute or so of this film seems to be: It goes from a black screen to the chanting of the chain gang, to the shaky burned-in image of the following quote, which is in itself revealing on multiple levels:
Sing in me, and through me tell the story
Of that man skilled in all the ways of contending…
A wanderer, harried for years on end…
More musical references, this time in a direct quote from Homer’s epic Greek poem the Odyssey, which inspired O Brother. Yes, this is a film about three escaped convicts who go on a quest for treasure and find fortune in unexpected ways, and yes, it is a moving picture show of the first degree. But it’s also an expert exploration of American folk music that was encouraged by the Coen brothers and led by T-Bone Burnett, the songwriter who’s become the acknowledged king of producing roots music. Like it or not—I did, very much—this is one soundtrack you won’t miss and can’t ignore, from the plaintive dirge sung by the legendary Ralph Stanley to the plucky version of the bluegrass standard, Man of Constant Sorrow, performed by the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys.
Even O Brother‘s dialogue fairly drips with the lullabies and grandiloquence of musicianship. For example, listen as Ulysses Everett McGill, the lead character delightfully played by George Clooney, speaks with the easy-going grace and charm of a Southern country bumpkin but also the heart and forceful intellect of a well-educated poet.
Asking hobos for help in cutting his chains, he says, “Say, any of you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin’?”
Or when describing the impact of dam-building in the South, he opines, “…the fact is, they’re flooding this valley so they can hydroelectric up the whole durn state. Yes, sir, the South is gonna change. Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yes, sir, a veritable age of reason. Like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon.”
And musing on his planned reunion with his estranged wife, McGill says, “Me an’ the old lady are gonna pick up the pieces and retie the knot, mixaphorically speaking.”
It’s lines like that, coupled with wide-angle, yellow-tinged cinematography that enhances the old-timey mood, that make this a right fine movie—and one that had me happily tapping your toes long after I left the theater.
5. Gladiator (2000)
I like Gladiator so much that I’ve seen it at least four times, which is unusual for me because I get bored quickly, even when—forgive me St. Augustine—people are getting their heads lopped off at the coliseum.
But when I sat down to write about the movie, I realized that I couldn’t easily explain exactly why I think this grand, old-school-style epic from Director Ridley Scott is so good. Gladiator is grim and depressing, much more about loss than triumph, and the title character is so bitter and morose this film should be hard to watch.
But it’s not.
Masterfully played by Russell Crowe, perhaps my favorite actor, I find the Roman general who reluctantly becomes the gladiator Maximus likeable precisely because he’s not upbeat, determinedly charging into the fray with a look of exultant vengeance on his face and the sunlight glinting off his bloody sword. He is a deeply troubled, almost unenthusiastic hero, a jaded warrior who fights with the expertise of experience but has already been defeated by the time we meet him because the new emperor has taken away everything that means anything to him except his own life—including his leader, his country, his social status and, most significantly, his wife and son. That makes Maximus a much more intriguing hero than most Hollywood heroes, and when he finally enters the coliseum to face his greatest foe, the emperor, you realize he’s no longer fighting for honor or even vengeance, but for the rapidly fading memory of those things, which, like Maximus himself, have already passed into the next life.
It’s a sad premise, of course—one that’s more likely to bring a tear to your eye than make you stand up and cheer. But if you’re old enough to have experienced life’s many setbacks and disappointments, the idea that you can be beaten down yet still force yourself to get up every day and propel yourself forward into battle rings true. It doesn’t hurt that Crowe’s surrounded by a cast of talented performers, including Richard Harris, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen, plus the astonishingly underrated Oliver Reed in his final stormy on-screen role. But it’s not good acting and cinematography that appeals to me in this film. It’s the darkly subversive, discomfiting idea lurking behind the images we see onscreen.
4. Hero (2002)
The only reason the traditional Chinese martial arts film Hero didn’t rank higher on my list is because it’s hard for a 99-minute epic about love, betrayal, and a cultural revolution to top a mythic cultural icon, a spiritual masterpiece and a dark saga about…well, I don’t want to give my top three picks away too early, but about almost everything that’s important in this life and the next. Nevertheless, Hero is a wonder of storytelling, acting and cinematography.
Hero was directed by the legendary Zhang Yimou, the man responsible for The House of Flying Daggers and Raise the Red Lantern, which are both excellent films in their own right. But Hero is a grander film than either of those movies. It’s based on the story of the King of Qin in 227 BC, who subdued a succession of warlords en route to unifying China under a single flag and becoming its first emperor.
The subject matter alone makes this film worth watching, because it gives Westerners valuable insight into both China’s history and its current world view of itself as an emerging world power. But there are enough thought-provoking lessons here to keep late-night philosophers chattering for hours. Considering that Hero was marketed in the U.S. as a martial arts film by director/writer Quentin Tarantino and stars Jet Li in the defining role of his career as a nameless assassin, it’s surprisingly talky. That’s because the plot unfolds mainly through dialogue and ultimately becomes an apologetic for using ruthless political and military force to conquer your enemies and prevent further bloodshed resulting from anarchy or civil war.
Does society’s need for rule and order outweigh personal and local freedoms? That’s the fundamental question raised by Hero, and it’s one that many flag-waving Americans, unlike the Chinese, are likely to overlook or even off-handedly dismiss because our cultural bias for individualism and individual freedom is all-pervasive–so deeply imbedded in our thinking that we reflexively assume it’s true without really pausing to question it.
For all its depth, however, martial arts fans won’t be disappointed by Hero, and neither will anybody who likes an interesting love story. This movie has some of the most intricate and intense fight scenes ever committed to film, and the complex relationships between the characters is equally riveting. So is the filmmaking itself, which employs the best use of color, texture and imagery I’ve ever seen in a movie. It is, in a word, breathtaking.
Today’s Thought Questions: If you had to die at the hands of a Ninja assassin, would you prefer to go by throwing star, Samurai sword or the infamous “Five-Finger Death Punch?” What do you find more interesting about gladiator films, the climactic “win or die” thrills of arena battle, or the climactic shots of sweaty men in loinclothes wrestling? Do you think Southerners are stupid, or just ignorant?