Movie Reviews: AFI’s 10 of 10, Part One
Hey, I managed to finish another movie list!
This time I made it all the way through the AFI’s 10 Top 10 (that’s the ten best movies in the ten favorite genres). I didn’t document anywhere what my percentage-seen was before or after the Summer Movie Watch, so I don’t know how much ground I’ve covered since then. I was almost certainly past 50% (had seen more than half of them, I mean) after the Summer Movie Watch because there was a lot of cross-over. Anyway, without much concentrated effort (until the last six weeks or so, when I noticed that I had just a handful left) I have exhausted all ten movies in all ten genres.
I’m not going to review every movie, obviously; just this bunch that I watched in the last few months or so. Because that’s still a big pile of movies, I’m going to split the reviews into two entries.
Today’s five genres: Animation, Fantasy, Sports, Science Fiction, Romantic Comedy
The ten: Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Lion King, Fantasia, Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, Cinderella, Finding Nemo
I had seen all the animated films long ago, even before the SMW. I grew up in (what I consider) the Disney golden age (80s and 90s) and everybody likes Pixar. And the list didn’t stir at all beyond those, which there was some grumbling about in film circles. But I didn’t want to watch any anime, so I am grumble-free. (An interesting correspondence to this comment: The AV Club’s 15 Animated Films for Grown-Ups. The only one of those that I’ve sat through, and enjoyed immensely, is The Triplets of Belleville. Which is not an American film, so wouldn’t have qualified for the AFI anyway.)
My favorites on the actual list are The Lion King (did you know it’s Hamlet? the story of The Lion King is archetypally Hamlet), Beauty and the Beast (both the hero and the heroine have actual defined personalities!), and Finding Nemo (super cute weepfest which I previously reviewed here). Toy Story is excellent, and that’s not news to anybody. I find Snow White and Cinderella a bit dated, and Bambi and Pinocchio too sappy. Fantasia is very cool although it’s only got a narrative in the loosest sense. If it introduces children to classical music, that’s a plus. (If it ever gets shown to children—which, because of some arguably racist imagery it probably doesn’t anymore. So that’s a minus.)
Being sort of gruff and cynical, as well as kidless, I don’t tend to see kids’ movies very often, so historically I haven’t had a ton of opinions about them. But I’ve actually watched a whole slew of them recently—I restructured my Netflix queue to match up movies by genre, so I can just knock one genre out at a time (we’re heading for this purely hypothetical time when I have seen every movie I ever want to see) and the genre I’m in the midst of now is, in fact, kids’ movies. That is to say, the good ones—the ones that have some value as a movie—the ones that I had a passing interest in seeing anyway. Like, I won’t be watching the Hannah Montana movie, sorry.
You can see my super-positive review of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs here. When I finish the rest of the genre cluster, I’ll do another write-up, but here’s your preview: so far I have really liked Fantastic Mr. Fox, Toy Story 3, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And I loved Coraline so much that I am considering being her for Halloween.
The ten: City Lights, Annie Hall, It Happened One Night, Roman Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, When Harry Met Sally, Adam’s Rib, Moonstruck, Harold and Maude, Sleepless in Seattle
Two of the romantic comedies were covered by the SMW (When Harry Met Sally and I Felt Rage and Wished Death Upon Billy Crystal and Hated the Entire Experience—reviewed here—and City Lights, which I found enjoyable and funny if not particularly romantic). The last two, which I watched within the past year, were Harold and Maude (see my unfavorable thoughts about it here) and Adam’s Rib, which I have managed to narrowly miss for years. I finally watched it from beginning to end this summer (and I think it’s one of those movies where I may have seen every moment in it, though never consecutively). It’s not the greatest romantic comedy ever—it’s not even the greatest romantic comedy Hepburn and Tracy made together (Woman of the Year! come on). The married-couple dynamic shared by (real-life couple) Hepburn and Tracy is totally charming (see their morning routine, breakfast and newspapers in bed), but the musician neighbor is annoying and the ending is a bit over-the-top. It is hugely interesting as a feminist time capsule: as if to say, this is what the man-woman debate was like in the 50s. Tracy would have had to have been a little more of a jerk to make it totally accurate, though. (Did Spencer Tracy ever play a jerk? I’m really not sure. He was not just a great actor; he radiated goodness.)
