Inception (2010)

I think Inception may be the most overrated film on this list.

Now, let’s not misunderstand here. Overrated doesn’t automatically mean bad; all the films that fall at the top of the list are going to be overrated in some way, in that people will describe them as the pinnacle of filmmaking and that nothing else could ever come close and you may as well stab your eyes out after seeing them because there can’t be anything better you could possibly see after that… well, perhaps not that much hyperbole, but you understand. Even the greatest of films can be overhyped. Inception is not one of the greats. It’s good, but it’s not a part of that upper echelon of films that define the language of film and encapsulate fragments of the human condition and all those other things the absolute best examples of cinema should do. It’s an action film with a cleverer-than-most explanation for its clever action sequences, held together with all the cohesion of a waking dream. It’s a layman’s grasp of philosophy overlaid with chases and guns. It’s the post-millennial The Matrix.

Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief who steals corporate secrets from sleeping targets while sharing their dreams, assembles a team for the difficult task of planting an idea instead of taking one. The surreal science-fiction concept is presented in a very grounded way, in that we’re just expected to take it as fact that the technology to influence another’s dreams exists and to not worry too much about the science behind it. The method of planting a notion in a sleeper’s subconscious involves constructing ever-deeper layers of dreams – the ‘dream within a dream’ motif the film is so known for – forming the basis of the action sequences where, as outside stimulus affects the dreamer on a ‘higher’ level, the effects are passed down through the ‘lower’ levels of dreams. It creates some extremely memorable scenes without ever becoming overly confusing despite juggling multiple timelines of events unfolding at different paces, but after the initial ‘oh wow, that looks cool’ impact there’s not all that much left over. Whether we take the events of the film at face value or whether the entire film was a dream of Cobb’s to move through his past guilt is immaterial, as it doesn’t change much about how to read what happens in the film; it’s akin to wondering if we’re not all a part of some omnipotent being’s dreams and then going on with your day.

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Cidade de Deus (City of God) (2002)

I’m going to make a prediction. In a few years time, there’s going to be a film that comes out of Mexico, depicting in a realistic gritty brutal fashion the drug cartels and their violence and the corruption in the police that allows them to continue their business. The film will win (or at least be nominated for) Best Foreign Picture in the Oscars, and people will go to see it and feel they have learned something important about the world, and thus it will be considered a great success in terms of social commentary despite doing nothing other than highlighting a problem that the world should be aware of. Film is a sloppy medium for activism, and I have a pretty short fuse for films that attempt nothing more than showing a horrible situation is horrible. If you couldn’t comprehend anything of what the poorer areas of Brazil were like, then I’m sure City of God was an amazing eye-opening experience, but otherwise the film shows a great deal while saying very little.

Narrator and aspiring photographer Rocket (Buscapé) (Alexandre Rodrigues) recounts the based-in-truth details of gang warfare in the slums of Rio de Janeiro during the 1970s, catalysed by Knockout Ned (Mané Galinha) (Seu Jorge) raising an army to go to war with sociopath drug dealer Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino). The film is energetic, inventive in its presentation of a non-linear narrative and filled with clever camera trickery, but not enough to disguise that there is nothing being shown about the horribly violent gang environment other than horrible violence. Any analysis of the whys of the situation are apathetic at best (people are poor and crowded, the police don’t care as long as they’re paid off, the end), and there’s certainly no solution provided other than get out and don’t dare look back; Ned’s easy descent into a life of crime in order to take revenge seems trivially easy and like it was missing something crucial – and since the film was based on real events, I’m guessing that it is. Now that I know about this ongoing tragedy, filmmakers, what am I to do? Shake my head and feel bad about the poor children? I feel bad, now what? Leave the theatre and go back to being a first-world white person, I suppose. Children of God is a better example than most in that it doesn’t feel the need to embellish pointedly dark scenarios any further than the action on screen, but after it’s shown its first ten-year-old holding a joint in one hand and a pistol in the other it’s doing nothing but repeating itself.

Forrest Gump (1994)

There was another review where I mentioned the meandering, blank slate quality a lot of films in the 90s had, a hazy confused “Now what?” statement of aimlessness in the face of failed cultural revolutions from decades past. With the Baby Boomers in love with the way things used to be and Generation X not motivated enough to care what would happen next, nothing much from the whole decade ever seems to stand for anything with any conviction. Forrest Gump is one of the huge examples of this: an epic retrospective of Americana over the latter half of a century with a blithely innocent and impartial narrator who allows us to touch on some great controversies without ever having our beliefs challenged.

