I embarked on this yearlong endeavour hoping to learn something about myself. Rereading all the entries this week, I’m not sure I’ve had any mindblowing ephiphanies but, presented with a chunk of writing (or indeed picks) this substantial, it’d be hard not to spot a few patterns. First of all, that I’m not a very good self-proofreader. I’ve alluded a few times to the number of entries written in a panic, in those final hours before my self-imposed deadline of 23:59 on Friday – a deadline I only missed once, by about 15 minutes – and that meant I didn’t get to double-check everything as thoroughly as I might have liked. I can see at least one thing I’d change in every single post – an odd bit of phrasing mostly, a factual error, a couple of typos (or an occasional vestigial “???”, my personal notation for write more here). I won’t go back and change them all, though, not even my claim that Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 2003. I’d claim that this about retaining the purity of the thing, but honestly it’s just that this list has already driven me mad once, and I don’t fancy getting lost in it again. Perhaps more interesting are the words, phrases, and structures I’ve repeatedly leant on. Talk of “quotables”, “charisma”, and “cool” need to exorcised from future writing, and recently, a lot of “of course”s and “after all”s have crept in too. (An attempt at keeping a conversational tone, I reckon.) Thematically and structurally, I reckon I’ve overused the gap between what I’d remembered and what I found on a rewatch as a springboard. Similarly, a tendency to focus on one element throughout the piece, and then conclude by saying but, wait, there’s more to this film! has been too common – a result, probably, of trying to find a variety of ways to gush about a film… Consider this me burning all my writerly bridges – none of these tricks are ones I’ll be able to use again. Good. The most peculiar bit is how how fond I’ve been of using permutations of “boy meets girl…” for showing how something sticks to/departs from a standard structure and cinematic traditions, but it’s something I think I’ve only ever used in FFoF posts, so as long as it stays there, that’s okay. Throughout, I’ve struggled to organically work in a synopsis of the plot – partially because it feels like it ruins the fun of watching it for yourself – but it’s something, in all the different permutations I’ve tried out, I have been working hard to fix. As I’ve pointed out in some of the posts, I’m less concerned by narrative than other elements of cinema. I’m fascinated by pacing – whether something comes over an hour in, or 20 minutes from the end – and non-traditional (i.e. non-fantasy) world-building. Also, use of music, pure emotional resonance, big Ideas, how a film fits into a director or writer’s body of work… all thoughts I’ve addressed at some point. Most of all, though, it’s been a year of trying to work out how to describe cinema, in terms of what exactly is happening on screen, and whether it’s extraneous. Most of the joy of writing about, say, music is just finding words for what’s happening; in games journalism, I’m interested in telling stories other people won’t necessarily have had. It’s much harder in film, treading a line between spoiling a key scene or boring you with something you’ve already seen. The Apocalypse Now piece’s look at the Do Lung Bridge scene is possibly the best example of this – it’s a fine piece of visual poetry which I tried to get down in suitably wide-eyed prose. I’m still not sure it’s possible. A chart showing the breakdown of my fifty favourite films, by decade As someone on the internet once told me, I need to watch some films that were made more than 10 years ago. The years 2000-2009 make up an overwhelming half of the list, with my single favourite year for films, apparently, being 2004. It’s the year Shaun of the Dead, Anchorman, The Incredibles, and my #1 favourite film ever, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, came out. It’s also the year I was 15 years old. I observed it a few times throughout, but I really have a obsession with the links between being a teenager and cinema. Cinema burnt brightest for me when I was in my teens – almost every year between 1999 and 2009 produced three films on this list, and most of the other ones I saw in that impressionable time too. A lot of the films were included for the warping effect they had on my young brain, and what was on my mind at the time – male friendship, the relationship between individual and state, the loss of youth and innocence, etc. It also turns out that, statistically speaking, Quentin Tarantino is my favourite director, having directed four of the films on this top 50, with Brad Bird trailing just behind with three. Tarantino is even more prolific as a screenwriter, having written five films on the list. That said, if we’re being purely statistical, he would also be my favourite actor, having had substantial appearances in three films, and that is certainly not the truth. Looking back, there are films that should be higher, or lower – Airplane!, for example, was clearly cheated, while I’m not wholly sure T2 deserves its place around the halfway mark – and there are a couple of films I’d like to include – Social Network being the first one that comes to mind – though I have absolutely no idea which films I’d kick off the list to make room. After all, lists like these are completely arbitrary. That’s the truth we can admit now it’s all over – they’re a bit silly, really, and it’s something you can see shining through every time I jokily declare a statement to be fact!. Nevertheless, as a body of work, it’s […]
