R0BTRAIN's Top 10 Genre Films - Part 1
As a movie fan my whole life, and then a writer who has talked about cinema for the last decade, it's hard for me to think of a more direct and personal way to get to know someone's taste in film than by asking them their top 10. I know it's an arbitrary exercise, and I've heard many arguments about how movies shouldn't have to compete against each other or similar complaints about comparing genres, but for me a top 10 is simply representing the movies that mean the most to you on a very fundamental level.
Now this particular list of Genre movies just happens to be identical to my personal "All Time Top 10". They are the movies that define me as a fan; each changing my perspective on films by opening my eyes to exactly what movies could do. They all tell fanscinating stories, but in their way, they also tell a story about me. They each mark a moment that cinema shifted my perspective. Perhaps the shifts weren't seismic, but nonetheless, the panorama of film as a whole, and how I perceive it, was changed forever. On top of all that, I'm happy to say that these 10 movies are simply able to just kick ass.
So before we proceed, a word of warning to the SPOILER wary. SPOILERS will abound from here on out, so if you haven't seen one of these movies, you may want to just skim the list instead of diving deep into my SPOILER-FILLED musings. Also, SPOILERS...
At any rate, away we go.
10. THE USUAL SUSPECTS
For many of the film fans of my generation (it's incredible that I've made it to 37), our awakening to the cultural importance of arthouse pictures miraculously coincided with the Independent Cinema Explosion of the 1990s. Hollywood had spent the 80s making us all kids again (I was an actual one at the time) with one of the best periods of pop cinema ever rolled out (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Batman, RoboCop, The Terminator, Back to the Future, and you know...10 billion other movies that you know and cherish to this day) but the in the 90s many film makers wanted to return to the gritty realism of the 70s by working outside the studio system.
It makes sense that it was during this period that my tastes started to grow up as well, because I started to grow up. Movies weren't just a fun diversion, they started to become art to pursue and take in. The action and fantasy movies of my youth gave way to crime pictures and existential films, and I wasn’t the only one experiencing these new horizons. Indies were getting so successful that they’re mentality started to permeate into the slates of mini-majors and big studios. Almost every one of my peers carries a special movie from this period like a badge of honor, from the rule-breaking anarchy of Pulp Fiction and Fight Club to the hilarious pleasures of Clerks and Rushmore. My personal 90s movie though, is The Usual Suspects.
When I was in college, and I wanted to impress people that asked to borrow a movie, this was always my go-to VHS. Christopher McQuarrie's punchy but labyrinthine script accompanies Bryan Singer's direction, which manages to be showy and gloriously subtle at the same time. The end result manages to catch lightning in a bottle; a 90s crime thriller with a HUGE twist ending that never stops being riveting and doesn't seem to age poorly like many of its 90s brethren.
The key, of course, is the Keyser Soze twist.
Where other twists lose their luster, The Usual Suspects just begs for more viewings. Catching more clues every time out simply makes the movie that much more of an entertaining challenge. For my money, I'll never have a twist ending that affects me quite like this one did. This movie made me fan of all involved, even Stephen Baldwin for a short time. The Usual Suspects (and his other 1995 criminal-breakout, Seven) also ended up making me a Kevin Spacey fan for life.
9. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
So in your mind, quickly think of your favorite director who's never made a bad movie. For me, that director is, and will probably always be Sergio Leone. Seven for seven, with movies ranging from entertaining studio quickies (The Colossus of Rhodes) to three unquestionable epic masterpieces (Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, and this film).
So what is it that makes this film so special? Is it the combination of a hall of fame director and the action icon of his generation in his most memorable role? Is it Ennio Morricone and the best movie score of all time? Perhaps it's the David Lean-level cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli? Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef at their slimy best? The epic battle sequences? The tense gunfights? I'll tell you what. It's all of it.
To watch the third film in the Man with No Name Trilogy is to watch the Spaghetti Western as a genre blossom to its full potential. You also see its main character go from simple antihero to figure of pure myth, as Clint Eastwood himself goes from rising star to screen legend. The western has rarely been grimier or more beautiful, and rarely has its scope been more epic.
On top of this, Leone is a man in complete control of his craft. For this, look no further than the movie's violence, or should I say, its anticipation of violence. The director holds you in the palm of his hand, over and over, waiting for death to be dealt out. Rarely though, is it given out immediately. Instead, Leone holds his climaxes of ferocity back, like a circus wrangler hanging on to a tiger by the tail. With all his might, he holds the beast back as long as he can, until miraculously it seems, the tension releases; his operatic crescendos finally reaching their peak, and then quick relief. Then at the end, standing alone, is a Man with No Name, a smoking gun in his hand and an audience captivated in amazement.
8. Blade Runner
I believe my first exposure to Blade Runner was when I was a child, walking in as my father was watching a copy on an old Beta-max machine we owned at the time. He rushed me out of the room, thinking the movie was too violent for my young mind, and I was slightly disturbed by the snippet I was able to catch, as the sight of the man I knew as Han Solo was getting beat up by what looked like an attractive albino woman in a leotard. The movie did make an impression though. The memory came back to me a decade later as I rented a copy of the picture’s Director’s Cut on VHS.
The movie’s importance was also not lost on me due to the fact that in a sea of fullscreen VHS movies in my local Movie Warehouse, it seemed to be the only movie in the establishment that demanded to be in letterboxed format. My knowledge in the difference in aspect ratios was still in its infancy at the time, but by god if you were going to watch Blade Runner, you were going to have to watch this new and improved Director’s Cut and you were going to have to watch it in widescreen! No shabby aspect ratio’s here!
