The Godfather (1972)

I’m not an expert on how the rankings on IMDb are calculated, but if you take a look at the ratings for the best films you can see long stretches of similar score averages towards the bottom of the list (anything above an 8.0 out of 10 stands a good chance of making it onto the list), with each division growing shorter and shorter as you move up the list. Then, as you hit the top, there’s a big jump for The Godfather – which is understandable, as it’s a film of nearly-universal acclaim. I read Mario Puzo’s novel a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely, but I was curious as to what made the material such excellent fodder for film, and I was never able to garner exactly why The Godfather routinely was called the greatest film ever made from the way it’s mentioned among film critics. So now I’ve finally seen it, the most glaring omission in a film-lovers required viewing rectified, and I’m going to join the chorus of people who sings its praises without being able to nail down specifically what makes it so amazing.

The story is about the transfer of power from aging crime boss Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to his reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino). Unlike nearly every other film about the Mafia that shows up in the Top 250, the film has very little to do with the inner workings or organised crime; it’s more about a family than the family, a familial drama writ large. It’s easy to look at the film and find threads of commentary on the change of generations, the violence that lies under a veneer of civility, the different faces of masculinity, all this and more, but the real reason the film is so accredited has nothing to do with its content. The opening sequence, the wedding, fills up over a half-hour yet never feels slow. The whole film is over three hours and yet you could easily watch more. The dramatic moments are subtle and the subtle moments an imperceptible part of the whole experience. The Godfather may be the crowning achievement of the push for greater realism in 1970s cinema: it feels like watching life, only a better version of it with more interesting situations and a clean narrative arc. Its greatness is self-evident, a film of such undeniable quality of craft that even attempting to dissect it seems pointless.

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The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Feel free to read this and the next review in reverse order; they were written that way and naturally I watched the films that way, because one is a sequel of the other. There’s an odd logic to sequels that they must be inherently lesser than the original film, since for the most part you need the original to exist in order for the sequel to make sense. In rare circumstances the sequel will surpass the original, but usually by shedding the elements that don’t work to focus on the ones that do; rendering the original unneeded, in other words. You don’t get sequels that take the original and just continue the story, as if there was always meant to be a second act; same tone, same feel, essentially the next chapter in the same film. So in a way The Godfather: Part II is even more impressive than the original for being able to re-bottle the lightning and expand on the saga of the Corleone family without needing to succumb to the fate of every other sequel ever made. Why mess with perfection, after all?

The film serves as both sequel and prequel, with one narrative following Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as the new Don doing whatever is necessary to maintain his position at the top, and the other showing a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) rising from poor immigrant landing on Ellis Island to the head of one of the Five Families of New York. Just as subtle and immaculate as the first, it’s fitting the pair should appear side by side in IMDb’s rankings, as one could easily watch one after the other and have them flow together seamlessly. Where the first film is a simple drama painted on a grand canvas using the backdrop of the Mafia, the sequel is both more a tragedy and more directly connected to the life of organised crime, framing the endless cycle of retribution among mobsters as the last days of the Roman empire, a once-mighty institution now crumbling. “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out,” Michael says, “just my enemies,” but in the end it comes to the same thing for the Don. As he ends the film alone, his family broken beyond repair, we can’t help but think back on his father Vito’s death of a heart attack while playing with his grandson, and imagine the endless ways everything could have turned out better.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

I’m going to cheat a little with this review. I haven’t (re)watched this film as I write this, but I do feel I’m familiar enough with it to go from memory. I’ve never made a list of my favourite films ever, as I find it very difficult to assign the order after the first three places or so and I always think I’ll forget something that I like better than an entry on the list, but if I did Pulp Fiction would be in that top three. (Number one and two, if you’re curious, are My Neighbor Totoro and Terminator 2.) It’s one of the few films where I’ve still committed to memory long stretches of the dialogue, hearing songs on the soundtrack in another context just makes me think of the scene in the film they were used, and I could very easily watch the whole thing a second time after the credits come up, so I think I can be forgiven for not using up two and a half hours to go over familiar territory.

The loosely-interlocking stories of Los Angeles criminals are told in out-of-order segments: a typical morning for enforcers Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) cascades into a black comedy-of-errors, boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) turns around a fixed match and must make a clean getaway, and Vincent is tasked with taking out his boss Marsellus’ (Ving Rhames) wife Mia (Uma Thurman) on a not-date. Giving the film and overview makes it seem relatively innocuous, and that’s ultimately the impression it leaves despite Tarantino’s requisite violence and harsh language; it has neither the brutality of Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill or the tension of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. People have attempted to ascribe a deeper meaning to the events in the film, but I choose to believe Marcellus’ briefcase is just a McGuffin and does not actually contain his stolen soul and that there is no spiritual level to the film despite the chills I get every time I hear Jules contemplate the passage of the Bible he has memorised. It’s just… cool, a dark and bizarre comedy from a lifelong film nerd who buried the references to old films deeper and made the end result more accessible to the less film-nerdy public. Does it maybe reflect on society, the way that such violent and morally-empty entertainment is regarded so highly? Maybe, but if laughing as Vincent deadpans “I just shot Marvin in the face” is wrong, then I do not want to be right.