This is my favourite film. It will probably remain my favourite film forever, and now I am etching that onto the stainless steel face of the internet, where it will stay as long as I pay my URL fees. How’s that for commitment? It’s one of the few films on this list that I’d also argue is in the running for the Best Film of All Time. That’s not something I’d ever say about last week’s #2, Fight Club – its importance is too personal, too tied to my own history. But I have very few memories tied to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which, luckily, stops this from straying anywhere too autobiographical like some entries have tended to. Eternal Sunshineis a film firing on cylinders, every element hitting every note perfectly at the same time, in a way I’ve never seen since. Actors, director, writer, photography, soundtrack, effects … all objectively perfect. Fact. It starts out looking like an indie romance film. Joel Barish wakes up bored with his life – as narrated in a gravelly, remorseful whisper – and impulsively ditches work to go somewhere beautiful and desolate. There he meets the quirky Clementine Kruczynski, and they, awkwardly, fall for each other. Nothing particularly special there – this first 20 minutes is an actor’s piece, director and writer waiting for their time to show off, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet sell it perfectly. It’s not an easy task, as proved by all the other indie slice-of-life romances I watched afterwards, to make a relationship interesting and convincing so quickly. Then, with a flourish, we jump back and suddenly Joel is in his car, crying and listening to Beck’s cover of Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime. The film is structured non-linearly; roughly speaking, it rewinds through Joel and Clementine’s relationship to show us first how it went wrong and then later, why it worked. Unlike the tight formal structure of Memento, though, it’s not that simple – the rewinding takes place inside Joel’s head, as the men he has hired to wipe all his memories of Clementine do just that. It’s all interwoven with segments arranged in order, with a b-plot telling the story of the guys doing the memory wiping. And, it turns out, the start of the film is also actually the end – Joel and Clementine are meeting again, by apparent chance. The split between internal and external allows Michel ‘le réalisateur’ Gondry, and Charlie ‘the author’ Kaufman chances to shine. Gondry is another director with a background in music videos and adverts, one of my favourite creators in any medium who has never quite found another cinematic vehicle for his tremendous imagination. The fantasy world of Joel’s memory provides Gondry with a chance to play his trompe l’oeil tricks – characters disappear and reappear wearing different clothes, apparently in the same take; streets endlessly mirror themselves; remembered locations blend into one another – and fiddle with cinematic techniques to reflect the process of memory loss. Meanwhile, Kaufman finds a clever sci-fi concept – of a company who can wipe your powerful memories, Lacuna Inc, who can unremember it for you wholesale. It’s an idea which can dig under your skin, so you find yourself wondering in idle moments what exactly you’d delete from your past. But then, even better, he finds the mundaneity and reality in it. Lacuna’s offices are reminiscent of a trip to the dentist; the memory-wipers enjoy a few beers, a joint, and the contents of Joel’s booze cupboard while he sleeps. It matches up with the slightly wonky sci-fi tech that Gondry conjures – the upturned-colander that sits on the patient’s head, the slightly retro computers – and gives it all sense and meaning, reigning in his excesses. In return, Kaufman’s writing is lent a rare warmth and humanity. It’s the classic odd couple – sloppy meets clinical – and the contrast makes both stronger. Notably, neither has another film on this list, and very few of the actors involved appear in any of the other 49 either. The ensemble cast, far beyond Carrey and Winslet – both cast against type, playing the role the other would traditionally fill, and proving they should have been doing this all along – is flawless. Elijah Wood, as ever, benefits from being cast as a character with a bit of a sleazy dark streak; Mark Ruffalo is one of cinema’s most loveable slackers; Kirsten Dunst was always meant to play the confused young girl in love; Tom Wilkinson is never anything less than fantastic. Each of those parts – clever indie romance, surrealist dream sequences, inventive but grounded sci-fi – would be enough to guarantee a place on this list. But they form a whole more than the simple sum of its parts, creating a world with a whimsical sense of unreality, but exactly as much reality as is needed to sell the emotions. Oh, the emotions. Joel and Clementine quickly feel like a real couple. As we rewind through their past (at least, in one strand of the film) it becomes clear, through the fog of all the arguments, why they’re together in the first place. In one of the most freeing moments I’ve ever seen in a film, the two accept that, yes, it will all go horribly wrong, but it’s worth it. And then the endless, beautiful futility of it all is played out in a moment repeated over and over, skipping and eventually fading into purest white. And that’s all enough to catch in my throat, but the stakes are higher than the traditional romantic threat of the two being parted – the permanence of memories and feelings are in jeopardy too. There’s something sacred about memory, a lesson I’ve been bludgeoned over the head with over the last year, and Eternal Sunshine reaches the only logical conclusion – in the end, for all our follies and humiliations, our past – every last awful part of it – is as […]
The first thing about Fight Club is, it’s not subtle. This is a film which uses every opportunity to beat you senseless, which fills your ears and eyes, loud and brash and unapologetic. Look, here’s a Simpsons-esque cutaway to a fantasy sequence. Now we’re zooming in extreme extreme close-up through the interior landscape of a bin, or a brain. Here are cigarette burns – have you ever heard of cigarette burns? – and slipping frames. Subliminal images. A man being beat to bloody hamburger. It’s absolute sensory overload. Fight Club can never quite stay still. It starts out as a film about the boredom of being a modern middle-class male, with touches of black humour. Then it’s about the pleasures of male company. The joys of two men hitting each other really hard. It’s the story of how one becomes a terrorist, that becomes a psychological thriller. (And all the while, hidden underneath is a love story, or maybe two.) The second thing about Fight Club is, it’s very, very far from subtle. And there are a few good reasons for this: One, for the sheer joy of the thing. I often talk about how much I love Ideas in film. To anyone who’s been following this list closely, you’ll probably notice that this ranks about concerns like Narrative for me. I’m talking about those big pop Moments where you’re presented with something you’ve never