R0BTRAIN's Top 10 Genre Films - Part 2
Knowing I'd be writing this feature in the near future, I've actually been trying to revisit a lot of these movies in the last few weeks because while my list has been pretty cemented for more than a decade, I haven't been able to watch a lot of them recently due to other commitments to my time (i.e. raising a child, a full time job, keeping up with my favorite shows in this age of "Peak TV", and you know, watching new movies as often as I can, but not as often as I'd like). To be honest, there had been a hefty period since I'd last seen some of these, which gave me a little trepidation with this exercise. What if the movies didn't hold up? What if time hadn't been as kind to these films as I would have hoped? What if they were too dated to appreciate them the way I always had before?
Turns out, I needn't have worried.
Not only do these movies hold up for me, they're as timeless as ever. I know them by heart, and can often quote them verbatim. Even better, as I get older my ever-changing personal experiences and newly obtained knowledge continue to color how I watch films and take them in, so many of them even work on a level they never did before.
So without further ado, I present my Top 5 Genre Films, which also happen to be my five favorite movies. Enjoy. It's clobberin' time...
As always beware, for SPOILERS abound...
5. Hard Boiled
As I saw quote on the box art for Hard Boiled read "An action fans dream" I think I remember taking it as sort of a challenge. As someone who considered himself not only an action fan, but THE action fan, I was ready to take this movie home and see how it measured up to beloved Die Hards and Lethal Weapons. I will admit that at that point in my life my knowledge of John Woo's filmography was pretty limited. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd only seen Hard Target and Face/Off, though their over-the-top ridiculousness had instantly won me over. Woo's slow motion gun fights were more like dance sequences and his talent for melodrama simply went along with the tapestry of excess as much as his penchant for explosions and boat chases did. What I was not ready for though, was just how reined in Woo was while working on those movies.
Watching the unfiltered John Woo of Hard Boiled showed me lots of things I hadn't realized. It showed me just how much action a movie could possibly have, as Hard Boiled's action isn't so much interested in being wall-to-wall as it is bursting through the wall with a hail of gunfire. It showed me just how charismatic Chow Yun-Fat was onscreen, and how tortured Tony Leung had to be to match his performance. It also showed me there was a whole world of cinema that I was missing out on, and that Hong Kong promised me the unbridled action fireworks I had been missing up to that point in my life.
Just how ridiculously excessive is Hard Boiled? The website moviebodycounts .com ranks the films with the highest onscreen deaths and currently Hard Boiled comes in 8th overall with 307 victims. For comparison's sake, Kill Bill, Vol 1 comes in 68th and features 95 deaths while Saving Private Ryan, which depicts the WWII D-Day Invasion comes in 12th with 255 dead. In fact, of the seven movies ahead of Hard Boiled, only the 3 1/2 hour Grindhouse (which has hordes of zombies dying off in droves) features a modern setting. The top 6 are all films with gigantic battles featuring ancient weaponry and thousands from extras, from Return of the King to 300.
Thing is, though Woo's film is packed with shootouts, knife fights and explosions galore, Hard Boiled is never out to feel grotesque or repulsive. The director's only intent is to exhilarate you, and that's exactly what he does from opening shots to closing credits.
Woo's camera moves through the action scenes and mayhem with such grace that you can hardly believe what you're seeing. So much post-modern action cinema is about hyper-editing and handheld camerawork to the point you can't tell what's going on. Woo's mastery of action shows you every bullet hole and face-kick, but with maximum clarity and impact. He doesn't speed up his action to make it more exciting; he slows it down to show you the beauty of his pandemonium. It's not action just for action's sake. It's action turned into art.
I know it's unfashionable to like Mel Gibson these days, and admittedly it seems he's gone completely off the deep end, which I find kind of depressing. For a long while, he was one of my favorite actors, but on the other hand, while shunning Mel Gibson is in fashion, it would be impossible for me to dismiss the completely visceral reaction I had to Braveheart and how it's influenced my tastes over the years.