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a man of sub-normal intelligence but extra-ordinary luck, recounts his uncanny life story to strangers at the bus stop while traveling to reunite with the love of his life, Jenny (Robin Wright). Forrest’s charmed life places him at several key moments in American history – the University of Alabama desegregating, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal – and in contact with famous figures like Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and multiple Presidents. The technical achievements of integrating Hanks into existing footage are one of the more interesting aspects of the film, and I’d really rather talk more about Robert Zemeckis and the kinds of projects he chooses to work on as they seem more driven by what can be pushed in terms of special effects rather than story or theme and if they end up being good films then it almost seems like an accident, because there’s not a lot to Forrest Gump beyond Forrest’s single-minded devotion to Jenny and his mother (Sally Field) and his naive obliviousness to the world around him. Whenever I see this film I always feel terrible for Jenny, who seems to be working off some kind of karmic debt in her life while Forrest stumbles into being a billionaire, or think that there is a more interesting film to be made about Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), Forrest’s commanding officer in Vietnam who believes it his destiny to die on the battlefield and so feels cheated when he escapes the war losing only his legs; perhaps I don’t find Forrest himself to be an especially compelling character, personable but not enough so to erase the constant feeling that I’m watching the life of a more benevolent Homer Simpson.

C’era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West) (1968)

Italy has no red dirt desert, no arroyos, no mesas. It has no history of the frontier, of westward expansion, of civil war between Confederates and Unionists. It doesn’t have the cowboy myth, so when Italian filmmakers began producing the so-called spaghetti Westerns they were borrowing whole-cloth from American mythology, using the iconography of cinema for the basis of the stories that would eventually reinvent and redefine the whole Western genre. Once Upon a Time in the West is in many ways the ultimate evolution of that process, the ultimate spaghetti Western, an epic populated not by characters but by archetypes, a sequence of references to other films from which a plot emerges, each climactic moment another escalating showdown.

A dispute over land ownership sees railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) sending ruthless gun-for-hire Frank (Henry Fonda) to intimidate widow Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) into selling her land to make way for the railway; meanwhile, a nameless gunfighter known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has some unfinished business with Frank. There’s also a bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards), who is framed for Frank’s killings early on and remains a part of the plot. I say plot, but it feels a lot more like improvisation, where the characters and their traits and the way they will act is well-known beforehand but the situations they find themselves in are made up on the fly; the why of what’s happening is almost completely superfluous, as you can understand any given scene just through context and how each character poses themselves. It makes for an iconic film, but the players are so grand and distant in scale that it’s not possible to relate to them as anything other than iconography. The pacing is incredibly slow, focusing much more on the build-up to the violence rather than violence itself, and while that is initially interesting I found myself continually thinking of Leone’s other epic, Once Upon a Time in America, and how that was similarly carved out of gangster mythology but felt like a faster experience even though it had an additional hour of footage. The operatic nature of the film requires perhaps a finer appreciation of the Western genre that, as I feel like I’ve stated time and time again, I just don’t have; ironically I think I’d prefer a film with a little more Italian influence over American when it comes to cowboys and gunslingers.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

What is it that makes trilogies so appealing to people? Is there a special structure that only emerges with a three-story arc that can’t be achieved more (or less) entries in a franchise? Is that the average number of films in a given universe that the audience is willing to tolerate before that universe overstays its welcome? Do people just really enjoy the number three? There have been many, many three-part stories told with films, some planned from the beginning and many more retroactively constructed after the fact, and it is an almost iron law that the third and final film will fail at being the spectacular conclusion envisioned and instead serves as a reminder of how the series is flagging, how the time has come for it to end, and it’s better that it go out with a bit of effort rather than peter out in obscurity.

Years after the passing of the Dent Act, the judicial power needed by the police to break up organised crime and focus of the series’ second installment, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) must emerge from seclusion and once again become the Batman to face the greatest threat to Gotham City yet: Bane (Tom Hardy), a poetic mercenary bent on plunging the city into self-induced destruction. I like my super-heroics to have some grounding in reality and thus I like Nolan’s realism-heavy universe, and I thought I liked the final third of it but upon a rewatch I found that not so much to be the case. The plot feels crowded and convoluted, juggling far too many separate stories in order to wrap the universe up and ending up looking inferior to the other two much cleaner films, the result being that all the major characters come off as feeling underused. A second viewing of Bane reveals him to be rather empty beyond his physical presence, interesting in the moment and quite forgettable as soon as he’s off-screen, unable to sustain focus like Heath Ledger‘s Joker nor given the screentime allotted to Bruce himself during his origin for the audience to understand him; perhaps the big reveal of him not being the true villain undercuts a large portion of his grandstanding and demagoguery. The action and the tone make The Dark Knight Rises fit in well with the established world, and it does eventually do a nice job at tidying up the loose ends, but I can’t help feel there’s something lacking from the final act.