met before – the way a song intersects with a scene, or the way a camera moves, or observing something about life you’d never considered before, or the casting of Meatloaf in a supporting role. Director David Fincher had come to films from adverts and music videos, and Fight Club feels almost like a patchwork of three-minute experiments in style, stitched loosely together. Which – two – is more or less exactly how the novel it’s based on was written, with Chuck Palahniuk collecting together all the stories he’d heard or lived and finding a framework. In this sense, it’s a perfect adaptation, changing and cutting where necessary but keeping the spirit. It’s the same in the dialogue, which is not quite real, and full of loose slogans and Did You Know?s, but is enchanting for it. Three: Tyler Durden. Cinema is brilliant at crafting characters like Tyler Durden. It’s a medium where charisma rules and, looking back over the list – Ferris Bueller, John McClane, Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, Samuel L. Jackson, Ash Williams – it’s clearly something I’m susceptible to. Brad Pitt makes Durden the absolute bottled essence of cool. He’s fidgety, angry, attractive – even when he’s delegated to the back of the frame, swinging nunchuks or flicking away a cigarette, he’s the centre of the attention. He’s the hot centre the film crowds around, and like an impressionable youth, Fight Club copies its hero. And also, four, his philosophy. Fight Club is about nihilism and anti-consumerism and anarchism, always the coolest standpoints, in that sixth form-y kind of way – screw buying stuff, eff the man! Those slogans the characters talk in really are slogans. The film itself is a manifesto, a doctrine, propaganda, and like any piece of propaganda, you can’t give the audience a moment to think about what they’re being fed. But it’s (five) not necessarily the film’s philosophy. Really, Fight Club is a satire on all that, and satire is by necessity always an exaggeration. It pushes all the arguments of the above to their logical extreme, to show us how ludicrous they become. The slogans echo and, coming from the mouths of Durden’s mindless followers, become uglier, climaxing in the horror of a houseful of idiots chanting “His name is Robert Paulsen” like it’s scripture. All those big issues it deals with – whichever side of the fence you’re on – never really touched me, though. I liked the swagger of Durden, and some of the lines struck a place in my young lyrics-quoting heart, but the core of Fight Club for me is the friendship. (It’s actually not that different from Fincher’s Social Network in that regard, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The love between two men that, like the Romans believed, could be the greatest and purest love of all, and whether it’s compatible with a heterosexual relationship with a woman. For all its messiness, the story can be thinned down to: boy meets girl, refuses to admit he likes her, boy meets boy, tries to navigate relationship with both, chooses girl. And that choice is celebrated with literal fireworks, as some triumphant Pixies plays us out. It can’t resist a last big wink, though, a big fat screenful of penis for one moment. This is still Fight Club, after all. It’s that lack of subtlety that has often made me fearful to revisit Fight Club. It was the single piece of culture that had most impact on me as a teenager, and probably has the most responsibility for the person I am now – pushing me towards certain films and especially (via the original novel) books, and subsequently towards writing, and it made me think about cool, and the roles I’ve played in friendships, and I probably still cop some of Tyler’s swagger occasionally, especially when I’m drunk. To borrow the bit of Phonogram I always borrow, it was the fuel I burnt to become me. And, as he’s mellowed out over the last decade into one of the greatest filmmakers we’ve got, I’d suggest maybe the same is true for David Fincher too. Perhaps Fight Club is meant to be grown out of. Those youthful relationships, forged in the early hours. Thinking you could change the world. Being able to laugh off losing a tooth. Being angry with the world in a way you don’t think anyone has thought about before… It’s embarrassing to look back at those moments, isn’t it? But that never makes them more worth regretting than celebrating. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the […]
Disney has a grand tradition of death, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about it, but what makes Up more special than Bambi, or even The Lion King, is how carefully it follows the grieving process. Everyone focuses on the silent montage at the start, which compresses a couple’s entire life together into four wordless minutes. It’s as fine a piece of cinema as you’ll ever see, and it’s reputation is well earned. But as in life, it’s not the death itself that’s really important – it’s what comes after. And after, Up picks up with Carl, an old man, living alone. The brilliance of that montage is in the way it echoes throughout, and as Carl navigates his house, you begin to notice the hooks that have been set in your heart – the mailbox, the bottle-lid badge, the chairs – and that will be tugged mercilessly throughout. In my experience that’s more or less how it happens in life, just a little messier. You encounter innocuous little cues with rough edges that catch in your chest. I admire the ruthless efficiency with which Up can bring me to my knees: a single shot of an inanimate object, a couple of notes of Giacchino’s score. But from what I’ve said so far, it doesn’t sound very fun, does it? What makes me love Up is the contrast. After all, there aren’t many in-depth examinations of the grieving process that can also shift thousands of stuffed toys, are there? The film only wallows in this loneliness for a short time, before Carl escapes, into the sky, and towards Paradise Falls. Introducing the rest of Carl’s party – Russell the persistent ‘Wilderness Explorer’ boy scout, Kevin the giant bird, Dug the talking dog – Up turns into something as simple and likeable as any Pixar film. But it doesn’t abandon that emotional core. All the conflicts are caught up in one another – Carl’s craving for adventure, as a younger man, resurfaces after he can’t have children; Russell’s largely absent father isn’t there to do his Wilderness Explorer