I LOVE big costume epics (especially ones with giant battle scenes), probably because I had a father who loved to watch Spartacus and Ben-Hur all the time when I was a child, not caring whether I liked the movies or not because he loved them so much. As I got older, he'd always take me with him when the next big one came out. I have fond memories of seeing Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans on the big screen, and Rob Roy had just come out a month before Braveheart so I was already in the mood for big Scottish epics. Two decades later, I'm still waiting for another epic to impress to the degree of Gibson's film.
On an technical level, the movie is still the gold standard for medieval warfare. Braveheart's combat is a masterclass in old-school action film making, with crystal clear cinematography and editing, and not a single pixel of CGI to be found. With hundreds of extras (some switching uniforms in order to fill out both armies) top notch effects and insane stunt teams, it's choreography and in-camera gore that brings its heart-pounding excitement to the forefront, while the manic pace of Gibson's battles never lets you catch your breath.
It's not just the violence that helps the film stand up to the test of time though. Braveheart does an amazing job of evoking its era and setting; its villages feel authentically rustic, its castles feel ancient and grimy, and not in a Monty Python kind of way but in a way that simply elicits a feeling of "being there". When a movie feels artificial, there's just no getting around it as a viewer, and at that time in cinema for every film like this one or Rob Roy you got, Hollywood was also producing a Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or a First Knight.
With its themes of togetherness, friendship, and freedom, mixed with impeccable action and environment, Braveheart is the total package for me. There's a part of it in my love for Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, and now even Game of Thrones. Like those, I'm moved, exhilarated, and I'm transported to their time and place, and two decades on Braveheart still does those things for me in spades.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
It's incredible that in a movie where Chow Yun-Fat can defy the laws of gravity and where Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi engage in graceful, gorgeously choreographed mortal combat that the word I think of most when hear the name Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is repression. Men and women fight to the death over justice, revenge, and ancient weapons, but when it comes to love and real emotional contact these same fighters are clumsy and struggle to know what to do. When their passions do come out, they explode with feelings that the audience is ill-prepared for. It’s this dichotomy within these legendary warriors and their inability to connect using basic emotions that makes Crouching Tiger one of the most human love stories I’ve ever seen; its acting and beautiful direction by Ang Lee making it a true transcendent experience within the Martial Arts genre.
When the movie came out I was still in college and my obsession with Kung Fu flicks and Hong Kong cinema in general was reaching a fever pitch. The DVD market for foreign films was starting to open up quite a bit, but many of the movies I wanted to see were still hard to find or very expensive. Then came along this movie, starring some of my favorite Asian actors, a director I respected a great deal, and the best fight choreographer of all time. To say that my expectations were sky high would be a big understatement, but I still managed to aim too low.
Let me just say this. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a perfect movie. Top to bottom, it has no false notes. As an action movie, it is immensely thrilling with Yuen Woo-Ping pulling out all the stops, from bar-room brawls to fantasy flights through bamboo forests. Ang Lee's dramatic stylings as a director are on full display; his penchant for chamber dramas somehow melding incredibly well with the most epic Martial Arts film of all time. Its story and characters well rounded and deep, every scene bursting with hidden meanings and intentions, yet the movie feels brisk and adventurous all the same. Finally, its actors give the performances of their careers, with Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat like two prisoners within their own love, desperate to escape with each other hand in hand, but confined by time honored traditions. The movie is just impeccable and I am in awe of it every time I see it.
2. Seven Samurai
Have you ever enjoyed a team-up movie? Perhaps one about a team of master criminals coming together to pull an impossibly complicated heist? Or perhaps a Western about gunfighters joining forces against a local villain? Maybe an animated film about bugs showing up to save an anthill? The Avengers saving the world from aliens? Then you owe just a little bit of that enjoyment to Akira Kurosawa, and his masterpiece, Seven Samurai.
In Roger Ebert’s Great Movies essay about this film, he credits critic Micheal Jeck with the hypothesis that this was the first movie in which “a team is assembled to carry out a mission”, which in turn gave us the direct Hollywood remake, The Magnifcent Seven, and then countless imitators, from The Guns of Navarone to The Dirty Dozen to Ocean’s Eleven to The Expendables to yet another remake of The Magnificent Seven coming out toward the end of this very year. Seven Samurai is the Möbius strip of action cinema, its influence constantly coming back around in a never ending loop; its story beginning anew for another generation like the Seven themselves, showing up whenever it is needed to save the day.
