Thursday, June 10, 2010

10 Unlikely Favorites

In the spirit of Ebert's Overlooked DVD column, here are ten movies I love that you might not have seen or heard of, or that simply deserve a second viewing.  They're not in any kind of order.

1) The Limey (1999), Steven Soderbergh

Ocean's 11 director Soderbergh infused this revenge genre piece with style and poignancy.  By casting two aging sixties icons--Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda--and lacing the soundtrack with the songs of their times, he connects their wistfulness for their own past to something broader in American consciousness.  The Who's The Seeker plays like a theme song to the film, suggesting something more existential about Stamp's quest to avenge his daughter's death, and sounding pretty cool when Soderbergh has Stamp walk in slow motion to its cadences Reservoir Dogs-style.

2) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Frank Oz

Scoundrels spins two con-men's bet into a farce of dueling, manic wits.  Steve Martin puts on perhaps his best uptight-unhinged performance (it's up there with Planes, Trains and Automobiles), and Michael Caine provides the unctuous-outrageous counterpoint.  It wrings many laughs from these men's absurd commitment to their cons, which includes a great moment where Martin--pretending to be a crippled navy veteran--drags himself across a beach in a staged attempted suicide.  Dirty and rotten, indeed.

3) Collateral (2004), Michael Mann

Boistered by a dark, off-type bad guy performance by Tom Cruise, Mann's Collateral may be the best of the semi-Hitchcockian thrillers of the last decade.  Jamie Foxx, pre-Ray, shines as the Jimmy Stewart everyman who finds himself trapped by a dark and morally twisting conundrum:  drive a hit man from hit to hit in your cab for good money, or you'll be shot.  Mann applies the gritty, on-the-street feel he developed in his epic crime melodrama Heat and yields a neo-noirish, ultimately small film about an average man who has to rise to the occasion of unusually critical circumstances.

4) Porco Rosso (1992), Hayao Miyazaki

This seems to be the Miyazaki no one has seen or heard of, but it ranks near the top of his filmography above less satisfying pieces like Castle in the Sky and Howl's Moving Castle.  It follows a lost generation type World War I flying ace who has turned to bounty hunting to cash in on his unrivaled aeronautic prowess.  Michael Keaton provides a great world-weary, rugged man spin to the character in the English dub, who is an idealist who has more or less given up on a happy life and settled into success and isolation--the internal component of the curse he carries which made him into an anthropomorphized pig.  The movie lyrically combines quietly observed stillness and frenetic aerial excitement, and Porco has to come to terms with himself and the women he won't allow to love him.

5) Zodiac (2007), David Fincher

Rather than the aestheticized ritual murders of se7en or the aestheticized ritual brawls of Fight Club, Fincher here aestheticizes the police procedural.  Fact by fact from the real-life case of San Francisco's 1970's serial killer, he lays out the story of the murders and the men who tried to apprehend their perpetrator.  It's full of mood, eerie cinematography and strong performances from Downey Jr., Gyllenhal and the rest of the cast.  It shows a quest for justice that has none of the satisfaction of a typical revenge thriller (note the pointed references to Dirty Harry) and that proves a long self-destructive process for those who stick with it.  For a film about a serial killer, there is hardly any gore although the two or three murder scenes do manage to jangle the nerves.

6) Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Joel Coen

What if a divorce attorney pursued a scheming man-eater of a divorcee?  This premise drives the Coens' imperfect but often hilarious genre riff on old school screwball comedies.  Granted, Clooney and Zeta-Jones do not zip in their scenes together, but strong supporting performances from Cedric the Entertainer, Billy Bob Thornton and Geoffrey Rush crackle with comic absurdity.  Also, Clooney's banter with his right hand man provides some quotable fast-talking comic bits.  It's uneven, but when the effeminate Eurotrash Heinz, the baron, Kraus-von-Espy comes on stage--well, it's worth the price of admission.

7) The Color of Money (1986), Martin Scorsese

Possibly the best movie about pool hustling you could hope for.  I remember being disappointed with Rounders, the Ed Norton/Matt Damon movie about card sharks, and I think Color supersedes its successor by playing to its actors strengths and having a whiz-bang visual stylist like Marty behind the camera.  Paul Newman, reprising his role from The Hustler (1961), plays an old pro tired of the sport and rich from selling booze.  He takes young hotshot Tom Cruise under his wing; the movie wisely takes the annoying edge off Cruise's trademark intensity by making it a liability needing to be trained rather than simply unleashed.  He is a stallion that needs to be broken, Newman his grizzled ranch-hand.  The performances are believable, un-pretentious; the drama stays meaningful by ultimately having to do with Newman's choices at the end of his career rather than a simple help-the-hotshot-to-win father-son narrative.

8) The Life Aquatic (with Steve Zissou) (2004), Wes Anderson

Anderson's films combine storybook artificiality with melancholy to affect wistfulness for lost childhoods and unrealized dreams.  If you dig this shtick you'll tend to like his work, otherwise you probably "don't get it."  Aquatic's narrative may be the most self-consciously artificial of Anderson's creations, but it has it both ways by being about a man whose real life and on screen life have bled together so that he lives vicariously through his celebrity self-image.  Bill Murray has enough big-hearted melancholy--as bastardly as it may make him in this film--to carry the story; Owen Wilson comes in as the (maybe) son-figure who becomes instrumental in Zissou's grasp of his inner child and eventual coming-to-terms with his "real" self.  All this is set against the backdrop of a cartoonish oceanic expedition with twee fluorishes like acoustic David Bowie covers sung in Portuguese in character by Seu Jorge.  To me, the Sigur Ros scored climax still rings transcendent, though those without a taste for the films sad childishness probably won't find it emotionally resonant.

9) The Hunt for Red October (1989), John McTiernan

In some ways this is the perfect film.  A world on the brink of nuclear disaster.  A rogue Russian captain commanding a first-strike capable silent submarine.  A gutsy and snarky CIA analyst played by Alec Baldwin.  It's eminently watchable genre material, a political-military thriller with Sean Connery's brogue standing in for the otherwise Russian-twinged English among his crew.  It's corny-good, Saturday afternoon fare, one of the movies I watched in awe as a child that still entertains today.  I'm always up for the threat of nuclear holocaust (in movies) and am ready for an Ocotober/Strangelove double-feature.

10) In Bruges (2008), Martin McDonagh

Two Irish hit men sight see in Bruges, "the most well-preserved medieval city in Europe."  This black comic thriller contrasts the centuries old serenity of the setting with the violent lifestyles of its visitors.  Brendan Gleeson plays an older gunman responsible for Colin Farrell's newbie who has been sent away from London after botching his first assignment.  Gleeson enjoys the sights with serenity of having accepted his life, while Farrell is all nervous guilt and manic energy and can't stand the boredom of the town.  Ralph Fiennes comes in, third act, as boss and bad guy, announcing the climax over the fourth wall, "This is the shootout."  He plays his gangster alpha male with unhinged intensity that will have you laughing in disbelief.  The film is ironic, clever, violent and very, very profane.  It's an acquired taste, but, like good whiskey, it's oh-so-good going down once you've dealt with the unpleasant sensation you get at first.

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