Schindler’s List (1993)

One must be careful when it comes to filming sensitive subject matter, and during the lifespan of cinema there isn’t a sensitive subject that can even come close to the Holocaust in terms of needing to break out the metaphorical kid gloves. The organised systemic erasure of a people is such an incomprehensible evil that we still have difficulty fully understanding it; putting ourselves in the shoes of anyone involved, either victim or perpetrator, seems impossible. It still remains a raw subject decades on and will likely continue to do so as long as there are those who knew those who survived the Holocaust, so any reference in the media must be discrete and tasteful, utterly respectful and unwaveringly serious. With such heavy looming guidelines, it seems that often films centred around the Holocaust – or even any “lesser” tragedy – straightjacket themselves too much in presenting the impact of the situation: to the point that they lose sight to remaining a good film.

Schindler’s List recounts the life of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a suave profiteer, during Nazi occupation of Poland, who begins using Jewish labor as a money-saving exercise and ends the last months of the war sheltering over a thousand refugees as employees of a (completely defunct) munitions factory. This may seem inappropriate to say, but this film felt incredibly watchable – you’re not having fun watching it, by any means, but there is a greater story about the unending well of goodness that can be found in humanity beyond the typical “this is a horrible event that we should never forget” narrative. Similar to the way Saving Private Ryan finds room in the typical war narrative for heart-pumping battle sequences, Steven Spielberg frames a subtle narrative about Schindler’s transformation and redemption and his stand against evil as personified by his counterpart, sadistic concentration camp overseer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Goeth’s monstrosity is as simultaneously understated and deeply human as Schindler’s compassion, and the interplay between the two actors would be amazing and nuanced were it to be put into a context with less weight behind it. When I was younger I had it in my head that I thought Spielberg to be a bit overrated as a director – a little too mainstream, maybe – but it’s precisely that mass accessibility that makes him such a talented director: any filmmaker could take the Holocaust and show you a tragedy, but very few could find a way to make it an inspiration.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The name J.R.R. Tolkien is synonymous with Western fantasy literature. When Tolkien combined Scandinavian mythology with his own experiences from the First World War to expand on his children’s story The Hobbit and create a mythical multi-millennial fantastical history for England, it became the template from which all other works of fantasy were drawn. Middle-Earth’s serene elves, hardy dwarves, noble men, wicked orcs, subtle wizards, and unassuming hobbits exist with such a deep history and rich backstory that filming the events of The Lord of the Rings seemed like an impossible task; the story is too large to ever be contained in a single film. Peter Jackson’s films are called a trilogy, but as they were all shot at the same time and flow seamlessly from one to the other, much like Tolkien’s books were originally intended to be they are one epic-length film, one with scope and breadth unequaled in all of cinema and the only vehicle large enough to house so much of Middle-Earth at once.

The films center around a treacherous quest. The One Ring, the object of power needed by the titular Lord of the Rings, Sauron, to be restored to his full power, is discovered by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in the hands of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a hobbit with a pure heart but no yearning for adventure. Though ferrying the Ring to the elvish city of Rivendell gives him all the experience with the world outside of his home in the Shire he needs, he volunteers to carry Sauron’s weapon to its final destination: Mount Doom, deep in the dark land of Mordor, to be unforged in the volcano. Meanwhile, Sauron gathers his armies of orcs and mercenaries to attack the lands of men; with his ally the fallen wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) they wage war first against Rohan, land of the horse-lords, and then against Gondor at Minas Tirith, where the throne of men has remained empty since Sauron’s defeat an age ago. Aragorn, (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the throne of Gondor, travels with Frodo but soon finds his path diverging, leading to his destiny to unite the lands of men against the Dark Lord.

To call the films “epic” does them a disservice, as there are ordinary epics and then there is The Lord of the Rings. Incredibly detailed sets evoking the equally-detailed descriptions of topography and architecture Tolkien wrote of fill the screen, each new location a distinct entity with its own history drawn from the source material. Armies of extras outfitted in hand-crafted mail, each with personal details that show what rank its bearer has in their society or what part of the world they hail from, wage war on crowded battlefields. Every dramatic and scenic location in New Zealand seems to have been scouted to play the part of Middle-Earth, and having real locations rather than fanciful computer creations for the backgrounds pays off, lending yet another level of realism and credibility to the films. The variance in design for just one of the races is more than the majority of fantasy epics can manage, and with at least four major societies depicted the amount of detail on the screen at any given time is phenomenal. Every part of the world has its own personality and its own culture – even Saruman’s elite Uruk-Hai soldiers, clad in crude blank mail and armed with mass-produced blades, carry an alien look of being manufactured with them. The staggering amount of work to bring the films from page to screen is apparent in every frame; the trilogy almost deserves all the credit it gets just for that effort alone.