Yet to talk about Seven Samurai’s importance because of its plot mechanics is to miss half of why it’s such a superb motion picture. Akira Kurosawa was a craftsman of the highest level; his movie steeped in expert world building that throws you into 16th century Japan with all its alien customs and societal traditions, yet he tells such a universal story (villagers needing help from warriors against brigands who raid their farms) that anyone could watch it and not feel lost. He also tells his tale with such humanity that you can’t help but get caught up in it, every character having to deal with the strife of their situation and the class system of their civilization as a whole. To win the day, they must come together as one to stop the marauders, their differences put aside in the name of true heroism, honor, and survival.
For a 3 1/2 hour, black and white movie made in 1954, Seven Samurai also feels very modern as well. Kurosawa fills every single frame of his picture with some of sort movement in order to keep the feeling of propulsion up, even when the moment is supposed to be still. The film’s quiet moments of desperation end up being just as fascinating as its many battles.
Speaking of those battles, you’d be hard up to find a contemporary of the Kurosawa-sensei that could orchestrate mayhem as well as this Japanese master. Horses, rain, gunfire, swordplay, and archery are all used in an barrage of controlled chaos; the screen barely able to hold it all together. Yet, as with the best action directors, you always know the geography and players of the situation at hand.
If you've ever been curious about foreign films or classic cinema, but don't know where to start, Seven Samurai is always my first, last and only suggestion. It is complex in its themes and setting, yet beautiful in its simplicity. It is the best film by a director who made 30 of them, many of which were so good that not only are they considered classics, their remakes are also judged to be essential (check out Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars side by side and then watch The Hidden Fortress and little movie called Star Wars back to back). If you're open to what this movie has to offer, it can open up a lifetime of cinematic riches. That's what it did for me.
1. The Star Wars Trilogy
So is having a three-way tie in the top spot of your personal Top 10 cheating? Yes. Yes it is. Yet, at the same time it would be nearly impossible for me to choose which of the three pictures really means the most to me.
Star Wars was the first film I ever even remember seeing. We had it on a Beta-Max tape that my parents tell me I simply wore out when I was a toddler, but I'm also sure I wasn't the only kid growing up in the late 70s/early 80s that had the movie on constant repeat if you were lucky enough to have a copy at home. The Empire Strikes Back was the first film I ever saw in the theater, and to be honest it's the best written of the bunch, so it also holds a special place in my heart. I know people like to hate on Return of the Jedi, but I also have very emotional childhood memories tied to the picture, and to be honest it's the one I've watched the most as an adult because it's the biggest one of the three, has the most action, and brings the movie to a beautiful climax. As an added bonus, my young daughter absolutely adores it, which makes me love it even more. She's wearing out my bluray like I did that Beta-Max copy of A New Hope !
So how am I to choose? The quick answer, is that I don't. There is alternative that would be to name the Trilogy as the top 3 movies on the list, which would only leave 7 more spots for non-Star Wars films, and that, in a way, would be cheating you. So this is the best answer.
On top of all that (and I know this isn't the most eloquent way to put this) but this saga isn’t just a bunch of movies to me. Much like many people of my generation, Star Wars has just been a huge part of my life. We're talking about the films that were on my bedsheets growing up and on my lunchbox when I went to grade school. My wife and I played "The Throne Room" theme from A New Hope's medal celebration during our wedding recession.
Do you know the best part though? The movies are truly awesome. Above all the hype and marketing and toys and lunchboxes, are three movies that simply want to entertain the heck out of you and they work ceaselessly to try and do just that.
Everything I love about cinema is here; good versus evil, swashbuckling, space battles, the search for meaning, personal growth, romance, friendship, and redemption. Also an army of teddy bears, laser swords, and flying motorcycles. Truly, this is the universe you never want to leave, and in my heart, in spite of prequels, Gungans, and holiday specials, I never have and never will.
Well everyone that's it. I hope you've enjoyed my list and I hope this is just the first of many. May the Force be with you.