I had already seen Annie Hall and Moonstruck—which are both OK—and Sleepless in Seattle, which is a cable staple, perfect for watching when nothing else is on. I had also seen The Philadelphia Story, Roman Holiday, and It Happened One Night, which are all pitch-perfect. I do not exaggerate. Any one of those movies will make your day if you watch it. Maybe your week.
My overriding opinion of Rom Coms is that when they are done well, like the three titles above, they are the best. Nothing is better than a movie that fills you with happiness because it makes you think about love. But they are incredibly difficult to do well, and there is so much dreck being produced today that I mostly don’t see them anymore. Some of them are too saccharine, some are too moony, some are too by-the-numbers, and some are startlingly backwards-thinking. I am kind of too practical for romantic comedies anyway; I tend to ruin them for the people who watch them with me. I don’t believe in soul mates for example (I believe that anything worth having requires work to achieve and work to keep), and I nitpick stuff that other people brush off. “WHY would she go into his apartment on the first date? They just met like two minutes ago! How does she know he’s not a serial killer? He could be planning how to turn her into a skin suit right now.” “Who argues over something this stupid? What are they, six? PICK YOUR BATTLES, MOVIE COUPLE.” Maybe most modern romantic comedies belong more accurately in the fantasy category, because the bad ones tend to inhabit a world that doesn’t exist.
Good romantic comedies? Well, there’s the three I mentioned above: not too sour and not too sweet, not dated or embarrassing, for the most part not ideologically troubling. The screen couples all have legitimate chemistry—they all seem to enjoy each other’s company. Even when they’re verbally sparring (which they do especially often in The Philadelphia Story and It Happened One Night) you get the feeling that they are having more fun doing that than anything else.
I also love: Holiday (which is playing at the Cleveland Cinematheque in a few weeks!), Vivacious Lady, The Shop Around the Corner, or Libeled Lady…those are the ones in black and white, cast with people who are mostly dead now. You want to see some recent good ones, try Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Before Sunrise (and its sequel, Before Sunset), Stranger Than Fiction, Chasing Amy, Amelie, or The Princess Bride. The third season of The Office might also work in a pinch.
The ten: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, A Clockwork Orange, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner, Alien, Terminator 2, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Back to the Future
Sci Fi was helped immensely by the SMW. Without it I would NEVER have made it through 2001: A Space Odyssey or Terminator 2. I had actually already watched, of my own volition, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I grew up on E.T. and Back to the Future, of course. I managed to miss Star Wars until I was a senior in high school, but I watched all three films in the original series that year for an English class project on archetypes. I saw Alien in a college film class (and Alien 2 during the Summer Movie Watch).
I’m really just starting to discover—thanks to this summer’s dual televisual obsessions, Fringe and The X-Files—that I actually like sci fi. It carries a lot of cultural baggage that has kept me from wholeheartedly embracing it in the past. (Common stereotypes: sci fi is for nerds. Sci fi is sexist. Sci fi has no human center to it. Etc.) Or maybe it’s that a lot of it is really, really, REALLY bad. Like romantic comedies, the good ones are so few and far between, they’re a chore to find. But the top ten of sci fi were a pretty good group, and the last one I watched, The Day the Earth Stood Still, was one of the best. (With Invasion of the Body Snatchers being the best, probably, and Back to the Future being my sentimental favorite.)
The Day the Earth Stood Still
About a human-looking alien who escapes an army hospital to mingle with humanity and see if it’s worth saving, The Day the Earth Stood Still has got some good sci-fi chills as well as enough brains to relate the unreality to reality. (Looking at the other successful sci-fi movies, that seems to be the killer combination.) He gets a full view of the good and the bad in people: the good from a single mom and her excitable little son, whom he meets in the boardinghouse where he hides out, and the bad from the military industrial complex clamber all over themselves trying to catch him and break into his ship.
