The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

So here we are. The end of the line, number one, the greatest film ever as per the list I have been so diligently working from. Like so many other people I heard about The Shawshank Redemption through word-of-mouth, it being a poor performer at the box office that solidified its viewership through the medium of VHS, and when I saw it I felt it was pretty alright and didn’t give much thought about it later on – one of the other novellas from the Stephen King collection the film was adapted from made a greater impact on me when I had read it, perhaps that had something to do with it. So flash forward however many years when I find my way to using IMDb and figure out there’s a list of the best films ever, and it comes as a surprise to find this film at the top. Was it that good? I’ll have to re-watch that some day. And then some more years pass, and finally I’ve seen it again.

Banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and her lover, bonds with fellow inmate Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), assists Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) in a complex money-laundering operation, and never succumbs to the soul-crushing weight of being behind Shawshank’s walls. Robbins is oddly distant for the entire film, but intentionally so, playing up the dignity that keeps separate from the other prisoners, and Freeman, though warm and likeable, suffers a little from this role being the one he would reprise for basically the rest of his career. It’s a fine film, a fine tale about holding on to hope in hopeless circumstances, but following The Godfather it can’t help but feel lacking – I don’t want to undercut Frank Darabont as so far he’s three for three with me in adapting works of an author that continually prove incredibly difficult to adapt to the screen, but it does come off as quite simple and plain compared to Coppola’s rich saga. I feel much the same now as I did when I first saw it: it’s good, but it’s not great. I can’t help but think that it retains its position on IMDb’s big list because of a certain strain of people that resist to the death being told what to think and refuse to ever change their minds once set – they’re not content to accept the traditional answer to “What is the best film ever made?” and champion instead this once-obscure underdog of a film, this casual rental they picked up on a whim and turned out to be surprisingly good actually. It seems a bit of a shame to close this project with a whimper instead of a bang, and I do like the film; it’s just there’s a handful of others I’d rather see at the top of the list.

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Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) (1966)

It would make sense to wait until the last film on the list to bring up Stephen King, but I’m actually going to focus on him here instead. King’s far and away my favourite writer, and I’ve read and re-read his magnum opus, the Western/high fantasy/post-apocalyptic/cosmic horror Dark Tower series, quite a number of times, and for all I’ve bemoaned Westerns during my reviews it might come as a surprise just how much I enjoy the Western pieces of the novels. A large motivator for watching all these films is to be able to put a lot of scattered pieces of film history into context, but with The Good, The Bad and the Ugly I get to put into context Tower‘s central character, based very obviously on Clint Eastwood‘s role; that’s what I knew going in, but on finally watching it I understood a lot more about the perception of the Western genre as a whole.

The Man With No Name (Eastwood) competes and colludes with two other gunfighters – jovial but mercurial Tuco (Eli Wallach) and sadistic executioner Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) – for a buried stash of Confederate gold as the Civil War rages around them. Alliances break as quickly as they are formed, as no one man knows the whole location of the gold; the treachery seems more an excuse to pair the different leads together rather than any commentary on the nature of men when the stakes are high, but that’s perfectly alright as there’s plenty of chemistry and charisma shared among the trio. It feels like the Dollars trilogy is a natural evolution of sorts, where the first installment introduces us to the blueprint of a Spaghetti Western hero, the second section adds a little depth and detail around its main characters, and finally here we have characters solid enough that you get a sense of their motivations and not just a memory of their actions. The locations for each scene are amazing, the endless wastelands and haunted empty towns I imagine as part of a dirty Western setting, and now I see this film’s influence in so many other places that have looked to add in some Western imagery. Similarly, although I must have seen his name in the credits of at least a dozen films on the list already, hearing Ennio Morricone’s much-referenced score in context gave me a proper appreciation for just how talented a composer he was. I might not understand Westerns completely, but after seeing the one that’s the first point of reference, I feel like I’ve at least unlocked the understanding of how they’re seen in popular culture.

12 Angry Men (1957)

When you hear that stakes are life-and-death, typically you might image high action, chase sequences and ticking clocks and the like. If your characters are struggling against death, you image they’re going to fight against it in a physical way – physicality allows for close calls and narrow scrapes, it’s kinetic and explosive and momentous, and it is most certainly not boring. Boring would be the opposite – people sitting in one place, just talking, not even with any time limit on how long they had to talk for before they needed to act. There’s a reason that exciting films with life-and-death stakes are full of running and jumping and detonating and things breaking: you can’t make people sitting around talking as exciting.