activities with him; Kevin, the only character to have a full family, is separated from them. (Incidentally, I think you could make an argument for the characters representing Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, particularly the midlife crisis of generativity vs stagnation.) And, like all the best baddies, Charles Muntz is presents Carl from a different perspective – his airship is a much more literal museum, full of the bones of mythical creatures he hunted, as Carl’s floating house, but both are just as preoccupied with the past and with death. And of course, the film never shies away from lingering, for just one moment, on one of those mementoes. Ultimately, though, life goes on, and all the grief sits just underneath the surface, the engine which drives all the thrilling adventure stuff. The world doesn’t suddenly turn black, beauty and humour still exist, and that allows Dug to exist – thank God – and Dug, in turn, allows Up to work. There aren’t many visual metaphors stronger than that house rising into Sega-blue skies, tugged upwards by a multi-coloured cloud of balloons. There are few more crushing than the half-burned house, heavier than the remains of balloons can carry, scraping along the rough earth as Carl drags it, alone, before grinding to a halt. Up follows the same emotional waveform as most Pixar films, with the hero starting low, rising steadily to a high, then being brought down by the consequences of that rise, only to get over what brought them low in the first place and rise triumphantly. Of course, that also describes most human experience, including grieving for a loved one. I’ve made a big deal in the past about how the shape of Up could be emotionally educational, the implication being, for children. I’m going to come up front and say what I really mean is, for me. A while back, I lost my Nan; she was a wonderful and vital woman, and… frankly I lack the vocabulary to talk about this kind of stuff; I haven’t had to deal with death, really, since I was young. I suspect I’m not good at it. Catharsis is one of art’s greatest virtues; Up provides a safe way to experience, and re-experience, difficult emotions in a controlled environment. It gave me a framework for understanding, and a context to place it in. Essentially, Up takes everything that’s bundled up in grief, and turns it into a story. I’m used to stories.
I say John Hughes Movie, you think: teenagers, the 1980s, hot pink, awesome cheesy pop music that kicks in at just the right moment, the dull ache of nostalgia for an imagined childhood. Right? Doesn’t matter if you’ve actually seen a John Hughes movie or not – I mean, I’ve seen three – if you’re relatively conversant in pop culture, it has a meaning. For me, they’re magic words – John Hughes comparisons were what convinced me I needed to see Drive. (Sidenote: I really did, but that’s a story for another time). Ferris Bueller is the reason for that. (Don’t get me wrong, I love The Breakfast Club, but there’s a reason it didn’t make this list – primarily, that the clichés Hughes created stick out a little more in that film. The Allison de-gothing transformation scene is a bit painful to watch now. And that’s ignoring my instinctual feminist reading of it. But nevertheless, imagine The Breakfast Club holding a position somewhere below the waterline, around #56.) Like all John Hughes Movies, like all good teen movies, it’s about innocence, and the loss of it. All of the characters are placed on that vital cusp, and it gets touched on more than once. Ferris might want to avoid high school – and get his friends out of it, at least for one day – but the fact that this is his last year, that it’s all coming to an end, is a major source of pathos in the film. After all, in this world, Ferris is the uncontested king of all he surveys. The whole city, from freshmen to police department, are pulling for him to get through the imaginary illness he’s using to bunk off. Ferris is a walking magnet, both animal – he’s the kind of guy that will stop running for his life to introduce himself to two sunbathing girls in bikinis – and for pure good luck – there’s a moment at the grand all-action finale where he throws a baseball to turn off a radio; it hits the ‘off’ button perfectly and rolls neatly into a waiting glove. Ferris is irresistible by nature, and that pulls everything into place around him. But that can’t last. There’s little doubt that this is Ferris’ last hurrah, that he’s peaking and rest of his life will roll slowly downhill. This isn’t even subtext, it’s directly text. “I’m going to … put a dent in his future, so years from now, when he looks back on the ruin his life has become…” monologues school principal and nemesis Ed Rooney. Even his best friend Cameron predicts a sparkling career as a “frycook”. The film isn’t afraid to question whether Ferris’ motives are selfish, or show the mechanics behind the curtain of Ferris’ charm, even – we see him turn it on, how manipulative he is, from the very start with his parents. Not that it makes him any less charismatic, mind. It’s a legacy that would carry forward into all the post-Hughes teen films. Look at American Pie, or Superbad. Both are films with absolutely filthy minds, but innocence isn’t all about sex, or the lack thereof. In Ferris Bueller, these kids are getting laid, or at least talking about it, and there’s a reasonable amount of salty language, but they’re still figures as innocent as Blake’s young rosy-cheeked boys. The film’s worldview is simple: teachers and sisters are the villains, girls and friends and cars and simple pleasure are the treasure. All that provides just enough grit to make it feel real; it’s still a entirely good-natured film. Even as it shows us that childlike quality fading into twilight, the world of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains untouched by what lies beyond, in the dark. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an elegy to that period of our lives, and it’s sadfaced about how temporary it all is, how fast it goes by, to paraphase Bueller himself – but it’s still a complete fantasy. This, after all, is a film which repeatedly uses Yello’s Oh Yeah (aka the Duffman theme tune). It’s John Hughes doing what he did best: creating a fantasy world, a vision of the teen years that almost none of us had and, in equal parts, wish we had and romanticise we did. Or is that just me?