In addition to being on the Sci Fi list, this movie also fell on the 100 Greatest Thrills list and the 100 Greatest Cheers list, the theory being that this movie is one of 100 that celebrates humanity. I guess that’s accurate—although it’s kind of a spoiler, in that it lets people know ahead of time that the aliens don’t decide to just nuke humanity into oblivion.
They remade this movie last year; still I’m in no hurry to see that one. I can’t quite see what, philosophically, modern times has to add to this story; maybe in the new one the alien gets his own reality show, I don’t know. Or maybe Hollywood was just really eager to cast Keanu Reeves in the role.
The female lead in the (original) movie is Patricia Neal, who was coincidentally all over the internet the day before I sat down to watch this one, having just died at eighty-something. I mostly remember her from Breakfast at Tiffany’s where she’s middle-aged and playing a really snarly character, so it was nice to see her here, as a sweet and sensible single mom.
The ten: Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, It’s a Wonderful Life, King Kong, Miracle on 34th Street, Field of Dreams, Harvey, Groundhog Day, Thief of Bagdad, Big
Fantasy was a pretty random collection of movies, with fantasy not well-defined except to say “something about this movie removes it from a reality-based context.” I had seen The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life, Harvey, Groundhog Day, and Big. All wonderful.
I have actually watched all three of the Lord of the Rings movies—it was for my Summer Movie Watch—and I did it in one day. I never did write about the experience (I basically wanted to never have to think about those movies again), but suffice it to say, they showed me pretty much exactly what I expected to see. Too much battling, too many weird animal-human hybrid creatures. I could possibly like the books better, just because there’s bound to be more actual story. (The third movie was the worst for that: the script must have said “and then so-and-so shoots the other guy with an arrow. And then Viggo Mortensen stabs someone with a sword. And then a bunch of guys get pushed over the castle wall and plummet to their deaths. And then more people get shot with arrows.” OH THE EPIC WONDROUSNESS. Also, the villain is a big hovering fiery eye that looks like a vagina. Come ON.)
The original King Kong—which was also a Summer Movie Watch entry—is excellent. (I haven’t seen either of the remakes, so I can’t comment on that.) It’s surprisingly violent, because it’s pre-Code, and Kong just like, crushes guys between his fingers and stamps his foot on them and stuff. There’s some uncomfortable ethnic insensitivity with the cannibal islanders and everything, but us bleeding-heart liberals can take comfort in the fact that the white men from the developed world don’t come off in too flattering a light, either. Fay Wray, as the glamorous blonde who is Kong-bait, is terrific. My favorite moment in the movie is when she is being led to sacrifice. You don’t get a lot of actresses in the 1930s who underplayed terror, but she manages to tremble and whimper for like ten minutes of screentime before she finally lets loose in this ear-splitting scream. Well, well done. (For an intelligent and unexpected interpretation of King Kong, see the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds.)
Sometime last year I saw Field of Dreams, about which I’ve not got too much to say. It was maybe three times cornier than I like, but pleasant anyway. I did not get the wife figure, though. Who is THAT good-natured and supportive, all the time? Finally, in the last few weeks I watched The Thief of Bagdad and Miracle on 34th Street.
The Thief of Bagdad
This is a silent film set in the ancient east, about a vagabond pickpocket who disguises himself as a prince to win the hand of a princess and then has to prove himself to actually keep her. It’s basically Disney’s Aladdin in sepia, although this one came first by about seventy years.
Douglas Fairbanks plays the Aladdin figure (who is not, incidentally, named Aladdin but just called the Thief) and was pretty great, supremely athletic, climbing ropes, scaling walls, somersaulting here and there and always racing just out of someone’s grip. He had some weird silent-film-actor-mannerisms like gesturing too broadly—and sometimes during scenes where his character was supposed to be conversing with another he’d have this weird, exaggerated I AM LISTENING stance—but then that’s par for the course when you’re watching silent films. That’s what they did.
The scope of this thing is literally amazing. I mean, I’ve seen D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, so I already know that movies produced literally a century ago can have effects and action that look like Spielberg did them yesterday. (This is helped along by the fact that movie studios in pre-Crash Hollywood had more money than God.) It’s still always a surprise, though, to see a multiple-stories-tall entryway to the ancient city of Bagdad being stormed by hundreds and hundreds of extras (including live camels) and think about the technology those filmmakers did not have to assist them. I mean, forget CGI. They didn’t even have hand-held radios.