Flying in the face of that assertion is 12 Angry Men, set almost completely in a jury room as a jury on a murder trial is turned from a near-unanimous guilty vote to one of unequivocal innocence by a lone dissenter (Henry Fonda). This is about as stripped-down as a film can get – all of the action takes place on a single set, the characters are never given names and only the briefest of backstories, even the specifics of the case aren’t completely outlined before the jury begins deliberating. The situation is totally divorced from social context, cleverly introducing prejudice against the nameless defendant as being one of “Them” without needing to specify just who They are and how they are different from the Us that make up the jury; even far into the future when the specific pieces of evidence and testimonies are no longer relevant pieces of technology, they could be easily substituted for the devices of the day and the story could be preserved intact. It’s a blank slate, and it allows for nothing to distract from the character interaction – like each member of the jury, we the audience meet the major players first as complete strangers, seeing only glimpses of their personality by the way they hold themselves and react to others, with no cheap film shortcuts of establishing who will act which way beside a couple of hints from the way they dress. It’s an extremely pure experience, the kind of thing that appeals on a level of appreciating what skill it takes to craft such an intricate situation, showing the tide of opinion turning and prejudice being overthrown, out of basically nothing to begin with.

The Dark Knight (2008)

I would love to come back to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy some ten, twenty, thirty years later, to see the way that time judges them. All three parts made it into IMDb’s Top 250, but a lot of this feels like it’s because they’re popular films in the age of the Internet and it is the folks of the Internet that ultimate decide what ends up on the list; I already found the shine coming off the last entry in the series, and while I quite like the first film as a perfect example of how to explain a superhero and their psychology to a person who doesn’t take for granted that the moment a character is bestowed with great power they will automatically take up the great responsibility of fighting crime, it’s nothing much beyond that. The Dark Knight, though, the middle film, the one that neither sets up or closes out the arc but escalates it, that I feel has the most longevity. I’ll just have to see if I’m right every ten years or so.

With Gotham City no longer beholden to its criminal families thanks to fearless district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and masked vigilante Batman (Christian Bale), the leaders of the underworld turn to a mysterious anarchistic figure in an attempt to regain control of the city: the Joker (Heath Ledger). Let’s be honest, Ledger’s portrayal of the iconic Batman villain, a twitching morass of contradictions and chaos with no history and no grand plans other than to watch the world burn, is the biggest draw of the whole film; every second he’s on the screen is mesmerising, a performance with all the bewildering intensity and destruction of a train wreck. The polar opposite he provides to the major figures in the film – not only to Batman, the arch-nemesis he uses to define himself, but also the moral Dent, the structured crime families, and even the wider society of Gotham itself – is the fuel the film runs on; there are been villains more cruel and wicked and villains that have been more satisfying to feel burning hatred for, but there has never been a villain that more thoroughly embraces the terrifying idea that the stability of a society is a fragile, tenuous agreement, and that it only takes the slightest push, the smallest thing out of the ordinary, to send it plunging headlong into an anarchistic nightmare.

Fight Club (1999)

Let me tell you a story about Fight Club. I was in high school when the film came out, and I was deep into it and its message. We shouldn’t let ourselves be owned by our useless stuff that corporations sold us on, man! Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you could subvert all the advertising with a message to wake up and not pay attention to all this brainwashing? Wouldn’t it be amazing if all the giant capitalist structures came crashing down, and we could live in unfettered anarchy? I re-watched Fight Club a couple of years ago and found myself not connecting with it as much, and I couldn’t quite understand it – I still believe, perhaps even more strongly, in maybe we’d be better off with less things and more do-it-yourself and to never, ever take any advertising at face value, so what had changed? Was the film not quite as good as I remembered? Between then and watching it again now I heard an excellent interpretation of the film that made it all make sense, and… well, because Fight Club begins in media res and doesn’t quite care about sticking to a linear narrative, let’s pick this story up again towards the end.