What is the Matrix? I remember seeing that question everywhere when I was 10. It was at the forefront of the marketing, efficiently creating mystery in a mere four words. What? is? the? Matrix? (If that’s a question you don’t know the answer to, I believe I am required to say two things. First, to make the traditional asinine comment about your head being buried in a shoebox under the crust of the Earth for the last decade. Second, to warn you: do not read this. Do not. You are a very lucky person. Go and find The Matrix on DVD, now. Your mind is purest white snow, before the first muddy footprint. Don’t read the back of the box, don’t do anything, just watch.) What was the Matrix? I had no idea. Working off the snippets I’d seen on TV, I did exactly what you’d expect a 10 year old boy’s mind to do, I extrapolated. Somewhere in the recesses of my young mind are elaborate answers, whole imagined films. None of which, I am sure, bore any resemble to The Matrix. I don’t remember first seeing it, or how much of the answer I’d picked up by then, but it was a couple of years later, on a fuzzy VHS, and it immediately became my favourite film. Released in 1999, it hit the zeitgeist perfectly enough that it still felt brand new when I saw it then, so much it still seems convincing now. The Matrix is set in a future extrapolated from the end of the 20th Century, and all the stuff that seemed important and futuristic then: the internet, the idea of avatars and the fluid identity they brought, AI… And, for most of the film, that is the setting: a slightly tweaked version of 1999, and the technology available then, in all its clunky analogue glory. Modem-punk, if you will. (I love the way that the Matrix-specific technology they sneak in – the bug the Agents put in Neo’s stomach, and the big vacuum cleaner Trinity uses to get it out – don’t quite fit with the smooth modern aesthetic. Like they can’t quite be constructed from the simulated-1999 vocabulary of the Matrix, and have to be cobbled together from odd bits and pieces.) Everything manages to look more-or-less plausibly real. It helps how recognisable the inside of the Matrix is: the freedom fighters are just guys in trenchcoats and shades, exits are landline telephones, world-changing glitches are just moments of déjà vu. Its props belong to our world, just slightly twisted. All of which allows it to go on flights of fancy. Primarily, in those action scenes full of impossible spectacle. I would’ve expected time – all the copies and parodies and rewatches – to dilute the balletic grace of the fights. But no, they’re still awe-inspiring. The way they move is how I imagine I’m moving when I’m really, perfectly drunk and dancing to my favourite song. Then suddenly gravity is being bent and the fight is in the air, on the walls… But again it’s grounded: in how clearly it’s really the actors, not stunt men, and they are really doing really beautiful kung-fu. In the perfect intimate body-horror connection of… well, those connections. Things are always penetrating: the bug’s journey into, and out of, Neo’s belly button. The umbilical -giving that are pulled out when Neo wakes up. Syringes into bare flesh. Most of all, that big spiky ethernet cable sliding into the place where skull meets spine. The most horrifying deaths aren’t by machine gun, or helicopter explosion, or kung fu. It’s Apoch and Switch, comatose, having their connectors pulled out and tumbling down dead inside the Matrix. But… oh, those fight scenes. This film is the reason now, as a sort-of grown-up, I don’t accept the oh, it’s just a dumb action film argument. This is not a matter of meeting quotas. The Matrix has action scenes that go beyond watchability, beyond the mathematics of x bodycount, y explosions and z headshots. They are beautiful and grounded in a real and present threat – and when that’s not enough, the Wachowskis are clever enough to pile on a threat in the other world, too, one that’s been neatly set up an hour before. But then on top of that it piles other stuff: symbolism and references and and callbacks structure and all of that – this is after all, a film that reaches its climax in the same motel room it opened in. And a sense of humour and a plot and human characters and most of all, constant cool ideas. It’s sci-fi as it should be- just about plausible enough to have you questioning the stuff that matters, but more importantly never letting up, never catching its breath. As full of ideas as it is full of action. I saw this film when I was 12 years old. I’ve been metabolising it, on and off, ever since. And then, we’re a decade on, and you give me Transformers 2? You feed me that and you expect me to be satisfied?