Miracle on 34th Street
“Your honor, the state of New York concedes the existence of Santa Claus.” We already know that I’m not into the corny stuff, but I admit that there was a sort of pleasing absurdity about this movie. The courtroom scenes were, in fact, priceless. The final play in the legal strategy—when the lawyer for the defense puts the president of Macy’s on the stand and asks him to basically confirm that either A. the man who says he is Santa Claus really is, or B. the president has knowingly hired a DIRTY IMPOSTER to play Santa Claus in his store and the pres, looking haunted, testifies that the guy is, in fact, Santa—is just too great. It’s kind of cynical, actually—it relies on commerce and not heart. But it serves the feel-good part of the movie. So I am on board with that.
Little Natalie Wood plays the somber moppet who doesn’t believe in Santa at first, but changes her mind. Maureen O’Hara, as her mother, was excellent, although everything I liked about her was sort of designed to be disproven. “We should be honest with children!” “There’s nothing wrong with being a hard-working single mother!” “You don’t need to grow up in the suburbs with a picket fence to have a happy childhood!” The movie finds Maureen O’Hara wrong on all counts. She is hereby sentenced to a life in the suburbs with the guy down the hall, thanks to Matchmaker Claus.
Still, as kids’ movies go, you could do far worse.
The ten: Raging Bull, Rocky, The Pride of the Yankees, Hoosiers, Bull Durham, The Hustler, Caddyshack, Breaking Away, National Velvet, Jerry Maguire
I was the most behind on Sports movies. (What a shock.) I’d seen Jerry Maguire of course, which is really only half a sports movie (and I’ve always preferred the sports half because in Jerry Maguire it’s business—deals and contracts and stuff—and I have a nerdy interest in that). The other half, of course, is romance (“You complete me” “You had me at hello” God, do you remember how much that was EVERYWHERE?). I’d seen Caddyshack because it is the first movie we bought my dad on DVD (my verdict: ugh sexist and stupid, and thank God for that hysterically funny scene where Bill Murray and Chevy Chase interact because otherwise it would have been totally pointless). I saw Raging Bull and Rocky during the Summer Movie Watch and mused upon them here.
Bull Durham I saw a few months ago and though I LOVE Susan Sarandon and that movie features her in one of her defining roles, I thought it was only OK. Also, I thought it was, like Jerry Maguire, more of a romance than a sports movie. Maybe those two were included because they revolve around two of the sportiest sports—baseball and football—and the rest of the sports list is sort of strangely dispersed amongst boxing, golf, horseback riding, and playing pool.
The Pride of the Yankees
The Pride of the Yankees (baseball, clearly) was fine. Gary Cooper is not my favorite, and the “aw-shucks” goodness of his portrayal of Lou Gehrig was kind of irritating. Nobody is that wholesome. Teresa Wright is awesome, though—she can be ‘good’ without being aggressively wholesome—in fact, that was kind of her stock in trade (I watched The Best Years of Our Lives again last night; see also Shadow of a Doubt)—and she was great in Yankees as Gehrig’s wife.
One thing I didn’t like about the movie is that so little attention was given to Gehrig actually falling ill. I was getting kind of bored in the early parts, the baseball parts, and I thought, Well, it’ll pick up when he’s visiting doctors and it’s a medical mystery and then it gets tragic. Because that’s the part of the story I knew I would prefer. But the movie didn’t actually spend much time on that at all. Gehrig got tired and broken-down—he thought he was just old—and then he has one scene in a doctor’s office where they tell him in the vaguest terms imaginable that he’s dying. It’s literally as simple as, “I’m tired.” “You’re dying.” There’s no “we don’t know what this disease is,” no medical mystery involved, even though they clearly named the disease after him, so it couldn’t have been too common before—and just like the rest of the movie, he stiff-upper-lips his way through the rest of the thing by not mentioning it at all.
