Before there were jokes about Princess Leia becoming one of the Disney princesses, before there were prequels with flashy CGI and lackluster scripts, before there was a giant merchandising arm of advertising putting the characters on and in every conceivable thing from bedsheets to lunchboxes to video games to chess sets to Christmas specials, before there was a trilogy that was the high point to science-fiction special effects for decades to come, before there was a sequel with the biggest reveal in cinematic history, a long time ago there was a film that took the feeling of a campy sci-fi serial, laid it over a classic fantasy narrative, and polished it to look as good as it possibly could. And from Star Wars – not A New Hope and not Episode IV, but just Star Wars – grew a colossus, a franchise so deeply a part of our culture that people can have not just grown up in a world where it has always existed but can then have had children who have experienced that world the same way. Star Wars is in many ways a modern version of shared mythology, a touchstone so universally relatable that it transcends mere film and becomes a part of cultural history. And even with all of the decades of additional baggage, sequels and prequels and expanded universe canon and special editions, when actually watching the film itself it’s still possible to divorce all the outside noise from the fun adventure on the screen and have a great time with star-fighter pilots and laser-sword fights.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) gets the chance to escape his boring farming life when a chance acquisition of two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) lead him to former Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness); with the help of cocky smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), they set out to rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), prominent figure in the Rebel Alliance, held captive on the imposing Death Star by Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and his dark Jedi enforcer, Darth Vader (David Prowse, James Earl Jones). The description alone should be enough to give the handful of people unaware of the Star Wars universe a sense of what it’s like – high fantasy clothed in a science-fiction setting, complete with wizards and princesses and dragons. It’s hokey and silly to write it down but seeing it in action makes it all make sense; the visual appeal of something like the towering form of Darth Vader, a dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and a TIE Fighter, or a lightsaber duel cannot be accurately described in words. It is for reasons like this that everyone should see Star Wars; there are parts of our culture that are closed off to you until you do.
I have a feeling that the last handful of reviews I’m going to write will be some of the most difficult, not because of the films themselves but because of the nature of the order in which I’m reviewing them. The majority of what the aggregate of the population thinks are the best films ever will be pretty good, that should be obvious, but the ones lower on the list may require a little explanation as to why they’re good – they may have some inherent barrier, like age or foreign language or subject matter, that cuts them off from sections of the IMDb-going film-ranking populace. But the films that make their way to the top have no such barriers; their greatness should be self-evident the moment you watch them, as is very much the case with Seven Samurai.
Poor villagers beset by roving bandits plead for wandering samurai to help them defend their village. What is a simple concept that makes for a simple summary is flawlessly executed, comfortably filling the two-hundred-plus minute runtime and becoming the go-to template for any film that involves gathering a band of characters for a specific task. Each of the seven samurai are given no more than is needed to establish their character, as are the major players among the villagers; their character arcs therefore feel like natural progressions of their situation rather than artificially-scripted sequences where they first introduce their problems as a dangling thread to be resolved in a later scene. The structural finesse of the film extends to the visuals; still shots feel like reconstructed paintings more than moments in a film, framing all of the characters perfectly and blending them into the natural elements of the landscape. Well before I started getting seriously into films I had heard Alfred Hitchcock was the master of creative shots, and while his camerawork was technically impressive it never felt to me as anything more than a fancy trick; Akira Kurosawa was an artist with a camera, able to construct endless numbers of beautiful perfectly balanced scenes with depth and focus lighting and purposeful staging of characters and – most importantly – have all this artistry feel like a natural part of the film. All the small details do more in unison to convey changes in mood and tone in the film more than any one line or scene, a holistic experience I could have kept watching for another three and a half hours.
The reason I took up this project was to lessen the amount of times I’d be in a conversation about films and have to admit that I’d never seen certain classic, well-known, everyone-has-seen-this films; it’s not going to cover every film one could say “How have you never seen…?” about, but it should hit all the ones worth seeing. Most of these films are great for a reason, and so far I’ve been mostly able to identify that reason, agree or disagree, and write a little about it, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on what it is that makes Casablanca great. It is great, in that sort of self-evident way the famous lines and famous scenes and famous songs have permeated our culture, and I had a great time watching it for the first time, but… why was that?