What I found as I popped in the tape was the same thing I’ve found on every subsequent viewing whether on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray or luckily twice in the theater for the movie’s new Ultimate Cut; 117 minutes of pure, main-lined sci-fi wonderment. Who would ever want to watch this movie in a Pan and Scan version that cut off its gorgeous visuals? Ridley Scott's best film is like a fever dream (or nightmare) of what a dystopian future should look like. Has there ever been a film that influenced the look of a particular genre in the way that Blade Runner has? Where Star Trek made us look to the bright, ultra-clean, Gene Roddenberry-promised future of giving into our best instincts, Blade Runner promised us the cities of a very much darker, but also a believably relatable future. These are the cities that our human nature is taking us to. They're implications are terrifying, but Scott's compositions are mesmerizing in their intricate beauty.
Within this city is a world filled with Sci-fi punks and future-noir heroes and villains, with Harrison Ford giving one of his most nuanced performances as Rick Deckard. Clad in a brown trench-coat that would look just as much at home in a 1940s Howard Hawks thriller as it does here, Deckard is a blade runner; a cop whose special mission is to eliminate replicants( specially bred clones designed for paramilitary and hard labor purposes) who are loose in the city and must be eliminated.
The magnificence of Blade Runner though, is that it isn't some fast paced action extravaganza, a la The Matrix, but rather at its heart the film manages to be an exemplary Noir in Sci-fi clothing. Scott's moody storytelling is matched by Ford's low-key, sorrowfully lonely performance, while Rutger Hauer's replicant leader nearly steals the whole movie. I say nearly, because no performance could be more memorable than the world Ridley Scott creates in this movie.
7. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE
There seemed to be a collective sentiment that emerged this year as Tom Holland and Ben Affleck took on the respective mantles of Spider-Man and Batman, that the comic book versions of those characters had finally reached the big screen like they never had before. While I'm sure there are fans of Tobey Maguire, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale (as well as other onscreen Web-Heads and Dark Knights), the superhero portrayals from Affleck and Holland seemed to finally be the definitive versions of these characters that fans had been clamoring for.
On the other hand though, I noticed that while he's hugely underrated in the role, the same overtures have not been made towards Henry Cavill since he debuted as Superman in 2013's Man of Steel, and Brandon Routh was handed not much better notices when he donned the big read S in the 2006’s Superman Returns. It’s not that either of these performances were bad, but they were far from being the absolute versions of this character. I think a lot of this also has to do with the fact that the seemingly iconic version of Krypton's last son had already hit screens decades before, and as good as Cavill and Routh are, no one could fill the cape and tights of Big Blue quite like Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner's escapist tour de force, Superman: The Movie.
Reeve is almost impossibly likable and charming as the title character in this 1978 megahit, which showed us for the first time just how powerful it could be to accurately bring comic cook panels to life in a motion picture. Where others might have looked silly in the red and blue tights, the actor is positively natural, bringing with him an authority and more importantly, a true sincerity to the Man of Steel. Not only that, his Clark Kent is a marvel of physical comedy and comic timing; his slouching shoulders and stumbling doing more to make us believe no one would mistake him for the Last Son of Krypton than any pair of glasses could. Reeve is so good he completely steals the movie from any of his highly paid co-stars, including legends Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman.
Reeve’s Superman works for the same reason that Donner’s Superman: The Movie works; reverence for the material and the character both on screen and on the page. Kal-El is a character of wonder, imagination and a force for ultimate goodness. His story is portrayed with the right verisimilitude to avoid being campy, but still has that “lighter than air” quality to its film making that I usually only associate with best adventures of Lucas and Spielberg. Sure, Superman can turn the world around backwards, but it takes phenomenal storytelling to make you believe it.
6. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
I’ve never had an experience quite like the one I had while watching Saving Private Ryan for the first time. Here was a big summer release from the man who had just brought us Jurassic Park, The Indiana Jones Trilogy, and E.T. Spielberg’s serious side had won him his Best Director Oscar for Schindler’s List a few years before, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of what was to come. At the end of the movie, my theater was in complete silence, respectfully moving towards the exit until we all filed out. As I finally reached my car, I completely broke down once inside, my hands shaking and tears streaming uncontrollably as the power of the director's movie ultimately washed over me.
As the film begins, Spielberg’s depiction of the D-Day Normandy Invasion is the truest representation of military combat ever committed to celluloid. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski pin you to the back of your seat as the battle swirls around you, the use of handheld camera and hyper-real photography putting you right in the action. Spielberg's brilliance though, comes from undercutting of this excitement with terrible, unflinching horror as thousands of men get cut down in relentlessly violent, grosteque, inhuman warfare. He rips your guts out emotionally while literally doing it to his characters onscreen.
Spielberg switches gears post-battle to a more streamlined Kurosawa-esque adventure. Tom Hanks' Captain Miller leads a small band of troops into enemy territory to find Private James Ryan, the last survivor in a family of four brothers killed in the Allied Invasion of Europe. Though the film has plenty of action, especially during the film's climactic battle, the picture's main strength is how intimate this movie feels despite its epic backdrop. Though the film is set in WWII, it takes many of its queues from Seven Samurai, carefully getting to know his characters and making you feel for them rather than rely on wartime caricatures. As their numbers dwindle and their journey takes them through enemy territory, you feel each sacrifice they've made until they finally make their last stand in a remote village where they must defend against a horde of Nazis and Panzer tanks.
Its Spielberg’s commitment to character that makes the film's climax work, as each soldier that dies hits you like a explosive shell to the head. Men you have grown to love get slaughtered in front you, making this final sequence just as effective as the massive assault at the film's onset, only tearing your heart out to an even greater degree because you've invested so much time in their journey and stories.
Make no mistake, Saving Private Ryan is Steven Spielberg at his absolute finest, and an achievement that cemented his stature as the world's greatest living film maker.
So that's it for now, see you guys soon with the second half of the list!