32. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
A young gigolo travels from Texas to New York City to make his fortune, after being repeatedly ripped off he befriends Ratso a crippled drifter and the two of them attempt to make their way in the world. With Schlesinger’s cross-cutting, flashing back and forward, colour-tinting and black and white sequences Midnight Cowboy can be a little jarring at first. This was the style of the time though, the same year as Easy Rider and a greater ‘youth culture’ movement in cinema. The cumulative effect of these techniques married with an excellent soundtrack is that you are really drawn into the confusing nature of Joe Buck’s move to New York. The dizzying descent into debt and desperation bottoms out in the freezing winter when the unlikely duo resort to pawning what they can to eat. Both actors (Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman) are superb, enacting a kind of modern Lenny and George duo – and an equally doomed arc of friendship.
Midnight Cowboy was a smash hit but, as good as it is, it’s difficult to see why. Homosexuality and the life of a borderline homeless drifter gigolo and his crippled sickly friend is a difficult sell. Perhaps there was a window for that film that might not exist now.
31. Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982)
Over the course of a week six friends make some pretty important decisions and go through a few life-changing events. Diner stars some very fresh-faced young talented actors Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon and Paul Reiser. Set in 1959 it takes in these friends as they begin to move into adulthood and the mistakes and confusion influence their choices. But that’s an incredibly dull way of describing the film. It doesn’t do it justice. What’s really impressive about Diner is the extent to which you can fall in with this group of friends, how far you feel part of their dynamic. It reminded me of the similar scope and effect of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused – shamelessly nostalgic without resorting to mawkish sentimentality. There is a genuine warmth and friendliness about the film that creates a sensation of belonging. It keys back into your life and reminds you of the dynamic you can have with a group of friends, with the lads (sadly I can only really approach this one from the male perspective folks). The films conclusion is the payoff, Levinson just lets the camera drift over the friends interacting. It’s beautiful and brilliant – it should remind you that your friends are a constantly evolving group and that every now and again you could look around them and just enjoy the banter.
30. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) #118 in IMDB top 250
Noir, filthy dirty noir. The Big Sleep is a stone cold classic noir film and it’s utterly disgraceful that I haven’t seen it up until now. All the clichés about American noir and detective movies came from this and a few other key films (Notably The Maltese Falcon). The Big Sleep takes place nominally in Los Angeles but this isn’t like any city in the real world. The city has a veneer of class shrouding a layer of sleaze and corruption that can seep out and infect the inhabitants at any point, and it frequently does. Humphrey Bogart, as Philip Marlowe, wades through this murky cityscape dodging and rounding the criminal underclass whilst charming every woman in sight. Lauren Bacall is the femme fatale whose involvement in the case expands at each twist and turn in the story Whenever Bogart and Bacall are onscreen at the same time the chemistry is palpable, they married shortly after the film wrapped. If you haven’t seen it – give it a watch and marvel at how much one film has integrated itself into our cultural consciousness and if you can fathom what actually happens in the film then let me know. Remarkably the author, Raymond Chandler, famously claimed to not know himself.
Note: The Big Sleep is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘LA Movies’.
Churchill: The Hollywood Years (Peter Richardson, 2004)
I continue to punish myself with dreary films. I wanted something funny and easy on a Sunday afternoon. Shame I put this on. The concept itself is amusing. The opening reveals that Winston Churchill wasn’t Britain’s brilliant wartime leader and genial drunk, instead he was an American G.I., played by the always watchable Christian Slater, who single-handedly brings down Adolf & chums inside the confines of Buckingham palace. His love interest is Princess Elizabeth Windsor, played by the rarely watchable Neve Campbell. Peppered with British comedy talent from Harry Enfield to Vic and Bob the film takes on the look of a poorly thought out series of sketches based around broad British stereotypes of how the Americans view England. Whilst trying to snare an American audience with the US cast members the film also attempts a sort of transatlantic humour; the satire of the concept meshes inadequately with the broad slapstick of the script. It just doesn’t work. Some of the cast look embarrassed about the whole thing and I was quite bored. Most of the comedy misses the sharpness of the individual talent involved – a fleeting glimpse of which is afforded in the out-takes played over the credits.
Time to up the quality levels methinks.
28. Bail Out (Max Kleven, 1989)
What? Why am I watching a David Hasselhoff film that went straight to VHS back in the late 80s? Well, why not?
Because it’s shit, that’s why not.
Partially funded by sportswear company Head, and, presumably, a cabal of coked up madmen, we follow a hapless twat called ‘Whitebread’ played by Hasselhoff. Alongside his ethnically diverse chums Blue and Bean, he completely fucks up every single thing he has to do in the quest to rescue the performance-handicapped midget Linda Blair. He even manages to do so with that shit-eating ‘I made Baywatch’ grin fixed on his annoyingly permed 80s head. In-between important plot developments you get some excellent slo-mo shots of the Hoff playing tennis in a variety of snazzy shell-suits.
It cost 97 pence from Tesco for a bloody good reason.
Thanks to Ed and Tom for putting up with this exceptional brand of shite with me. Particularly Ed who actually owns the thing.
27. Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)
Much as I complained about the way in which The Wrestler is being advertised in England I believe I have been sold Bug under false pretences. I was under the impression that this was a tense and explicit body horror that marked a welcome return to form for The Exorcist director Billy Friedkin. I wasn’t aware that Bug is in fact adapted from a stage play and that as a result it doesn’t play out as a typical horror film at all. Bug unfortunately failed to hold my attention at all. I suspect a portion of the blame is attributable to me but as I wasn’t expecting a stage adaptation I was disappointed with the lack of dynamism. Taking place over three distinct Acts there are leaps in the development of the characters that just doesn’t work as well cinematically. As for the acting Ashley Judd is excellent in a demanding role but I didn’t believe in Michael Shannon’s troubled CIA lab-rat nearly as much.
