The holiday season is almost over, so I thought an easy "Top 10" style article would be a good present to myself. In retrospect, I spent more time on this stupid article than anything else I've written recently (I started before Thanksgiving), but nevertheless I'm determined to exhibit the underwhelming result. In light of the coming new year, I've decided to do the least relevant thing I could think of and make some lists of the best movies in my favorite genres from before the turn of the century (specifically the 70's, 80's and 90's). I've limited the lists to color films in the English language to avoid slipping into a coma of pretentiousness, and for the sake of variety I've limited directors to one entry in each category (so Lynch only gets one Brain Bender and Carpenter only gets one Horror). These are movies which have withstood the test of time and which anyone interested in the genre should love. Hopefully this will serve as a helpful tool for anyone looking for new old movies to watch in the new year. Or, you know, not. I'm just glad it's finally done.
(Aliens, Robots, and Spaceships)
Directed by: Ridley Scott, James Cameron.
Oh great. The first item on the list and I've already cheated. The problem is that both of these movies are eminently watchable and enjoyable every time you turn them on. Ridley Scott's original Alien is a tense horror journey whereas James Cameron's sequel Aliens is a fun action roller coaster. The seven years between the two doesn't make a big difference in terms of the special effects: the confined interiors of Scott's original lend a feeling of claustrophobia perfect for horror, while Cameron's use exteriors with bigger budget model work adds to his film's sense of adventure. Each has its own role to play and performs admirably. If you're on the squeamish side, Aliens is a great choice and can be watched without needing to see the first. It gives you all the background you need to understand what happened, and then moves on to tell its own story without being too nostalgic. If you can take a little blood and guts, however, definitely give the original a try.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
You can hardly mention classic sci-fi without Stanley Kubrick's landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey coming up, but I imagine most people who haven't seen it yet remain skeptical despite this fact. 2001 turns 45 this year, so how could it possibly compete with today's CGI? The funny thing is, the classic technique of using intricate models and shooting them up close often looks more realistic than the computer-generated competition. The models are real things being shot with real cameras and lights so you don't have to fuss around in post-production to make it "look" real. A much more important concern with this movie is whether or not you enjoy brainy sci-fi. This is not a Transformers sequel, and as such it spends time on things other than action and violence. And don't worry, we'll understand if you fast forward through the monkeys.
Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Yeah, yeah, I know I said one director per category, but that first one was shared with James Cameron, and more people are going to like his movie anyway since it's not as scary or gory as Ridley's. In any case, fans of science fiction really ought to see this movie as it presents one of the most awe-inspiring dystopian visions of the future. Like 2001 before it, Blade Runner focuses less of its energy on action than Aliens, so modern viewers expecting an explosion fest should probably stay away. This movie plays out more like a classical film noir detective story with its moody shadows and slow pace. Since the movie came out in the wake of the second Star Wars and the first Indiana Jones, audiences expected a different performance from Harrison Ford, so this movie was dismissed for years before being rediscovered for its gorgeous imagery and deep themes of humanity and identity. It's well worth the second chance.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Directed by: Luc Besson
The Fifth Element is easily the quirkiest of the sci-fi movies I've ever seen. I may not like CGI where modeling would look better, but here the poor computer graphics work to the movie's advantage and give it a distinctly campy vibe. The story revolves around the mysterious character Leeloo who seems to hold some key to saving the universe from destruction and arrives on scene wearing... well not very much, that's for sure. On top of that we get what is probably the most ridiculous performance Chris Rock has ever given. In more serious terms, The Fifth Element presents an immersive and detailed vision of the future with an effective combination of action, adventure, and comedy. Gary Oldman's antagonist is truly menacing (even if in a slightly odd way) and the pacing is perfect. If you can stand its occasional silliness, this movie may just become an instant favorite.
Directed by: George Lucas, Irvin Kershner
A list of the best science fiction films would be incomplete without at least a mention of the original Star Wars movies, although I imagine anybody fond of the series already has a copy. And then even if they don't it's hard to find a proper version of the movie without spending a small fortune. Each time a new version of Star Wars was released, George Lucas added more CGI nonsense into the movies (see my discussion in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and now if you want a version without his interference it's almost impossible to find anything higher quality than the 1993 LaserDisc release. Finding a copy for hardcore fans aside, if you're looking for an epic space adventure it's hard to beat George Lucas's tale of a young man who decides to become a part of something bigger than himself. Let's just not talk about where the series went as we entered the new millenium and focus our new hope for the future.
(Gore, Undead, and Jump Scares)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Right away this will probably tell you that I'm not incredibly interested in psychological, religious, or atmospheric horror. For me it's all about the body horror, and for this subgenre it's hard to go far wrong with David Cronenberg. Videodrome is unique because it's probably his most incomplete movie and because to some extent it is itself the thing which it critiques. This movie examines the dangers of violent and pornographic media and their influence on the mind, and while I think it's an argument which has been sufficiently discredited today it still provides fertile ground for the seeds of horror. Videodrome plays with the idea that we're not in total control of what goes in inside our heads, and this idea is more terrifying than any sort of zombie/vampire/alien thing. This movie doesn't need cheap jump scares because the fear comes from the ideas it explores. Oh yeah, and the gory prosthetic gun hand and vagina stomach. Those are cool too.