But alongside the fantasy setting that will be the defining fantasy setting for films for decades to come there is an amazing story being told, one of sacrifice and brotherhood and the will to do good in the face of impossible evil. The characters lament that war and dark times are descending on Middle-Earth, but not in a way that speaks of preventing the specific causes of these wars, rather just accepting that dark times occur as a matter of consequence, making it applicable to a wide range of real-life circumstances, not just those that resemble the Great War in some way. What seems like a simple good-versus-evil scenario is filled with complexities, showing the ways the coming war affects all peoples from the ancient and nearly immortal beings to the simple commoners who desire only a life of peace, and that in such darkness lies the capability for great heroism, not just from kings and warriors but also from the kinds of people about whom songs are not written and stories not told. The theme that the least of us may have a large role to play is a recurring one: not just in Frodo’s acceptance of the burden of the One Ring, but also in his friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), instrumental in defeating Saruman, in Eowyn (Miranda Otto), forbidden from riding with the men of Rohan but who slays Sauron’s fearsome champion, the Witch-King of Angmar, in single combat, in Gollum (Andy Serkis), the twisted creature who possessed the Ring through much of its absence and who is the eventual (and accidental) cause of its destruction, and most of all in Samwise (Sean Astin), Frodo’s faithful companion and protector who accompanies him every step of the way into Mordor.

These films are not flawless. I’m sure that every person who has read the books has their own little list of things they would have liked changed. But that does not take away the fact that the films as they are are an example of the impossible being made possible, and as a singular unedited entity they place Tolkien’s world on the screen in both look and tone, a monumental feat untouchable in terms of size and scope by any other multi-film tale, and I would willingly give up my minor dream edits to keep the harrowing journey from detailed written setting to fully-realised film world as intact as it is. I couldn’t give The Lord of the Rings anything but the highest grade; just as Tolkien’s name is synonymous with written fantasy, so too should Peter Jackson’s be with cinematic fantasy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One of the big themes that great works draw from is humanity – unsurprising, since we’re all human – and the equalising factors that show in some way that we’re all the same. There’s never been a single text that perfectly sums up the human condition, and most likely never will be given just how many facets there are to mankind as a whole, but even though there’s no consensus on the things that do make us all the same, the fact remains that the narrative almost always runs that we are all the same. We all have a common ground. We are all a small part of the same collective, and there should be no label and no method of recategorisation that can break off a select few from the whole. There should be nothing possible to erase one’s humanity.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, repeat felon and anti-authoritarian Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) feigns a mental illness to be transferred from prison to a mental institution, only to be placed under the supervision of rigid disciplinarian Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Despite being disruptive and rebellious, McMurphy treats his fellow patients as equals, just another bunch of guys not too different from the ones he was previously locked up with, seeing past their illnesses in a way the hospital staff cannot and eventually usurping Nurse Ratched’s authority on the ward. She is truly one of cinema’s greatest monsters, not just because she is the very face of emotionless authority, the law and the rules and the bureaucracy embodied, but because she believes that keeping her patients in a strictly-controlled regime that drains them of their humanity – “works on them”, as Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) would put it – is the best thing for them, treating them more like ill-tempered beasts that need to be sedated rather than people that need to be fixed. That she can barb and control people the way she does without any malice is the dark counterpoint to the reminder of every person’s fundamental sameness, but it makes the payoff and emotional resonance greater each time the ward defies her; they are not defeating some demon, some outsider, some other, they are standing up to the very worst humanity has to offer, the voice of order that drones commands to fall in line and to follow the rules because the rules are there to be followed, and they are discovering that they are stronger.

American History X (1998)

Nothing’s ever original. I may have made the observation that before that the vast majority of films on this list – and by extension, the vast majority of films in total – are alterations or variations on existing works, if not straight-out film adaptions, but even most of the “original” stories have already been told before, conforming to some version or another of how a given society finds the best way to tell a story. But that’s not to say there’s not room for fresh air to be breathed into these ancient templates – far from it. Take, for example the narrative about prejudice: you begin with your prejudiced character and then put them in some circumstance where they have to interact with the group they are prejudiced against, whereupon they find a common ground and become enlightened, then often try to share their enlightenment with mixed results. American History X fits into that model, more or less, but with a crucial structural twist that gives it lingering impact beyond the nuanced performances and powder-keg subject matter.

Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) returns from a three-year prison sentence no longer holding to his former neo-Nazi ideals, and encourages his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) to do the same; through flashbacks we learns the specifics of Derek’s transformation. Though Norton gets the bulk of the praise for his portrayal of an articulate racist with a burning hatred that for the first time has been given a target, I want to give a lot of credit to Furlong, who manages to keep his character’s humanity and likability visible at all times: there’s still hope for him, and we the audience can see it as clearly as Derek can. The typical formula for The Prejudice Narrative would be for Derek to encounter a black individual in prison who treats him more like a person than his white “brothers”, and have this be the sole agent of change – while he does (eventually) bond with fellow inmate Lamont (Guy Torry), the real turning point is when he falls out of favour with the prison skinhead gang. They make deals with the minority gangs, they bring drugs into the prison – their hypocrisy causes Derek to break from them, and they turn on him. There is no unity, no brotherhood that exists based upon the colour of one’s skin – just people who are secure in themselves, and scared and angry loners looking for a place to belong.