Donnie Darko, for a sci-fi teen comedy about a boy and his imaginary friend saving/ending the world via the means of time travel and revealing paedophile’s sex lairs to the world, is actually quite a small film. Perhaps the best way of explaining why it’s so good is to compare it against Richard Kelly’s next, Southland Tales, a film which is generally agreed to be a complete car-wreck. Southland Tales touches on those same tropes, all the end-of-the-world stuff, purple prose and extreme drama mixed with comedy, but it’s swollen. There are dozens of characters vying for lead role, setpieces piling upon setpieces, musical segments… And it’s not just a (rather long) film, either- there are comic books and a fictional script, trying to fully explain all the complexities of the plot. Donnie Darko, by contrast, is tight. It knows – and this is one of those films where the ‘it’ rather than the ‘he’ seems worth considering – exactly what it can achieve in its hour and three-quarters. The sci-fi plot is equally twisty and borderline nonsensical, but that’s just a backdrop, really, to the story of Donnie. A teenager growing up in a small town with emotional problems and fearsome intelligence, who meets a girl, grows up a little, and makes a decision. The story of one boy. And, okay, to some extent one small community (most of whom we get to know fairly intimately at some point) too. The end of the world is bandied around, but it’s never a true threat. Not beyond the small contained world of Middlesex, at least. It’s a world populated by absolutely fantastic actors – Patrick Swayze, Holmes Osborne, Seth Rogen – and one which is laid out effortlessly, mostly by a couple of wordless sequences, some of the finest moments in the film. The camera sweeps through the suburban streets, the corridors of a school, to music plucked perfectly from the ‘80s. One month. The film regularly turns back to a countdown, white text on black announcing how many days are left. At the very longest, it’s 28 days and all that time travel stuff I mentioned is really only over the space of a few days. At one point, Frank, the terrifying bunny thing, removes his gnarled mask to reveal idiosyncratically long hair and one destroyed eye, speaking in riddles. Why is he called Frank? “It was the name of my father and his father before me”. The film teases that maybe Frank is from the far-flung future, but in the end he’s simply not. This is not to say, not to even momentarily suggest, that Donnie Darko is not ambitious. (A stray paragraph here about the Gyllenhaals. I’m not really the kind of person who is a fan of particular actors; it’s not a skill I can necessarily spot – in the same way that, say, great technical guitar playing means little to me – but this film set up my love of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal for life. They deliver every line absolutely perfectly. A quick example: when his girlfriend confides her father has emotional problems, Donnie cheerily responds “Oh, I have those too! What kind of emotional problems does your dad have?”. It helps that they’re both stunningly attractive, of course.) Within those self-established confines, it does everything. Trippy sci-fi visuals – Frank’s bunny suit, the wobbly translucent ‘spears’ that grow out of people’s chests – rub effortlessly against straight-up comedy. “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” “How did you feel, being denied these Hungry, Hungry Hippos?” I could quote funny lines from this film as long as any comedy film on this list, and they’re deployed with precision. A precision that leaks into all corners; Kelly has the mind of a great music video director. Not just in those montage-y soundtrack sequences, that collage of image and sound, but in simple camerawork like the first time we and Donnie meet Frank. He’s standing on a mound in a golf course in a long shot which fades into a close-up of Donnie, placing the nightmarish rabbit firmly within the outline of his head. Or how the whole screen tilts 90°, turning the letterbox on its side, to show brain-twisting moments. Donnie Darko is at its best when it’s understated, using the power of suggestion. Like how the wormhole portal – the symbol of escape – opens up in the middle of a cinema screen. Of course it does. Again, this is all in the interests of keeping it tight. When it tries to explain its ideas directly – like in the much-maligned Director’s Commentary, or the moments of full-on cod philosophy. Some of the lines in this film, make no mistake, are of prose of deepest purple. And make no mistake, it totally is a traditional teen film; in at least some ways. The complex web of high school relations; the stock characters- the hard-case bully and his tagalong, the inspirational teachers… There’s a Mom and Dad’re Out Of Town House Party! But they’re not cliché, quite. People talk about how The Inbetweeners is just sooo accurate of their teenage years. And maybe it is. Donnie Darko mixes that John Hughes quality, of the youth you wish you’d had, with something that feels like exaggerated reality. (And, personal sidenote, those teachers, young and rebellious but caring, who get sacked, for me has a pretty direct correlation to two teachers I had at an impressionable point in my youth.) I love art about the teenaged condition, more than is possibly healthy for someone of my age; Black Hole, Sleigh Bells, Buffy… They all amp those emotions up to match how how it felt, that mingling of great pop songs and girls and HIGHEST DRAMA. Everything turned up as high as it’ll go, all the comedy and love and terrifying rabbits from the future. Just like real life.