The Shining (1980)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Alright, I know I said I don't normally enjoy atmospheric horror, but how can you say no to Stanley Kubrick? His filming is impeccable, the tension slowly builds to its terrifying crescendo, and the soundtrack is creepy and unique. I've heard both ends of the spectrum with this one: I know people who genuinely found it not scary and weren't trying to just be macho or stoic, but I also know people who can't watch it without having nightmares for weeks. Unlike most horror there are no inhuman monsters, the menace is limited to the loss of humanity in the protagonist. There's also an absolutely amazing balance of gore. There's almost no blood in any of the early scenes even when things begin to ramp up towards the end, but then when the gore does come in it's relentless. This balance and Jack's growing madness create a sense of the darkness lingering just beneath the surface, and this ominous tone is what makes the movie truly terrifying.
The Thing (1982)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Choosing just one of John Carpenter's fabulous horror movies is incredibly difficult, but for me the choice had to be The Thing. I love the original Halloween, but the amazing prosthetics and special effects in The Thing are exactly what I'm looking for from a horror movie. While the special effects may look a bit silly by today's standards, don't let that fool you. The Thing is at least as scary as more modern horror films, and the best part about it is that it doesn't rely on cheap surprises to amp up the tension. The horror of this movie comes from the ideas within it: the idea that, like with Videodrome, what lies underneath our innocent exterior is something unimaginable, revolting, and ultimately even inhuman. The Thing is the physical embodiment of one of humanity's worst fears, and Carpenter's vision of the monstrosity is as horrific as it is campy.
Directed by: Peter Jackson
If you're confused by the poster's title, fret not, the movie simply had to be retitled Dead Alive in North America because of the title Braindead had already been taken (by a lesser film of course). Before making his famous adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson made some wonderfully excessive, gore-splattered horror comedies, the best and most famous of which is this wonderfully over the top undead romp. This is my favorite of the ones I've seen, but saying that it feels the most polished seems somewhat counterintuitive. This movie is absolutely crazy from start to finish, and its lighthearted and silly attitude towards violence and death is anything but tasteful. If you can enjoy its twisted sense of humor, however, it's a wonderfully fun and unique experience.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
This might not be the most popular choice since I know many people think Tarantino's acting tends to be self indulgent and over the top, but I think seeing George Clooney in this role should pretty much make up for any of the movie's shortcomings. He plays the tattooed and surprisingly moralistic criminal Seth Gecko who, alongside his brother Richie, fall deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole until they find themselves fighting vampires. Bear with me for a second: I know nowadays you hear vampires and all you can think of is the popular vampire craze brought on by the now infamous vampire romance novels, but this movie has nothing to do with that. Rodriguez's vampires are killed by stakes and sunlight, and more importantly are evil, ruthless, and occasionally seductive monsters who will stop at nothing to get what they need. From Dusk Till Dawn also features many Rodriguez regulars, so fans of the director should feel right at home.
(Detectives, Criminals, and Murders)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Directed by: Bryan Singer
I'm not totally sure how I'm supposed to talk about movies like this without giving away spoilers, but rest assured I'd rather say nothing than too much. The Usual Suspects in my mind is the best instance of the classic whodunit formula. There's a big explosion on a boat and only two people survive, one of them in a coma. The police interview the other, a criminal who explains the story leading up to the incident on the boat and how he became an unwitting participant in something much bigger than himself. The acting especially from Kevin Spacey is absolutely amazing, and the film has a good sense of humor which helps lighten the load of the narrative tension. If you're looking for the modern classic of detective stories, this is it. And did I mention Kevin Spacey is in it? Yeah, you shouldn't really need more reason than that to want to see this movie.
Directed by: David Fincher
From the traditional detective mystery that is The Usual Suspects we go to the much darker, more ominous, and frankly scarier world of David Fincher's Se7en. If you're not a fan of gory movies then you should definitely pass on this one. A psychotic serial killer is murdering people who represent the seven deadly sins, and let's just say that the method of their murders also reflects the given sin. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are two overplayed cop stereotypes—the young, wild, ambitious new detective and the older, wiser, just-one-more-job-before-retirement officer—but the stereotypes work based on the strength of the acting and because they're inevitably overshadowed by the grimness of the plot anyway. Fincher's dark lighting and moody cinematography match the story perfectly. And if you don't already know what's in the box, for your own sake don't go looking for answers before watching.