Casablanca, Morocco has become a kind of purgatory for European refugees escaping the war and looking to sail to neutral America; one of the hotspots of activity is Rick’s Café Américain. Proprietor Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), who “sticks his neck out for nobody”, comes into possession of two letters of transit, priceless commodities for any refugee; the two who need them the most are Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), resistance leader and known enemy of the Nazis, and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), old flame of Rick’s and Laszlo’s wife. Films become classics for doing something right, but if it is possible to also become a classic through a round-about double-negative way – by doing nothing wrong – then Casablanca is the perfect example. Everything is comfortably perfect, from the wry dialogue to the collection of the time’s A-listers to the heart-of-gold redemption story to the exotic and international tone achieved on just a handful of interior sets. The whole film is incredibly enjoyable, with the proverbial something for everyone, and it is very easy to enjoy – it demands nothing, no deeper understanding of film theory or acting technique or human nature or even much of the political climate at the time – being made up of universally-relatable “fundamental things”, to borrow terminology from a famous song. All of the elements are so well-balanced against each other, one would have to be the bitterest cynic to find fault with their mixture; although, perhaps the film should appeal to the cynical most of all, who only became that way from their romanticism not being realised one too many times.
The world is a terrible place. Just step outside your door or turn on the news if you want the proof. Most of the world lives jammed right up next to each other, packed into crowds and little boxes like livestock. We practice the art of un-noticing, avoiding seeing what’s going on around us as a survival mechanism; we don’t want to get involved in other people’s business, because who knows what’s going on with them, they might be the one that snaps and lashed back at you, and besides, you’ve got somewhere to be. Horrible things can fester in these urban anthills with the public eye glancing right over them, day after day. And every time one of these horrible things comes to light, you think to yourself: someone should do something about things like this. Someone should do something to wake everybody up.
Veteran and rookie detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) are on the case of a serial killer whose victims are styled after and slaughtered by the seven deadly sins. The anonymous urban environment the film takes place in, with its grimy, crowded streets and omnipresent rain, is one of the most hostile and oppressive atmospheres in cinema, every detail another clue as to why killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) feels he needs to preach his message, broadcasting the sins of the world. We want to hate him, because he’s an amoral executioner – but every time we’ve asked just what the world is coming to, and thought that there ought to be some kind of extreme measures taken to clean it all up, we’re sharing a little in the guilt of his crimes. The film intelligently remains shocking after nearly two decades of shock factor because of how oddly non-graphic it is – there’s very little explicitly offensive material shown on the screen – but the suggestion of not only what has happened but how little the world cares, how normal a man like John Doe can seem compared to some of the real freaks that are out there, is loud and clear, the audience’s mind filling in the gaps in whatever manner is most unsettling to them. Se7en is a dark horrific ride, a rare piece of cinema that is both a mainstream staple and uncompromisingly bleak and nasty, a freakshow elevated by gifted performances and helmed by a director with great clarity of vision.
Take a look at any list of famous cinematic villains and it’s very unlikely any one of them will exclude Hannibal Lecter; he’s usually close to the top spot, too, unless his place has been taken by an old-school classic or new flavour of the month. The presence of Dr. Lecter dominates the entirety of The Silence of the Lambs even though he’s on screen for significantly less than half the runtime; so large is the appeal of the character that he basically greenlit the three (progressively worse) sequels/prequels to his most famous appearance all on his own. But just what is it that makes him so memorable, so unforgettable?