Léon (The Professional) (1994)

There’s a kind of lie that’s especially infuriating to listen to. It’s the kind typically employed by politicians and people on trial for heinous crimes, and what makes it infuriating is that all of the words, on the surface, are technically true. It’s the result of carefully-planned spin that can’t be dissected to uncover any wrongdoing, but anyone who hears it knows they are being lied to. That’s a little how many of the reviews of The Professional sound to me, that same careful treading to not accidentally stumble into a phrasing that raises flags, an awkward dance around the elephant in the room. What’s most infuriating about this kind of slippery lie is that it’s impossible to call out as being a lie, but I’ll see what I can do.

Contract killer Léon (Jean Reno) ends up the unwilling caretaker of Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a twelve-year-old girl, after the rest of her family are executed by psychotic DEA agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman); Mathilda demands to learn Léon’s craft as a “cleaner” to take revenge. What’s set up as a kind of Lone Wolf and Cub situation veers into Lolita territory as Mathilda begins to view Léon not as a substitute father but as a romantic partner, and what makes me incredibly uncomfortable isn’t that a film is daring to go near such a volatile subject but that it seems to be the primary reason for the film’s popularity, while legions of its defenders explain, very patiently, that there’s actually nothing sexual about Léon and Mathilda’s relationship so therefore everything is a-ok and anyone who says otherwise is the pervert. It’s not even a subtextual thing, it’s right there in the dialogue and the camerawork, and maybe they’re both two quite fundamentally broken people who understand little of love and much of hardship who manage to find each other, and maybe that’s a really interesting premise for a film, but Luc Besson’s quirky frenetic style isn’t the right place to deal with it. This is an action flick, a stylish one with cool assassins killing people in a hyper-real version of New York, and the parts of the film that are that are great – the parts trying to raise emotional questions with unfortunate implications less so. There are some subjects that don’t fit into the glossy popcorn shoot-’em-up film universe, and the relationship between a grown man and a pre-teen girl is certainly one of them.

I prefer The Fifth Element – better action, less morality issues, and a far superior over-the-top Gary Oldman.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

There’s a breed of voyeurism that I try to avoid subscribing too much to, and that’s the fascination and pursuit of celebrity. I understand what’s appealing about it, though – these famous figures going through their triumphs and downfalls in the public arena, familiar enough that you feel like you can know them and yet still distant and glamorous. It has all the spectacle of a good drama, yet it’s all playing out in real life. Of course, the vast majority of these narratives are just as constructed and contrived as things that are actually presented as fiction, and it’s because I would rather engage in a made-up story with better writers that I don’t buy into celeb gossip. There’s a similar sort of meta-fiction that happens in films, the films that are about Hollywood and purport to show how the sausage is made, and they also rub me the wrong way. They have that same air of inauthenticity, that what’s happening isn’t quite real but desperately wants to be. I have no doubt there’s fascinating stories to be told about the inner workings of Hollywood, but I don’t trust Hollywood to present them.

In Sunset Blvd., possibly the most famous of these stories, unsuccessful screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself in a strange and unhealthy relationship with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), star of silent films who refuses to believe her time has passed by, writing the final draft for her big comeback script and getting paid in expensive suits and a taste of the glory days of Hollywood. Swanson is a glorious ham, playing up the scenery-chewing habits of the silent era, and her accompaniment of the hacky noir narration provided by Gillis compliments the tone of performers whose reach exceeds their grasp perfectly. The film manages to make the Hollywood machine look casually heartless, a ruthless balancing act that affects people like a drug and cares not a bit for the addicts… but in a world that’s seen reality television and Internet stardom, where it’s almost an iron law that each person can have their fifteen minutes of fame but no more, is this still such a shocking revelation? Like I said, I don’t find the glittery illusion of Hollywood all that interesting, and the inward navel-gazing that pierces it even less so. The film is well-written and full of biting and wry observations, but I’ve dropped it a level for being turned on a subject that’s in every tabloid.