That backwards, era-specific behavior was maddening to me, as usual. Gehrig passes out in the locker room. The other players ‘respectfully’ turn their backs so he can pick himself up. Screw his dignity, tell him to go to the damn doctor! Also, when he’s diagnosed, he says solemnly that he won’t tell his wife anything. So she can be happy with the time they have left together. Yeah, good idea. AND THEN WHEN YOU DIE SUDDENLY SHE’LL BE SO DISTRESSED SHE’LL HAVE PTSD FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE. Sigh. But then, again, Teresa Wright was playing the character, and she doesn’t do oblivious little women. She knew everything that was going on, of course. In fact, I daresay Wright owned the movie, despite not being “the pride of the yankees” herself.
Hoosiers was kind of good. I liked Gene Hackman, and I really liked Dennis Hopper in it. They both managed to be unabashed antiheroes (a rageaholic and an alcoholic, respectively) without the aggressive antisocial tendencies you see in your Cuckoo’s Nests and your Easy Riders. They pushed and they pulled and they had successes and setbacks, and they often, often made bad or unwise calls, but they had their own kind of integrity and stuck to it.
I also liked that the movie didn’t push to make me care about the teens on the basketball team. These days they would have cast like, a Jonas brother as the hotshot player and given him a whole plotline where he’s got a pregnant girlfriend, or he’d be supporting his sickly mother, or raising a kid brother or something. Hoosiers didn’t do that and I did NOT miss it. They had the one kid whose dad was Dennis Hopper, but I didn’t have to so much as learn that kid’s name.
I really disliked Barbara Hershey in it, not because I have anything against her necessarily, but because her role was so typical Hollywood. She was the female lead—the woman who’s not impressed with this guy who comes in (who is the male lead), the woman who is there to be cute and prickly and to present a cute, prickly obstacle that will be more or less removed halfway through when romantic sparks start to fly. Gag. She felt kind of shoehorned into the plot—she didn’t need to be there. That kid she was trying to protect, she wasn’t even his mom. She was like, his neighbor. Probably without her the movie felt too male, but for my part I’d rather see no female characters than only obnoxious ones. Sports movies often have this problem; action movies, too, are particularly notorious for this.
And Breaking Away was just dumb, but then it’s a documented fact that I do not get the 70s. The plot of the movie was underscored by this socioeconomic conflict between the main guys—the townies—and the guys attending the college in their hometown. This is my first problem: the college is the University of Indiana. Which is not exactly a breeding ground for the cultural elite. It’s not Eton. It is a public university. Which makes me blame the 70s, and the extremely pronounced blue collar/white collar divide you see in the popular culture of that time. But then, I think of American Graffiti, which is set in the 50s but was made in the 70s, and has also got characters who are ambivalent about their futures, some of whom will maybe go to college and some who for sure won’t, and that movie doesn’t shortcut the conflict by trying to prove that scrappy working class townies are inherently better than polo shirt-wearing frat bastards.
American Graffiti also doesn’t set up some ridiculous bike race to bridge social discord – the dean is all, “I’m tired of these conflicts! I’ve decided that I’m going to allow townies to participate in the Big Bike Race!” Are we on a sitcom here? Did that really happen? Also, when in pre-Lance Armstrong history has competitive biking ever been a big enough deal that a college would sponsor this huge race? ALSO, the race is a relay with teams of four – but the townie guys have decided they’re not going to change riders? That Dave, the main character, is going to do the whole race? How is that allowed? I guess it’s allowed in the same universe where guys on bikes are allowed on the freeway to drag race with semi trucks. You know, I always used to look at those signs on freeway on-ramps warning that the freeway is for people in motor vehicles only, and think, who in the hell goes on the freeway on foot? Or on a bike? Well, Dave does.
One good point is that looking at 25-year-old Dennis Quaid isn’t too much of a chore.
But then that’s kinda ruined by 20-year-old Daniel Stern; he’s there utterly Screeching things up—he even gets a bowling ball stuck on his hand. This movie is a sitcom, truly—and it won Best Screenplay at the Oscars that year! Baffling.