To help catch serial killer “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is sent to interview imprisoned psychiatrist and sociopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), exchanging details of her life for clues to Buffalo Bill’s identity. A crime thriller with heavy horror overtones, the film recounts and showcases the killings of its two lead psychotics with an almost clinical detachment, the cold details laid out like they came straight from a case file; when the film isn’t being grisly it’s providing unflinching close-ups of the principle actors, offering the audience an intimate observation of the performances that earned them Oscars. Clarice and Lecter’s exchanges are the highlights of the film, an extremely twisted courtship at the end of which we admire Clarice for her bravery and, in a way, also admire Lecter in spite of his inhumanity. This, I think is the reason for the character’s longevity. The film’s true antagonist, Buffalo Bill, is a modern take on a very familiar monster, to the point that he almost literally is clubbing young maidens over the head and dragging them back to his cave; he’s a gross perversion of human values, and we understand he is this way because there’s something wrong with him. Contrast with Hannibal Lecter, who is learned, a scholar, an appreciator of fine art and culture. He has a code of honour, an adherence to respect, and even a pretty wicked sense of humour. Yet, when Clarice is asked to confirm rumours from a nervous police officer of the depths of his inhumanity (“Is it true what they’re sayin’, he’s some kinda vampire?”), she responds: “They don’t have a name for what he is.” Hannibal Lecter is an unfathomable mystery, impossible for us to understand; what terrifies us most about him is that he may not be a monster but may actually be perfectly sane, having come to a series of perfectly logical conclusions that result in a worldview where he can murder and consume the people who displease him.
Part of why I’m watching all of these films is because I like knowing the history of things, the context that led to the great moments of film becoming the great moments of film. Seeing iconic scenes and hearing iconic lines always puts a chill up my spine almost not because of the quality each individual moment has but because I’m witnessing one of the points in history that stand out, that become something larger than just a part of a movie, that take on a life of its own as a defining image. Scenes where you can feel the weight of history pressing upon them, every reference, every homage, every parody, that never fails to affect me even if I don’t even like the scene. And scenes like this, the greatest hits of film, ready to be brought up and immediately understood by anyone passingly familiar with films, are all Raiders of the Lost Ark is made of.
Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) travels across the globe to locate the Ark of the Covenant before it falls into Nazi hands. What began as an homage to 30s and 40s film serials became one of the lynchpins of the entire action-adventure genre, a film that’s impossible to discuss for any length of time without wanting to start talking like an excited ten-year-old while recapping the memorable scenes (ie. all of them). How good is all of the opening, with the traps in the floor and Indy swinging from his whip and running away from the boulder? Or when the guy with the sword comes out of the crowd and starts showing off like there’s going to be another massive fight and Indy just shoots him? Or that part with the pit full of snakes? Or when Indy fights that invincible huge guy on the plane that’s about to take off and he gets mangled up in the propeller? Or when the Ark opens and it melts all those guys’ faces? Every moment is a big moment, something that people remember and get excited about and don’t tire of seeing again and again. The tone is perfect for something accessible to all ages in all eras, the danger threatening but not confronting, the horror scary but not disturbing, the action over-the-top but not too over-the-top; very few films will endure in the same was as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
There’s a thing that often gets overlooked or forgotten when watching a film for the purposes of analysis later on, and that’s storytelling; how involved you are in the world, how invested, how much you want the plot to keep unfolding so you can have more time with the universe and the characters within it. With good storytelling, nearly anything is believable, because you the audience want to keep believing in it in order to keep the story going. Is it much of a coincidence, then, that The Usual Suspects not only has an excellent flair for storytelling, but features storytelling as a device from one of the characters within the film to explain the events within?
Five criminals – Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), and Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) – are placed together in a line-up, a meeting that escalates into a bloody heist working for mythic underworld figure Keyser Söze; only Verbal survives the job, leaving him to tell the truth about what really happened. The film collects stylistic elements from across the entire crime spectrum – noir and caper, cops versus robbers and conspiracies, revenge and morality tales blend to create an infinitely watchable mix of criminals being criminals. The five “usual suspects” have a clear camaraderie, too, making their characters’ infighting and distrust more like watching inspired improvisation than just reciting the lines from the script. The whole film is a slick and polished clever pieces of misdirection through and through – on an initial watch perhaps the focus will be on learning just what did go so terribly wrong in the last job, or if Keyser Söze is really a man, a myth, or the Devil himself, but the films doesn’t give satisfactory answers to these questions… but that’s not the point. We don’t even really learn anything about the motivations of any of our major players, what drives them to be or not be criminals, because that’s not the point either. The point is the story being told, both the in-universe tale spun by Verbal and the meta-story we’re watching. It doesn’t matter that, in the end, we can’t really trust anything that was shown to us – what matters is how fascinated we were while the story was being told.