32. Blazing Saddles: I recently caught an episode of the Rockford Files that costarred Cleavon Little (RIP James Garner, by the way). Cleavon didn’t do a lot of television or movies, probably because no one was offering him parts as interesting as the classical roles he was doing on Broadway. Still, he often the best part of anything he was in, which in Blazing Saddles meant he was the best part of a whole lot of funny. Mel Brooks’s strategy in Blazing Saddles is to throw as much insanely funny stuff at the screen as he can and never allow the audience to breathe. (This strategy would later be adopted by the Zucker, Abrams, Zucker team for Airplane, The Naked Gun, and Top Secret.) The movie is so quotable that you’ll spend the next decade after seeing it repeating its lines, from “It’s twue! It’s twue!” to “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives” to this, which I use whenever I see those people at the Texas border yammering about shooting immigrants:
What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny”? “Make yourself at home”? “Marry my daughter”? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.
33. Bound: Everyone has stories they’re suckers for. I’m a sucker for noir movies. I’m a sucker for gangster pictures. I’m a sucker for heists. Bound is all these, centered around a lesbian couple who navigate tricky issues of trust to liberate millions from the gangster husband of one of them. The movie has one of the sharpest seduction scenes I’ve ever seen on film (a fun twist on the “inviting the maintenance person over to fix the sink” fantasy), tons of smart dialog, and a set of lock picks so imaginative it’ll have to be continued on the next set of lock picks. See it.
34. Life of Brian: Another insanely sharp comedy, and really my favorite of the Monty Python pictures, following the life of faux Messiah Brian Cohen, son of Naughteous Maximus. From its Latin Graffiti lessons to Brian’s accidental fall into religious leadership, to his sermon to his flock to his crucifixion, the movie is a brilliant political and religious satire that we’ll still be watching in 100 years. Remember, we’re all individuals, except for that one guy.
35. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Tim Burton’s style is always memorable, even when he doesn’t have a good story backing him up. This time, he has the story, one right in his wheelhouse, and he gets all he can out of it. The movie tweaks the musical. There’s no chorus of victims singing “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”, and Tobias Ragg is rewritten to be less of a simpleton, but the tale of Sweeney Todd’s well motivated but ultimately ruinous revenge odyssey is told with a shocking amount of power. Alan Rickman is a splendid Judge Turpin, and though Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter won’t make us forget Len Cariou (or George Hearn) and Angela Lansbury, they reinvent the characters for the screen in a way that reminds us that, whatever they are now, there was a time when they were something else, before life ground them up (pun intended).
36. The Dark Knight: One of my first picks for this list was the 1977 Superman movie, which I think captures the essence of why we love Superman. The Dark Knight is here to remind us, if not why we love Batman, at least why we respond to him psychologically. We’d like to believe that we could throw ourselves into combat against grotesque evil while never losing our belief in human goodness or our own moral code. But The Dark Knight does more. It tells us what Batman would like to believe in–the hero with the face, Harvey Dent. That’s what makes Heath Ledger’s Joker role work. He ends up representing a challenge to both. That’s why this movie matters.
37. Airplane: Ah, the ZAZ team! They took a script from a moderately watchable airplane thriller–Zero Hour—gave it the MST3K treatment ten years before the existence of MST3K, and gave their best riffs to the actors. (Oh, and they added a disco scene from Saturday Night Fever and a beach scene from From Here To Eternity). They took anything for a laugh and modified to anything-three-to-four-times-simultaneously-for-the-sake-of-a-laugh-you’ll-have-to-watch-this-twenty-two-times-to-get-all-the-jokes. I don’t know where I’ll be when people stop laughing at this movie, but I won’t smell too good, that’s for sure.
38. The Candidate: An idealistic lawyer, and son of a former California governor, has a chat with a Democratic campaign manager who wants him to take on an ostensibly unbeatable senator. The campaign manager promises the lawyer that he can be his own man and say whatever he wants. The guarantee is written on the back of a matchbook: “You Lose”. The lawyer starts out doing just that, but soon, fearing general election humiliation after a disappointing primary victory, he starts trying to win. And that’s when he gradually loses himself. The Candidate is my favorite look inside a political campaign. (Yes, even The War Room comes second.) It’s smart. It’s funny, and it ends with the most important of all questions, one which campaign managers seldom answer.
39. Cabaret: My taste in musicals tends to run dark, and what could be darker than a musical set during the tumult of late Weimar Germany, as Hitler’s rise began. Liza Minnelli and Michael York star as a showgirl and a teacher of English as a Second Language, living in Berlin. At first, it seems like a haven for free spirited libertines, with the Nazi ugliness serving as discordant background noise. But over the course of the musical times change and shadows fall, impacting, in ways both subtle and terrible, the lives of this couple and their friends. I also admire Ebb and Fosse’s Chicago. But this one works on more levels.
40. Full Metal Jacket: I have a cousin who is said to have said that this was the movie that inspired him to join the Marines. Having seen this movie a dozen times, I can’t claim to understand that attraction, but I do love and admire the movie. The movie says to me that to survive war a soldier doesn’t just have to do terrible things, a soldier must become terrible. He must divest himself of all humane values if he’s to become what the Corps requires–an indestructible man, a man without fear. Kubrick doesn’t answer the question of what it means to live in a civilization whose survival depends on manufacturing men like this. Instead, he leaves it for us to ponder, which I’ve done even since I saw this picture.
41. Eyes Wide Shut: The critic for the Seattle PI, William Arnold, said of this movie that he didn’t really like it now, but he knew he would in 10 years. Such is often the way with Kubrick’s films. As Vincent Canby said of Kubrick’s work:
The best Kubrick films – “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon” – are always somewhat off-putting when first seen. They’re never what one has expected.
Certainly Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t what audiences were expecting. Tabloid and the lazy entertainment writers who work for them, spread all manner of rumors about the project, starring Tom Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman. One that I remember was that the couple were supposed to play psychiatrists who sleep with their patients. Some of these scribblers did notice that the movie was based on an Arthur Schnitzler novella called Traumnovelle, (literally, Dream Novel, surprise), but nobody bothered to do what I did: bop on over to the University library to read it.
I liked Eyes Wide Shut when it came out. It wasn’t the erotic screwfest the tabloids wanted. It has an orgy scene, but it’s alternately comic or disturbing instead of sexy. The love scene between Cruise and Kidman is brief and tasteful, and the fantasy scene between Kidman’s character and the naval officer functions as motivation to Cruise’s character during his strange two-day odyssey through New York City’s weirder after hours haunts. I liked the movie’s dream-like quality. I loved meeting the strange people he met. It’s a movie that made me wonder, and has kept me wondering, ever since.
42. Wall-E: To get here without giving a shout-out to Pixar. I couldn’t do it. And Wall-E is my favorite Pixar picture. I love its depiction of the home Wall-E makes of a desolated Earth. I love his curiosity and affection for musical numbers. (I was in a production of Hello Dolly once.) I adore EVE. I love the starship stuff and the Captain who thinks you can plant pizza. In fact, I think I’ll go watch it again. Excuse me.
Anyway, that’s it. If you like, try this exercise yourself on your own blogs or on Facebook or wherever. Link to it in comments to let the reading several know where to find it.