Here were are again: ‘Alex loves Pixar films’. It’s well-trodden ground at this point, yes, I’m predictable, I know, I’m sorry. But the beauty of the studio’s best – Ratatouille, Wall.E, Monsters Inc – is that they’re very different films, and The Incredibles is possibly the best example of that. Being obvious: it was the first Pixar film to thrust human characters into the spotlight, rather than featuring animals/toys/monsters/beautifully-animated-inanimate-objects. Which is probably as much to do with technology as anything else – look at Andy and Sid in the first Toy Story, and compare them with the Parrs here. But that’s not important, because the legacy The Incredibles is best examined alongside isn’t that of Pixar; it’s superhero films, And this is, by a very long way (by at least 43 spots, I guess) my favourite superhero film. There’s just so much it gets right about ‘supers’, as the film calls them, on screen. First of all, those powers. It cherry-picks the very best – using, more or less, the Fantastic Four template of stretchy one, invisible one, strong punchy one, but switching out fiery one for speedy one. If you ignore flying, it’s pretty much the Platonic template for iconic super-powers. And then it shows them in such brilliant ways: with an opening action scene that shows Mr Incredible and Elasti-Girl in the field, establishing what kind of feats they’re capable of quickly and easily. But then we cut forward 15 years, and see Mr and Mrs Incredible – Bob and Helen – in a more domestic setting, where powers are implemented casually: a crushed door handle, splitting up a fight between the kids, a car lifted over the head (possibly the strongest single image of superherodom in existence, stretching all the way back to the cover of Action Comics #1) in frustration. The kids: Dash (speedster) and Violet (invisi-force-fielder). Their powers are teased in this setting, and only unleashed in the final third of the film. It’s a family film in all senses. The super-powered setting just exaggerate a more mundane reality. Bob’s secret crime-fighting trips are a mid-life crisis played out on a bigger scale; something that’s never more obvious than in Helen’s quiet fears that he’s having an affair.But it’s designed to play to the whole family too. So it’s bright and it goes pow! in all the right places. Action is pretty much constant, woven seamlessly in amongst jokes playing to both ends of the familial spectrum. Most importantly, it’s got that indefinable Disney quality, of pure sweetness. No film makes me smile more, so consistently brings a big goofy smile to my face. The ridiculous design of the throwaway characters – Bob’s boss Mr. Huph; Edna Mode, fashion designer to the super-able. The beauty of the volcano lair setting. Just the way the superheroes move: take the setpiece where Mrs Incredible gets her extended limbs stuck in a series of automatic doors as she tries to take out a load of henchmen; it’s a silly, funny extrapolation of her Elasti-powers, but it’s genuinely thrilling too, and when she takes the bad guys down, it’s easily as cool as the greatest feat of strength Mr Incredible is able to summon. Most of all, though, it’s the relationships between the family members. It’s touching is what it is. This is a film, though, that understands that to have that Disney sweetness, to have it ring true without turning to cloying saccharine, you need danger, threat; grown up things. And so that mid-life crisis writ large is a threat to the marriage, to the stabilising centre of the family. It’s a truism that cartoonier characters are easier to relate to, more universal, and that would explain how easily it attaches you to these characters. And this is where we come back to the Pixar legacy. That moment that catches in your throat, a bittersweet trademark. Here, for me, it’s the scene where Mr Incredible thinks he’s lost his family, that the supervillain has killed them. It’s not even a fake-out; the viewer knows they’re fine, but still… It gets me choked up every time. (For me, as I suspect for many people, family and Disney/Pixar films are inseparable. That Christmas of drunkenly tearing up on the sofa to Finding Nemo; cinema trips… my sister even reads the odd thing I write if it’s about animation.) And then it builds on top of that, finds every permutation of cinematic cake it can think and simultaenously both has and eats it. The James Bond set design and smooth cool of Mr Incredible’s secret life, against the comedy of his out-of-shape chubbiness as he gets stuck in a pod launcher. He can be the butt of a joke without detracting from his iconic hero moments. Big action setpieces with the kind of spectacle that wouldn’t be possible in live action without being plastered in ugly CG, but with the intimacy and investment I celebrated in Die Hard. It’s as prismatic as any modern superhero comic. This means it gets a bit muddled if you look too deeply at what it’s saying. Is it wrong for Bob to shirk responsibility for cheap thrills and temptations (he’s punished, his family are put in danger) or is he realising his true potential (it brings the family together, as a team)? Which brings us sort of neatly to the elephant in the room. What Christian “Solario” Otholm refers to as “an appalling moral to put in a children’s film”. The idea that no-one should try to go beyond the limits they were born with. The villains (Bomb Voyage, Syndrome, Underminer) are all powered by technology. There’s a moment where Mrs Incredible tells Violet that heroism is “in her blood”, and looked at through this filter it’s wince-inducing. I spent much of my planning time for this article trying to work out a counter-argument. And I can’t. It’s a completely fair reading of the film. Such are the dangers of being such an all-inclusive film […]
