Thursday, June 9, 2011

Junta Juleil's Top 100: #95-#91

95. ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1938, Howard Hawks)

I'm not sure anyone has ever matched the skill with which Hawks integrated exposition, character development, and sheer entertainment. He makes it look so damned easy, too. He often sets up a situation where men are doing a serious job, a dangerous job, and then events simply unfold. As they unfold, we learn everything we need to know about the characters because we've been there with them, in the trenches, seeing how far they can be pushed, and how hard they can push back. You don't feel as if you're watching something contrived by sheltered Hollywood-types, because it's not– he's incorporating details, the way his men act under pressure, the way he directs a picture, even, from his real-life experiences as an aviator, a race-car driver, an army man, and a factory worker. This is the sort of film to which I give my highest recommendation; I don't even think I have to tell you about the plot. Just another one of his immaculately constructed tales of men's men and ladies who pull no punches. Did I mention that Hawks' middle name was WINCHESTER?

94. MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937, Leo McCarey)

"It would make a stone cry."
–Orson Welles.
Sweet God in heaven, I'm not sure that any movie has ever jerked as many tears from its audiences, per capita, as MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. Leo McCarey, who won a Best Director Oscar the same year for the well-made, but far lesser film THE AWFUL TRUTH, said in his acceptance speech: "Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture." It'd be a difficult movie for audiences to 'enjoy' in any time or place because it asks difficult questions about the relationship between parents and their children; how we care for them, how they cared for us, and what fate is to be earned for all "as the long day wanes." Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play the elderly couple at hand, delivering a couple of the most purely, emotionally reactive performances in the history of the medium. The clock ticks, the children wait, and the old couple relive youthful memories, a moment of respite before moving on. Dr. Samuel Johnson said it better than I ever could: "We never do anything consciously for the last time without sadness of heart..." And so I join the ranks of viewers who find themselves grasping for the telephone as the final reel ends, calling up loved ones, contemplating these fleeting moments, and hoping for the chance to have more of them.

93. ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968, Roman Polanski)

From producer William Castle– yeah, you heard me right!– comes one of the finest horror films of the 1960's, or of any other era. Castle recognized his dramatic limitations (handing the reins ultimately to master of claustrophobic/metropolitan/conspiracy-horror, Roman Polanski), but he does show up for a brief, wordless, yet somehow amazingly hammy cameo during the phone booth scene. Regardless, this is really Polanski's film, and he spins the tale with paranoid gusto and eye-popping imagery; swirling, hallucinogenic dream sequences and off-kilter quotidian happenings. It's a hotbed of primal fears and existential dread: Polanski has got his finger on just the right nerve, and he plucks and twangs it unceasingly– rape, domestic terrors, body horror, the things we try to hide, the things we don't understand, our fear of doctors and the elderly and babies and enclosed spaces and antiquarian objects and of failure and of seeming crazy and of going crazy; and it all begins to collapse upon you like a black hole and a cry unto the pit– SWEET GOD, WHAT A MOVIE!!!
Also, Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer are just about the most adorably frightening and frighteningly adorable elderly actors I've ever seen (not to be confused with the elderly actors from #94!). And I have to say that John Cassavetes' "I didn't want to miss baby night" has got to rank as the most hilariously inappropriate excuse ever uttered, on or off a camera. (You'll know what I mean if you've seen the film– yikes!)

92. FAIL-SAFE (1964, Sidney Lumet)

It's difficult to incorporate methodical, systematically structured storytelling with genuine emotional stakes, but goddamn, does Lumet pull it together, and with the fate of the human race in the balance, no less! Most prefer DR. STRANGELOVE, which is sort of a loose, parodic retelling, but for my money, FAIL-SAFE's the stronger film. Some have said that STRANGELOVE's satire cuts to the bone, but I say FAIL-SAFE cuts to the bone, then fractures the bone, and then looks down at the bone, somberly, as tears well up in FAIL-SAFE's eyes. FAIL-SAFE then clenches its jaw; anguished, but with an abundance of dignity. As a side note, by and large, though your average fictional president is more appealing than your average actual president, I have to say that Henry Fonda's portrayal in this film goes beyond that– he is so sincere, so thoughtful, so determined, so damned invested, that you wish he really was the president. Also: Dom DeLuise in a serious role– chew on that for a little while.

91. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986, John Carpenter)

"Have you paid your dues, Jack– yessir, the check is in the mail." I've written a few observations about BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA before, saying "it's about the exhilaration of being ALIVE in a world of unfathomable mystery," and, of Kurt Russell's performance, "he's a runaway train of swagger, guts, and bluster...I never tire of his maniacally youthful cackle, or his proclivity toward moaning 'Awwwwww, CHRIST!'" In short, it's one hell of a time, written, directed, and performed by artists and craftsmen who are having one hell of a time. But it's no mindless shoot-em-up: it's a Hawksian ode to the bonds of friendship, the measure of character, and those ecstatic moments of temerarious action, where, against all better judgment, you feel damn near invulnerable. (Also, you just drank from the six-demon bag.) And, while we're at it, how 'bout that kickin' song over the end credits?

Coming up next...
George Romero's favorite movie, a legendary documentary, and... a movie with a lesser Baldwin!


Hoboken Hal said...

Some very nice choices, Sean. Right now in your honor I am listening to the Coupe de Ville's Big Trouble in Little China!

Unknown said...

Always nice to see some love for BIG TROUBLE. Just watched it again for the millionth time last week and it still holds up, still funny as hell.

"Son of a bitch must pay!"

Sean Gill said...

Hoboken Hal,

Thank you, sir– whenever someone listens to the Coupe de Villes in my honor, I feel as if I have some sort of value as a human being.


If ever a movie demands a million viewings, it's this one. I haven't done my yearly quota yet, but summer's nearly upon us, so I really have no excuse.

SFF said...

So late to the show Sean, but I really must see BIG Trouble. It sits on my shelf and for all of the love I have for Kurt Russell as a talent, as well as Carpenter, I have yet to watch. Why?

Sean Gill said...


Man, you've got to pull that baby off the shelf and give it a spin! See it with friends, see it with beers, see it alone, it doesn't matter- just see it!