I’m afraid that as far as the horror nights go, a lack of action and an unappealing structure make this one a big fat fail.
26. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008) #90 in IMDB top 250
I’m unashamedly biased about Clint Eastwood films. I’m a big fan of the man’s body of work – especially the 70s stuff. I haven’t watched much of his recent films since the old-boys reunion Space Cowboys. In Gran Torino Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean war veteran whose wife has recently died leaving him living alone. Walt lives in a neighbourhood that is now predominantly inhabited by immigrant families. Next door is a Hmong family whose lives he gets entangled with when he scares off a local gang who bother their son Thao. Kowalski is however, a massive racist. Every other sentence is littered with a term of racial abuse and spat derisively in Eastwoods craggy breaking voice. Factor in that Walt Kowalski is perhaps the grumpiest character I’ve ever seen in a film and with any other actor/director you’d have a recipe for an unsympathetic offensive disaster. But with Eastwood at the helm the film is instead an amusing and moving morality play. The story is a little special for not being overtly sentimental and not conforming to any rite of passage cliché. In fact, I won’t spoil it but, something happens in this that is very rare in Eastwood films that I wasn’t expecting and that may indicate that the big fella is thinking of calling it a day.
It’s hugely enjoyable to watch Clint spit piss and fire at everyone he meets and the film is shot and edited in a patient, unhurried style that makes for a refreshing change of pace from most modern product. There is one blemish on the film though. The song that Clint sings over the closing credits is utterly dreadful. Should’ve gone for an actual singer instead pal.
25. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) #50 in IMDB top 250
Every now and again a role comes along that seems perfectly suited to an actor, a role that effectively mirrors their own life. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke has just such a role. Beaten and scarred ageing wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson struggles to hold his life together, estranged from his daughter, struggling to pay his trailer home rent and finally told by doctors that he has to quit wrestling. Rourke has effectively lived this story over the past 25 years and his face tells the story. Generic plot aside, you’re watching for the performances. As convincing as Rourke is he’s matched by Marisa Tomei whose stripper with a heart of gold, Cassidy, is Randy’s only friend. The pair of them are commodities – their bodies are their livelihood but they can no longer depend on them as their age finally catches up with them.
I have to admit to being completely bemused by the English advertising for the film. It’s focused on the, admittedly well filmed, wrestling sequences. Without prior knowledge you could be forgiven for thinking that this was the focus of the film, thankfully it isn’t. The Wrestler is an excellent character drama with very genuine performances and a worthy awards contender.
Note – I also adored the fist-pumping 80s cock-rock soundtrack particularly ‘Balls to the Wall’ by Accept. But that might just be me.
24. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)
Here I am with another in the long line of classics that I somehow managed to miss over the years. It’s pretty easy to see why this film has lasting appeal as I laughed out loud whilst sat in the house on my lonesome. It’s quotable, packed with gags both big and small and it doesn’t let up. Blazing Saddles takes the Western and embraces it, subverts it and finally perverts it. Cleavon Little is fantastic as the newly appointed Sheriff and Gene Wilder is an excellent foil. The rest of the film roars along until the slightly disappointing final scenes, once the sheriff is accepted by the townsfolk then the film understandably loses some of its zeal. That’s forgiven though as Blazing Saddles has retained its overall charm and most of its gags still hit.
Everyone has a favourite bit in a film like this, mine has to be ‘Where all the white women at?’ Yours?
Note: Blazing Saddles is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under ‘Comedies (American)’.
22. Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn, 2004)
So often an excellent trailer is followed months later by an average film. So I approached Layer Cake wondering if the reverse could be true as the trailer was abysmally off-putting. What a pleasant surprise it is to watch a smart film with an economical style and a very sturdy cast. Daniel Craig serves an admirable apprenticeship for his Bond role and Sienna Miller puts on some flash underwear (I’m not actually sure if she can act but she has decent career as a clothes horse to fall back on). Layer Cake deserves to join the clutch of decent modern British crime thrillers alongside Gangster No.1 and Sexy Beast. Matthew Vaughn has come a long way since being Guy Ritchie’s finance guy and has made a more watchable film than any of Ritchie’s recent dreck.
Tangent: Sorry to sound like a repetitive feminist but all the women in this are fucking rubbish characters, untrustworthy gobshites or mute eye-candy. What was the last decent female character in a British crime film, Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday?
23. Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948) #214 in IMDB top 250
Once again in the hands of the master, Rope is Hitch’s experiment in continuous shooting. With only 10 shots the film and adapted from the play, Rope is deliberately stage-like. Despite this, as I mentioned in the Rear Window review, you can feel that you are being guided by Hitchcock, manipulated by the easy flowing camera movements. Not much I can add to what’s already been written so I’m going to go off on another tangent.
Tangent: I read, courtesy of IMDB, that the film was banned in certain cities of America due to the implied homosexuality between the murderous chaps Brandon and Phillip. This implied homosexuality looks pretty tame, if obvious, in hindsight. But it’s indicative of attitudes from the time. Gay characters are morally crippled, their choice of lifestyle reflecting a lack of ethical fortitude. Have we actually managed to move on from this? Or have gay characters just climbed one or two rungs above other minority groups – meaning they can now be ‘best friends’ to the main characters?