What elevates Die Hard above every other cheesy action flick of the ‘80s? Because make no mistake, this is precisely what it is. The sub-genre Alpha, the cheesy ‘80s action non plus ultra. What exactly differentiates it from, say, Above The Law, Steven Seagal’s debut released the same year? It’s a scale thing. Most action films push to be bigger, more impressive. Die Hard keeps it small, confined. Look at John McClane, as we’re introduced step-by-step. It starts with a vulnerability: John McClane doesn’t like flying. A stranger gives the invaluable advice to take his shoes off, make a fist with his toes. We’ll return to this later, but for now it’s time for the next step in our introduction: John McClane carries a gun. An action hero, maybe. Bruce Willis passes this off with easy charm. Don’t worry, I’m a cop. Quickly, the pendulum swings back again: John McClane pulls a huge teddy bear from the overhead locker. It’s not a joke the way it would be if it was Arnie holding that teddy; not a sneer from an hard-man acting against type. It’s a warm little smile. This isn’t Arnie; it’s Bruce Willis. It’s different now, but at the time Willis was only known for his role in as the romantic lead of TV show Moonlighting. Bruce Willis is a good everyman actor. An everyman with plenty of cool and a slight hard edge, but just a bloke like us all the same. Lest we forget about that cool, though, we’re representing with a long shot of McClane and the bear, as he lights a cigarette and takes a single weary drag. In a series of quick signifiers – vulnerability, gun, teddy bear, cigarette – the character is laid out. Of course, soon enough a bunch of Eurotrash terrorists take over Nakatomi Plaza and the running and gunning begins, but it’s vital that Die Hard took that time. The rest of the film cashes in what has been set up, hammering home McClane’s vulnerability over and over. He’s wearing a vest, showing all that soft squishy flesh, for a reason. After all, most of the protagonists in action films are beyond relating to, either in what they can do or how they can act. Or, in many cases, both. To take a quick example from lower down the list, look at Arnie as the Terminator. He’s physically hardy– we see him take explosions to the face –but his behaviour is similarly inhuman, strong, invulnerable. (Which is kind of the point, as the whole film is him overcoming this and learning to be a person, but nevertheless…) It’s an interesting comparison with the other action films I love; take next week’s film, which emphasises the humanity of its heroes even more, but gives us people capable of incredible feats. John McClane is a bloke with a gun. Die Hard goes to great lengths to set up its hero’s vulnerability, how supple and soft the flesh is, before it takes out the first nail and starts to hammer it in, as the gates and shutters come down and lock us inside Nakatomi Plaza. Looking at other action films, it’s remarkably small. John McClane isn’t saving the world, he’s fighting for the dignity of a single building. Relatively speaking, the stakes are pretty low, but they’re well established. It’s claustrophobic, full of air vents; closed where most action films are open. The enemy are finite, laid out precisely: one guy versus twenty. Knowing the exact odds, there’s a simple mathematical pleasure to seeing them slowly climb in McClane’s favour with every baddie he takes down. At the end of the day, Die Hard isn’t transcendent of its genre. It is precisely a cheesy ‘80s action film. But in its execution it is a masterclass, taking every opportunity to set up a credible threat. More importantly, taking every opportunity to create a fully human action hero, one who can be hurt. Most importantly, making us care that he might be.
The Empire Strikes Back‘s place here is almost token. No list would be complete without it, but it’s standing in as a representative of quite how important Star Wars has been for me. After all, more than perhaps any other film ever, Star Wars has leaked out into all corners of our pop culture. Books and comics and games, sure, but far far beyond that. Lightsabers, dark sides and Wookiees, these things leaked out in the consciousness of a generation. Over the last 30 years, all this stuff bled out beyond the confines of three films so thoroughly that barely a minute of Empire‘s running time goes by without something you’ve seen riffed on elsewhere, whether on a screen or in real life. This would probably true even for someone who had never seen the films. That kind of shared vocabulary means that Star Wars is an easy – and fun – topic to theorise and joke about. Every lazy stand-up comedian has got at least one joke referencing Star Wars in their repertoire. So what is there left to say? I already got my Kevin Smith on to talk about Return of the Jedi, positing that the films are just a huge playset, full of toys. (I’ll add a quick observation: have you ever noticed how little characters in the film seem to respect Darth Vader? Outside of the film, in our world, he’s one of the most revered baddies of all time, an example to be carted out when discussing how design or mystery or costume can build a character’s appeal. But most of the Imperial officers are open with their disdain for the Force, and treat him with all the hushed reverence of a Pizza Hut employee arguing with their manager.) There’s no point in telling you the story, laying out the characters or describing how things look. This is Star Wars, and that was all magically inserted into your brain when you were about seven years old. It’s the middle child of the trilogy, which means it actually steps further away from traditional blockbuster structure than its siblings, and has the reputation as being the ‘dark’ one. It ends on an absolutely sublime cliffhanger, all moody and foreboding, but it’s the film is still exceedingly warm and friendly overall. It is, however, more mature in a few other ways; there’s something in the way it’s shot which looks more cleanly professional than the others, and the characters crystallise best into almost-real people in this one. And it’s got the bit where Han Solo says “I know”, a.k.a. the coolest moment in cinema history. (Another little point: I don’t think most people realise how minimal George Lucas’ influence over this film was. Lucas and Star Wars are two names married together in a way few other franchises and directors are, so it’s odd to realise that not only did he not direct, but that his only writing credit is for providing the story.) But it’s all the same Star-Warsy nonsense that I love, really, with made-up words, silly voices and gigantic worms that live inside comets. Of this, too, it’s possibly the best example: we’re introduced to Boba Fett and Yoda, two of the series’ best characters and purest action-figure fodder. It also brings in Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Space Pimp; a ridiculous character of another type and one of whom I’m increasingly fond. It’s a Star Wars film, is what I’m saying. A brilliant Star Wars film. You know what that means, don’t you?