An unnamed narrator (Edward Norton), after struggling with insomnia and a tedious white-collar job, is jolted awake by a maverick anarchistic philosopher, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt); together, they found a “fight club”, an underground fist-fighting arena with the purpose of giving men something “real” in their artificial lives, which spreads across the country and metamorphoses into Tyler’s personal army. Where Tyler’s message of anarchy seemed previously inspiring, now it reads like hollow whining. You have to work a boring job? We all have to work boring jobs. Instead of trying to destroy society, why don’t you try something to fix it? Tyler’s posturing is the faux-masculine grandstanding of every anonymous thug on the Internet, scared children talking large because they aren’t secure enough in themselves to pursue the things they really want in life – in the film’s case, it’s a girl, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). But this is the real genius of Fight Club – like its divided narrator, it’s both messages at the same time. As a young man I saw Tyler Durden as the hero, the ideal of what a person could be if they lived a free life; as I’m older I see Tyler as the villain, the destructive little shoulder-devil you have to crush before you truly understand yourself.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

When constructing a trilogy, there’s an inherent problem when it comes to the middle act, as by the very nature of its structure it will automatically end up with no proper beginning – which was all in the first part, since you don’t want to be spending any more time than is needed resetting the characters and their situations – and no proper end – which you should be saving for the last part, wrapping up all the plotlines from all three segments and pulling out a climax that dwarfs the other two endings. The middle section of a planned trilogy is often just shuffling characters about, preparing them for the final chapter and leaving so many questions open – they’re often considered the weakest moments of three-part arcs.

The massive glaring exception is The Empire Strikes Back, which takes the campy universe of Star Wars to darker and more mystical places, replacing the big explosive finish with a stinging character-driven revelation and the greatest twist ending in all of cinematic history, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Star Wars fan who does not consider Empire the best film.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) journeys to find the mysterious Yoda (Frank Oz) to further his Jedi training; meanwhile, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) struggle to keep out of the grasp of the Empire and Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones). The film allows for a lot more downtime than the first and all the character-growing moments that come with it, courtesy of director Irvin Kershner; the focus of Empire is not in goals (ie. find/rescue the princess, destroy the Death Star) but on Luke’s mastery of his emotions required in his training, Han and Leia’s growing relationship, and of course the big reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. By placing more emphasis on character it adds a greater emotional weight to the action setpieces that do exist, and the Flash Gordon-esque universe as a whole – these are no longer archetypes acting out their parts in the monomyth but characters with investments and motivations – and to add further heft the protagonists do not walk away victorious in any sense at all. Instead of defeating an enemy that opens the way for the final encounter, they are set back on all fronts, without a clear plan for how to proceed and how to win the day. It makes the middle section stand out, not just within the trilogy itself but in cinema in general, because how often is it that, in high-action settings with clearly-defined sides, the good guys lose?

Goodfellas (1990)

People are fascinated with the Mafia. Organised crime as a whole is an especially attractive subject – the societies that lie parallel to the lives of normal people, with different but no less rigid codes of conduct – but there’s something special about the mob, providing material for countless books, films, television series, video games, et cetera, et cetera, with either based-in-fact credentials or with the names and situations drawn from the general understanding of the way this particular brand of gangsters operate. Just look at this list of films – spots number two and three are occupied by the most famous films about mafioso. People want a look in to this lifestyle, they can’t get enough of it; they want to get close enough that they feel they’ve experienced it.

Goodfellas, adapted from non-fiction crime book Wiseguy, chronicles the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as a gangster, from his introduction into the benefits of a criminal lifestyle as a young man to his rise as part of a crew of thieves alongside James Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) to his eventual fall by turning informant after losing everything to drugs and paranoia. If you wanted a film to be your primer into the world of the Mafia, a jumping-off point to understand not just the way that subculture works but what the appeal of it is both to people as a setting within fiction and to people in the real world as a lifestyle, you could ask for no better film than Goodfellas. Mobsters, as Hill explains, get to live lives different than those of other men – the best example, to me, is the scene where Henry and his associates end up doing a little time in prison around the midpoint of the film, setting up their own private kitchen separate from the other inmates cooking steak and lobster, kings of the penitentiary. But all that power comes at a price – the pressure, the living in constant fear of a retribution for a meaningless slight that ends with a bullet to the head and disappearing into an unmarked grave, is enormous even before Hill gets involved with cocaine, which further compounds his stress and paranoia. The matter-of-fact way life as a gangster is portrayed makes it seem almost like just another type of career, a kind of step above high-power politician or Wall Street mogul – the same pressures, the same excesses, amplified tenfold and available to the common man – and that I believe is the root of all that fascination.