I was not looking forward to this movie. I’ve already described my ambivalence about “family” movies—they tend to be overly earnest in a way that bugs me. And while National Velvet kind of started out that way, I admit, it totally won me over by the end. Little Elizabeth Taylor, as the main character, has got a lot of verve and she loves horses. I like when the characters in sports movies really love their sports. She shows a fair amount of guts, as well, stepping into situations that are increasingly advanced for her tender age until the final race of the movie, where she is, due to plot machinations, literally competing against professional jockeys. And she is perfect in that moment, too—both determined and terrified in equal measure.
Maybe the best part of the movie is the family unit. Her father is a jovial businessman (a butcher) with a relatively mercenary view of things. Take part in this horse race? It’ll cost too much! But her mom is a former athlete, a swimmer! And, of course, her mother encourages her to follow her dreams or whatever—because when she was young, she swam the channel. She swam the channel! And she earned a bunch of prize money for doing so and hands it over to her daughter for her big chance. There’s something so modern and empowered about the fact that this movie allows the female characters to dream big and make things happen while the men come along for the ride.
Even the precocious little brother character—usually, in these kinds of movies, the one I most want to murder—is hilarious. He’s got great material anyway:
Reporters: Tell us about your sister!
Little brother: I got stung by an ant. I ate it.
Reporters: [all react with disgust]
Little brother: Take my picture!
LOVED this. Of course my favorite is by far the darkest of the ten. It was Scorsese before Scorsese was. It was what I wish Raging Bull had been. (Weird coincidence: Jake LaMotta, the real-life Raging Bull guy, played a bit part in The Hustler as a bartender! I only know that from watching the credits, of course. I do not recognize professional boxers on sight.)
Like other movies I’ve mentioned here, the token female character is in a make-or-break position. Here she was Piper Laurie, and her character was incredibly interesting. I kind of hated her, then I kind of loved her. She was not Hollywood cute at ALL, a filmmaking choice which I approve wholeheartedly. She drove Paul Newman, as Fast Eddie, away several times before she gave it up to him. (Paul Newman! 60s era Paul Newman! Who would turn that down?) She was clingy on Eddie at certain points but not in a cliched way. She was a writer and a functional drunk. A really organized one, actually. He first meets her in a train station (or a bus station, I forget) where she is having a drink while she ostensibly waits for a train (or a bus). Later she admits that the station is actually the only place in town that serves alcohol between the closing of the bars and the opening of the liquor stores the next morning. Another time she comes into the apartment she is by then sharing with Eddie, arms loaded down with groceries, mostly booze. She cheerfully announces to him that it’s Thursday, and she’s bought enough to last until Tuesday, so they don’t have to leave the apartment the whole time. I admire this kind of thinking, as much as it is unhealthy, because it’s still logical. If I were a drunk, this is the kind of drunk I would be. Also, she was totally depressed, but you got the sense that there were other things on her mind than the bad-news man she’s taken into her life. After all, she was already a drunk when she met him. She’s got other problems that are all her own. (Is that a ‘you go, girl!’ moment?)
Oh, also there’s playing pool! And the movie manages to make that interesting, exciting, and insightful as well. There’s a much-lauded foe that Newman meets at the beginning of the movie instead of at the end. (Narratively unusual!) He gets beat, or he lets himself get beat—opinions of the characters in the movie are divided on that point. And Newman’s character has to question what it means to win and lose—how much of it is in the hands and how much is in the head, and where he might be missing it, and how it’s seeping into the rest of his non-pool-playing life. Sports philosophy! And it’s applicable to life choices outside the context of sports!
Interesting fact: The Hustler is the ONLY movie on the sports list that doesn’t appear on any other AFI lists. Even Caddyshack popped up on the top 100 comedies, Jerry Maguire on the top 100 romances. The Hustler didn’t belong in either of those places—nor was it feel-good, nor was it noticeably suspenseful—but it was so damn good that it should have made it onto at least one of the top 100 overall lists. Jonathan Rosenbaum corrected this error in his alternative top 100. The movie doesn’t even get asterisked for the 50 greatest movie stars. Paul Newman maybe came in at 51? I can only conclude that this movie is super, super underrated.
Check back in a day or two for PART TWO.