The Conversation (1974)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Easily in contention for best detective movie of all time, The Conversation comes from the best director of its decade at a time when he was at the top of his game (this is two years after The Godfather and five years before Apocalypse Now). It is, of course, not strictly speaking about a detective. Harry Caul is a "surveillance and security technician," which is a nice way of saying he spies on people for money. He's the best at what he does, but problems arise when he discovers he may be involved in a murder. The plot sounds pretty formulaic when simplified, but don't be fooled by the forest when the reason to watch this movie is for the trees. The camerawork is brilliant, Gene Hackman's acting is generally subdued but powerful when it needs to be, and the minimalism of the story makes the film's climax that much more powerful.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Directed by: Curtis Hanson
L.A. Confidential not only presents an effective film noir detective story updated for a modern audience, it somehow manages to do so while capturing much of what made the 40's such a touchstone for Hollywood. In these movies there are two halves to every world: the (supposedly) good, shining beacon of hope and justice, and the (supposedly) bad, seedy underbelly of drugs and crime. Here the former is embodied by the police and the latter by Fleur-de-lis (an escort service), but the way the story plays out shows how these two worlds are never separated as clearly as you think. There's also a subtle critique of Hollywood worked into the background. The movie is wonderfully acted by its all-star cast of Guy Pearce (in his first really big role), Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, and Danny DeVito (with James Cromwell and David Strathairn working in the background) and is really a must-see for fans of detective fiction.
Directed by: William Friedkin
Between this and The Conversation you might get the impression that I'm just a big Gene Hackman fan, which is partially true, but these are really just two great movies he happens to be in. While Hackman's acting alongside Roy Schneider (four years before Jaws) is wonderful and served as a breakout role for him, one of the best reasons to check out this 70's classic is its cinematography. Owen Roizman shot a huge variety of memorable films from The Exorcist (1973) to Network (1976) to Tootsie (1982). His extreme wide angle establishing shots wonderfully showcase the film's on-location shooting, but the DP is also smart enough to bring the camera in close when necessary. The story is of an obsessively dedicated detective determined to discover the corruption he knows lies just underneath the surface of society, but the film's ending will make you question whether the punishment is equal to the crime.
(Mystery, Confusion, and Doubt)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Yeah, I know I said color movies only, but this was made in the color era, so that should count right? In any case, Pi is the first feature film from the now famous director Darren Aronofsky, perhaps recently most renowned for the lesser of his two character studies, Black Swan. Pi boasts truly stunning black and white photography and an amazing performance from Sean Gullette. The story begins with Max's research on pi and its relation to the stock market, but from there it develops into full blown film about obsession and the lengths we go to in order to find mental tranquility. As with the detective stories, it's a little difficult to explain the appeal of these movies without spoiling them, so if you're curious just take my word for it, these movies are all enjoyable philosophically and cinematically.
Directed by: David Lynch
Okay, this movie is also in black and white (and coincidentally is also a good director's debut feature film), but the point was to limit myself to more contemporary films, and in that regard Eraserhead definitely qualifies. On top of that, the movie does more with its two colors than most movies do with the whole spectrum of light. Anyway, if you want to see a David Lynch film in color, there are plenty of other options. I keep coming back to Eraserhead in part because of the beautiful cinematography, but more relevantly because this is a film that can be interpreted in many different ways. Lynch himself has said that the movie is about his experience living in Philadelphia, whereas Todd McGowan has analyzed the movie in terms of its presentation of the fears of fatherhood. There is no one right answer for this one, and that's part of its magic.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Directed by: David Cronenberg
In the interest of full disclosure, it took me several tries to actually finish this movie. Actually, you know what, that probably sells this movie better than anything I'm about to say. This and Enter The Void are the only two movies I've ever turned off because they were too much for me to handle at the time. This movie isn't hard to figure out so much as it is just really weird and unsettling. Like Adaptation. (2002), Naked Lunch is less of a direct recreation of the book it's based on and more a story of the author who wrote it, but it puts a much more surreal spin on things. This is a tale of the protagonist's attempt to reconcile his homosexuality, his depression, and his addiction all at the same time, and the unique Cronenberg style really makes this one a confusing, disturbing, and—if you're crazy enough for it—enjoyable. Also, it features Bilbo Baggins (the first one), Roy Schneider again, and RoboCop. As if it wasn't strange enough in concept.
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
If Schizopolis isn't the funniest comedy you ever see, it will probably at least be the most original. Beginning with the opening scene—where Steven Soderbergh not only addresses the audience but also addresses the issue of addressing the audience—you know you're watching something special. The movie arguably has a plot (about a man who works as a speechwriter for a pseudo-religious cult-like organization), but what actually happens in the movie is far from story-oriented and sort of has to be seen to be believed. There's this famous scene where Soderbergh makes faces in a mirror before being interrupted by and ignoring a depressed coworker, there are Monty Python-esque transition sequences, and then there are the parts where all the specifics fall out of the dialogue and characters talk to each other in generalizations. If you like Soderbergh's more serious work you really owe it to yourself to check out this oddity.
Fight Club (1999)
Directed by: David Fincher
Last place was a tie between two movies the entire planet has already "figured out" by now, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense (coincidentally both released the same year), but both of these movies really are great surprises for anyone who doesn't already know the ending. Fight Club broke the tie because it couches its twist in a movie ripe with (amateur) philosophy, whereas The Sixth Sense is a pretty simple (albeit gripping) horror movie until the ending. Fight Club might get flak for being That Movie That Blew Your Mind In High School, but we all have to grow up sometime. Even if the film is ultimately a ladder you must throw away after climbing up on it, it is pretty undeniably the best method of doing so. It's also, you know, a good movie with solid acting and cinematography. David Fincher knows what he's doing.